After the surprising international success of Suspiria, Twentieth Century Fox offered to help co-fund Argento’s next project, a sequel of sorts to that film titled Inferno. The conceit of Inferno (and, later, Mother of Tears) is that Helena Markos, aka Mater Suspiriorum (“The Mother of Sighs”), the villian of Suspiria, was only one of a trinity of powerful witches. According to the supporting materials, these witches use their great power to manipulate events “on a global scale.” I place those words in quotation marks because, although they appear frequently in the Argento apocrypha, neither of these stories feels global; Suspiria was a relatively confined story, as most haunted house plots are, and Inferno, despite featuring a narrative that takes place in both New York and Rome, also fails to feel like it takes place on a significantly larger scale. This isn’t meant to disparage either film, necessarily, but it does imply that Argento was shooting for something here that he doesn’t quite pull off.
Suspiria took its name from the title of an unfinished work, Suspiria de Profundis, by Thomas de Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. Although the book was never completed, the section entitled “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” was, and its concept, that there are three Sorrows just as there are three Fates and three Graces, was the initial inspiration for Suspiria, although you wouldn’t know that simply from watching the movie. After all, Suspiria was a largely self-contained story, with nothing to imply that Markos was one of these three Sorrows, or that her power reached far beyond Freiberg, or that her influence did not begin and end with her coven. Even if this was always intended to be the case, an audience who is not familiar with this idea can’t help but feel that Inferno is attempting to graft new plot elements onto Suspiria retroactively, in a way that cheapens the earlier film’s nigh-perfection; Inferno feels like a cheat and a knock-off at the same time.
The film opens with Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle, who was hired for her ability to hold her breath for a long time—no kidding), a poet living in the most baroquely Old World apartment building in New York. She reads in a book titled The Three Mothers that there are three evil sisters who rule the world with tears, sorrow, and darkness, and that the book’s author, an architect and alchemist named Varelli, was hired by the sisters to build a home for each one: in Freiberg, Rome, and New York. Rose has become obsessed with the idea that the building she lives in was one such home, based on clues left in the book. She writes a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a musicology student living in Rome, asking him to visit her. Mark is distracted by a beautiful woman (Anna Pieroni) in his classroom who is mouthing words at him* and loses the letter, which is collected and read by his friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi).
After reading the letter, Sara tracks down a copy of the book but is attacked by a strange figure who recognizes the tome. Sara narrowly escapes this person and returns to her apartment building, where she asks her neighbor Carlo (Gabriele Lavia, who previously appeared in Profondo rosso as Carlo, although they cannot possibly be the same character) to stay with her while her nerves settle, only for both of them to be murdered by an unseen figure. Mark arrives at her apartment and finds their bodies, before seeing the same woman from his class leaving the area in a taxi. He calls Rose, who begs him to come to New York before she is murdered herself.
Mark arrives in New York and meets the building’s caretaker Carol (Alida Valli, previously Miss Tanner in Suspiria), elderly and infirm tenant Professor Arnold (Feodor Chaliapin Jr), Arnold’s nurse (Veronica Lazar), Rose’s rich but sickly friend and fellow tenant Elise van Adler (Daria Nicolodi, Gianna Brezzi in Profondo rosso and Argento’s wife and writing partner at the time), van Adler’s creepy butler (Leopoldo Mastelloni), and neighboring antiques dealer Kazanian (Sacha PitoËff), who sold Rose The Three Mothers in the first place. Each of these people come to a tragic end, save for the nurse, who turns out to be Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness, as revealed to Mark by Professor Arnold, who is actually the ancient Varelli. The apartment building burns to the ground (accidentally, which says more about the nonsensical nature of this plot and the irrelevance of all intentional character action than I ever could), and Mark escapes while Tenebrarum seems to be crushed by falling rubble.
Inferno is… not a very good movie. It has too many good moments in it to be a bad movie, but the overall structure leaves much to be desired and the experimental approach to narrative is rather frustrating. Like Suspiria, Inferno has an intentionally dreamlike ambience, but lacks the former’s vivid color and narrative intensity and is (somehow) an overall less coherent movie, despite the fact that there are parts of Inferno that are superior. Inferno feels like a series of vignettes, each one designed to exploit a particular fear; devoid of context, they are actually scarier, creepier, or more unsettling than analogous scenes in Suspiria, save for the fact that each one goes on just long enough that the impact is diminished, and that they are held together with a narrative so flimsy that it ultimately does a disservice to the dark imagery and mood contained within itself. Argento’s decision to forsake the previous film’s focus on witchcraft for an investigation of alchemy is ironic, given that even he could not turn the disparate, good parts of this film into a cohesive whole.
The score, composed by Keith Emerson, is particularly awful, especially when compared to Argento’s collaborations with Goblin; it features terrible rock organ music paired with Omen-esque Latin chanting, and the result is far too silly to be effectively unsettling. The sets, some of which were designed by the great Mario Bava himself, are fantastic, however. As for other elements that are effective, Rose’s underwater scene near the start of the film is a particular highlight, as is every scene with Nicolodi (who contributed to the story for this film as she had for Suspiria, but she had to fight so hard for her on-screen credit in that film that she decided not to bother to do the same here). The death of Sara and Carlo is extremely well done, as the record Sara is playing cuts in and out along with the lights as the electricity flickers. The scene in which Kazanian attempts to drown a bag of cats (evil cats which do the bidding of Tenebrarum, it should be pointed out, although it is still horrifying) only to be eaten by hundreds of rats is also well-done despite the scene’s inexplicable conclusion. If anything, “inexplicable” is the watchword here, as much of the narrative is clunky and scenes fail to flow organically from one to the next.
This is perhaps best evinced in Rome: Sara, inspired by Rose’s letter, goes to an unidentified building for some reason. There, in a library, she finds the copy of The Three Mothers, and then descends into the building’s basement for some reason, rather than checking the book out or coming back the next day. She somehow finds a room where, like, potions are being made, and she tries to communicate with the misshapen person tending the pots for some reason. Apparently she knew that this library would be the place to find this book, and that this library was also (maybe) the home of the third sister, somehow? It’s creepy and effectively unnerving, but it doesn’t hold up to even the most passive narrative scrutiny, which is the best description of the film as a whole as well. There are elements here that work very well, but this is more of a clip show of ideas Argento couldn’t put anywhere else than a movie. If you do choose to check it out, make sure to rent/buy the Blue Underground DVD release, which features Italian audio and English subtitles, as well as interviews with Argento, Miracle, and assistant director Lamberto Bava, son of Mario.
*I can’t decide if this is an effective misdirection or the vestigial remnant of a cut subplot. If you know how Argento works, this first seems like one of his giallo trademarks–the misunderstood early clue that is later explained, much like the unheard words said by Pat at the beginning of Suspiria. Even if you’ve never seen an Argento movie before, the focus on and attention paid to these unheard words seems like a clue. Regardless, nothing ever comes of it, and this character does not reappear after Mark leaves Rome, although it can be inferred that she might be Mater Lachrymarum. We’ve got nearly three decades of Argento movies to get through before we reach Mother of Tears, though, so I wouldn’t expect an answer soon.