I could tell you that Inferno is about a man searching for his sister. I could also say that it’s about a New York City apartment building that is the gateway to evil, as well as the home of an ancient alchemist. But I could also tell you that it is the cinematic equivalent of a lava lamp, a swirl of images and colors that conjures mood and menace like no other.
A sequel to Suspiria in spirit, this film is also based on the concept of “Our Ladies of Sorrow” (Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Tenebrarum) from Thomas de Quincey’s book Suspiria de Profundis. These three witches rule the evil of our world — Mater Lachrymarum as Our Lady of Tears, Mater Suspiriorum as Our Lady of Sighs and Mater Tenebrarum as Our Lady of Darkness.
Rose (Irene Miracle, Midnight Express) is a poet in New York City who discovers The Three Mothers, a book that tells the tale of the three sisters and how they rule our world through sorrow, tears and darkness. Each of them has been built a home by the author, Vaerlli, with Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sorrows, living in Freiburg (hey there, Suspiria). Mater Lachymarum, the Mother of Tears, resides in Rome (hey there, Mother of Tears). Finally, Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, is right there in NYC (you’re watching her flick).
Rose realizes that she’s living in Tenebrarum’s home and asks for her brother, Mark (Leigh McCloskey, TV’s Dallas), to come see her. She also starts exploring her apartment building, finding a ballroom filled with water in the basement. Dropping her keys, she has to swim through the water to find her them. Then, a corpse rises from its watery tomb, but she escapes.
Now we’re in Rome, where Mark tries to read Rose’s letter, but he keeps getting thrown off by a gorgeous student (Ania Pieroni, The House by the Cemetery) who leads him on a chase. He leaves the letter behind and his friend Sara reads it. She’s both frightened and fascinated, going to the library to find her own copy of The Three Mothers. Well, you’re in an Italian horror film, Sara, so a mysterious man is going to attack you. That’s just how these things go. She gets away and asks Carlo, her neighbor, to stay with her. Again, Sara, you are in an Italian horror movie, so chances are that you are about to be murdered by a black-gloved killer.
Mark finds the dead bodies of Carlo and Sara, along with two pieces of his sister’s letter. After speaking with the police, he walks outside to see a taxi with the mystery woman staring at him. You never see the woman again, but she’s really the Mother of All Tears. Mark calls his sister, but cannot hear her due to the connection. He promises to visit just as two shadowy figures chase her, finally using broken glass to slice her throat.
Mark makes good on his promise, heading straight to Rose’s building where he meets all manner of folks: the nurse (Veronica Lazăr, The Beyond), the old man she takes care of (Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Cher’s grandfather in Moonstruck), the concierge (Alida Valli, Miss Tanner from Suspiria) and Countess Elise De Longvalle Adler (Daria Nicolodi, wife at the time of Argento and uncredited writer of the film) who tells him that Rose is missing.
Mark follows bloodstains he finds outside his sister’s door, but suddenly he passes out and is dragged away by a black-robed man. Elise sees this and the man follows her. She’s overcome by cats before the man stabs her to death, just as the concierge and nurse help Mark go to sleep.
Later, Mark finds the antique dealer who sold Rose the book in the hopes of discovering more clues about his sister’s whereabouts. The man has no info for him, but we follow him throughout the night, where he has a nice evening of drowning cats in Central Park. However, he falls into the water and an army of rats attacks him, shredding and gnawing on him. A hot dog vendor hears the commotion and walks across the water to stab the antique dealer with a knife. What does this have to do with the rest of Inferno? Your guess is as good as mine!
Meanwhile, Elise’s butler tries to steal her possessions, but he’s killed. When the concierge fins his corpse, she drops a candle and sets the room ablaze. She gets tied up in some curtains and falls out a window to her death. As the house burns, Mark finds the secret crawlspace in the basement. He follows a series of passages until he finds the old man in the wheelchair, who ends up being Varelli, the author of the book. He tries to kill Mark with a needle, but is choked to death before telling Mark, “Even now, you are being watched.”
Mark follows one of the shadowed figures until he ends up in a luxurious chamber, where the nurse reveals herself to be Mater Tenebrarum and becomes death itself. That said — the fire from above sends debris crashing down and the film ends.
After Suspiria became a surprise success for 20th Century Fox, they bankrolled this film. However, a change in management at the studio led to the film never receiving the release it deserved. While it played in Italy, it sat unwatched in the U.S. for five years before a VHS release in 1985 and a one week New York City theatrical run in 1986.
This is not Argento’s favorite film, due to painful memories of an extreme case of hepatitis that he suffered during the filming. At times, he was in so much pain, he had to direct on his back. At other times, only the second unit scenes could be filmed by Mario Bava! That’s right — Bava also worked on the film’s optical effects, matte paintings and trick shots! For example, the skylines in the film? That’s Bava using photos glued to milk cartons. And the apartment building itself is an optical illusion, as it was only a few floors high and had a Bava-created sculpture to cheat the eye. Bava also was a camera operator and lighting technician for the film — all uncredited — with his son serving as assistant director.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I love Inferno. If it’s your first Argento or Italian film, you’re about to be overwhelmed. This is a poetic, lyrical, erotic blast of cinema, unafraid to go off into a thousand directions at once with the thinnest of storyline thread to hold it together. It’s a union of the new — Argento — with the old master Bava providing one last gasp of his brilliance. Fuck every critic who savaged this movie. Time has proved what fools they were.