Monday, October 21, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Inferno

The second film in Argento’s ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy shares much with its predecessor – notably a complete disregard for narrative, an aesthetic entirely dictated by the elaborate property owned by one of three witchy sisters (in ‘Suspiria’, a dance academy in Freiburg; here, a sprawling and fiendishly designed New York tenement), and a conflagrant denouement that signals the end of the film without actually resolving a durned thing – while at the same time paying no heed to continuity.

Two very specific shots in ‘Suspiria’ make it clear that the dance academy dwelling of Mater Suspiriorum was once the home of Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus, whose dates were 1466 – 1536. ‘Inferno’ opens with American student Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) translating the Latin text of a book written in the Nineteenth Century by one E. Varelli, who apparently built three houses for the Three Mothers – the aforementioned Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs; the antagonist of this evening’s review Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness; and Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, who makes a cameo appearance in ‘Inferno’ but would have to wait two and a half decades for her own movie. Of which more, in the key of disappointment, later.

Speaking of keys, Varelli rabbits on about the three keys by which one can determine if one is inhabiting a Mother house. Already we have the discontinuity of an architect who couldn’t have been active any earlier than the first couple of decades of the 1800s (perhaps even later in that century given the style of the New York residence) having somehow designed a building Desiderius Erasmus once called home. Even allowing that we’re watching a Dario Argento movie and it shouldn’t matter if the whole thing makes no sense, this annoys.

Ditto – and granted, this is only in retrospect – the fact that this film is called ‘Inferno’ while ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Mother of Tears’ explicitly reference which Mother they’re about, whereas he titled his next film ‘Tenebrae’ when it was a return to his earlier giallo aesthetic and doing to do with the Three Mothers.

But I digress. Let’s get back to Rose. Having purchased Varelli’s book from an antique shop owned by Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff), an ill-tempered cripple, Rose becomes convinced she’s living in Mater Tenebrarum’s house and sets out to find the three keys that prove it. She sends an esoteric letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCluskey), who is studying music in Italy, then goes poking around in the basement where she discovers a hidden, flooded room. Rose’s subaquatic misadventure to recover a set of dropped keys is the first of several beautiful, baroque and bonkers sequences, stitched together with even less attempt at linearity than in ‘Suspiria’. As a result, Rose brings herself to the attention of Mater Tenebrarum’s acolytes whose efforts to retrieve the book become increasingly violent.

Next up, there’s an extended sequence in Rome where Mark receives the letter, encounters Mater Lachrymarum and generally behaves like he’s in a daze. This characterisation lasts the whole movie. The letter ends up in the hands of Mark’s girlfriend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), who reads it and is so disturbed by its contents that she undertakes some amateur sleuthing. The shifting of focus from Rose to Sara as protagonist is effective and recalls the amateur sleuthing of the luckless Sara (Stefania Casini) in ‘Suspiria’. However, the Sara of ‘Inferno’ proves as expendable as her ‘Suspiria’ namesake and suddenly we have Mark as protagonist as the film leaps back to New York.

And here the film’s one big flaw – more so than its sacrifice of a Goblin score for the close-but-no-cigar Goblin imitation of Keith Emerson (though kudos to him for one truly brilliant moment that turns Verdi’s ‘Va pensiero’ into speed metal); more so than its jarring recasting of Alida Valli playing a totally different non-Mother-affiliated character but adopting exactly the same mannerisms of her ‘Suspiria’ performance; and more so than the stupendously silly last scene – is revealed as a combination of the script’s inability to do anything interesting with Mark and McCloskey’s acting style, which makes the hypnotized cast of Herzog’s ‘Heart of Glass’ look like the kids from ‘Fame’ on crack cocaine and far too many fizzy drinks.

Nor does ‘Inferno’ have quite the same freaky yet cohesive dream logic of ‘Suspiria’. While the earlier film revels in bizarre concepts (a room-between-rooms packed full of razor wire, for example) it uses them. One of the biggest set pieces in ‘Inferno’ has Mark pry up floorboards in Rose’s apartment and smash through concrete (in a manner reminiscent of Marc Daly finding the walled up room with the corpse in ‘Deep Red’) to discover a secret mezzanine level built at half scale, only to utilize it as a shortcut. It’s a moment laden with promises of revelations, of secrets about to come to the fore, but without payoff.

What ‘Inferno’ does have is a cluster of unforgettably surreal and creepy scenes: the aforementioned flooded room, a library that seems to be built over an alchemist’s laboratory, a murder in a Rome apartment scored to Verdi, and a truly Hadean vision of Central Park. It’s not quite as suffused in primary colours as ‘Suspiria’, but there’s an off-kilter vibrancy to it – the kind of three-strip Technicolor nightmare that could only have been made by Dario Argento.


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