One of the other websites I write for uses a grading system that requires the writers to assign points to two significant categories: “Acting” and “Story.” These aren't the only two elements that comprise a film, of course, but they're certainly two of the most significant elements. As a result, the final score usually lands somewhere between the “Acting” grade and the “Story” grade. Every so often, however, you run across a film like Dario Argento's Inferno (the second part of the director's thematically-linked “Three Mothers trilogy”) that throws a wrench into the whole process. The acting in the film is mostly terrible. The story somehow manages to be both thin and incoherent at the same time. And yet, this is still a terrific movie, because Argento's direction is so bold and thrilling.
The plot begins with Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle, Midnight Express), a poet who lives in New York City. Rose recently began reading a book called The Three Mothers, which tells the story of three evil sisters who allegedly control the world. She's surprised to discover a number of curious coincidences between things described in the book and things she has seen in real life, and becomes convinced that she is living in one of the buildings the books describes. She visits the antique shop where she bought the book, but the store owner (Sacha Pitoeff, Last Year at Marienbad) seems unwilling to answer her questions. Her investigation eventually leads her to the cellar of her apartment building, which in turn leads her to a mysterious underwater chamber.
This opening sequence is a masterful piece of visual filmmaking, as the imagery gradually becomes increasingly dreamlike as Rose gets closer to whatever it is she's searching for. There's very little dialogue during this stretch of the film, but the imagery is remarkably vivid – lush gothic beauty that turns increasingly macabre. Then, suddenly, we cut away to Rome, where Rose's brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey, Dallas) is studying music. Mark has received a letter from his sister, but he gets distracted by a mysterious young woman (Ana Pieroni, Stay As You Are) holding a cat, and the student sitting next to Mark picks up the letter and develops an obsession with The Three Mothers, and wait, now what are we doing?
Mark is technically the protagonist of Inferno, I guess, but we change characters and perspectives so often that he usually seems like just another player in this puzzling scenario. Meanwhile, bodies start piling up. A mysterious knife-wielding figure begins stabbing people to death, another figure with frightening hands begins lurking about and there are even bizarre animal attacks (one scene in which a character is attacked by savage cats, and another scene in which a character is eaten alive by rats) that seem to be connected to this whole affair. Still, the mystery the film begins with (are the characters in The Three Mothers real?) remains at the film's core, even if that thread often gets obscured by the film's tangled web of death and mystery.
Inferno technically has a story, but it's more or less presented as a series of setpieces. This where it shines: Argento's staging is consistently gripping, as he fills the movie to the brim with unforgettable imagery and vivid atmosphere. Almost every frame of the movie is draped in forbidding blue and red lights, even in places where it makes absolutely no sense for blue or red light to appear (on a few occasions, Argento shows us New York City street lights that have been painted red, because obviously city officials want local residents to feel as if they're trapped in a forbidding giallo film). It would be easy to give this film the MST3K treatment and mock its inconsistencies and stilted moments, but that's so much less satisfying than surrendering to its rhapsodic spell.
The music was penned by Keith Emerson, whose underscore occasionally resembles Goblin's work on other Argento movies but whose most memorable contribution is a ferocious rock version of an old Verdi selection. Argento pushes the music front and center on a regular basis, building entire scenes around the particular beats of massive classical pieces on more than one occasion. There's more than a little of Brian De Palma's brand of theatricality here, though Argento's direction tends to be steadier and more controlled – he builds to his ludicrous, orgasmic moments more methodically than De Palma tends to. The death scenes play like something out of an opera – grandiose, extended moments that give every victim ample time to reflect on the tragedy they have stumbled into.
The film often follows a nightmare logic, and like a lot of bad dreams, it doesn't always make sense. You aren't always certain about how the story wound up in a certain place, or why a particular character is acting a certain way, or what the implications of what you've just seen are. It doesn't matter, because the film's images grab you and wriggle into your mind – those bubbling cauldrons, those savage feline eyes, that makeshift guillotine, the woman with the cat. The film is a failure on a lot of conventional levels, but it's more striking and memorable than 99% of the horror movies I've seen. If this is a bad movie, it's the sort of bad movie I'd be more than happy to lose myself in over and over again.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 1980