Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Monster Serial: INFERNO, 1980

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


INFERNO is the reason — along with ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE SENTINEL, and THE TENANT — that I am terrified to live in an apartment complex. You don't know who, or what, is living beside you. You don't know where that forgotten door down in your basement laundry room leads to. You don't want to know.  

You might say I'm overreacting, and that houses are just as bad. Look at THE AMITYVILLE HORROR or POLTERGEIST. Well, whatever ... you might have a point, but that's another essay altogether. We're here to discuss Dario Argento's follow-up to the brilliant SUSPIRIA, and second film in his "Three Mothers Trilogy," inspired by Thomas de Quincey's opium-inspired prose "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow."

INFERNO's plot is something of a conundrum. There's a very creepy apartment building in New York with mysterious residents, permeated by a very strange smell, and next to it is an old bookshop selling creepy books from a creepy guy. Then there's a young man who's going to music school in Rome seeing odd visions of a beautiful woman with a cat; and his friend going to a — once again — creepy old library run by the most horrifying librarian you'll come across in movies. And lots of cats. Lots and lots of cats. Hidden amongst the shadowy corners of INFERNO is the Mother of Darkness — Mater Tenebrarum — whose job it is to spread darkness and death across the globe.

But INFERNO, as with SUSPIRIA, is not a film for plot or great narrative structure. It's a cinematic nightmare, filled with dark threatening hallways and candy colored lighting. It's a film to get lost in, not to think about logic. Just watch it with the lights off and revel in that childhood fear of the dark ... a hooded figure might be lurking in the shadows, watching you.  Dario Argento's best work comes from building an atmosphere, something I strive to do in my own work. And, while INFERNO isn't quite as violent as SUSPIRA (or the third film of the trilogy, the miserable MOTHER OF TEARS,) it relies on the mystical atmosphere of the dark to draw you in and scare you. For what it lacks in Oscar-winning dialogue and acting, it has tension and dread in spades. And that, my friends, is better than all the gore you can throw across a screen.

Another thing that makes the film so great is that, while it doesn't have a concrete plot, it has an interesting layer that is both hidden and blatantly obvious at the same time: INFERNO is something of an interpretation of Dante's Inferno. The famous poem (read it if you haven't already) which details Dante's descent into the nine circles of hell guided by Virgil, is mirrored here in the story of Mark (played by Leigh McCloskey), guided by the writings of his sister as he descends into the whirlpool of ancient sorcery and horrors of Mater Tenebrarum. Watch the surrealistic climax and then tell me I'm wrong. Each new horrific fate dealt to the characters is a new circle of hell crossed, leading to the ultimate encounter of death and destruction.

INFERNO (along with SUSPIRIA) is a great film to study for its design — the garish lighting style Argento uses to convey a mood, and signify the presence of the otherworldly. The hidden alchemical symbols peppered throughout give the film a bit of weight. Designs in the floors and glass ceilings, and even in the blood splatters all represent some secret code of alchemists that we are not privy to, which just adds to the "mystical conspiracy" feeling of the film. It uses its architecture to really create another world - the apartment building is filled with secret passages, hidden listening devices, forgotten halls, and my favorite, the air duct. Argento has his camera travel down an air duct and amidst the rushing of air, we hear a strange disturbing whispering.

Even the real world locations of the film, such as the Central Park sequence is shot in such a stylized way that we forget it is Central Park. The great shot of the hot dog vendor running across the lake — not around but literally across the water — to stab a victim is a prime example. The world as we know it has been taken over by a strange evil, and this evil force is playing people like pawns in a supernatural chess game. Another evocative moment is the exterior shot of the apartment, and its windy street spot lit by street lamps, which slowly dim as the Mother of Darkness begins to exert her powers. Its these small detailed moments where INFERNO's strength lies. It also helps that the great Mario Bava was Argento's collaborator in the design of the film, building miniatures and helping with the optical work.

I hope during this Halloween season you take the time to check out INFERNO (and make it a double feature with SUSPIRIA. Wallace has a great appreciation essay on that film here at the Collinsport Historical Society). It's an unconventional horror film, but it's not one you'll easily forget. My only other advice to give - if you see a strange hole in your basement bubbling with what seems to be water, please, think twice before submerging yourself in it.

Ansel Faraj is an award-winning independent American film director, screenwriter, and producer. He recently wrapped production on his latest film, DOCTOR MABUSE: ETIOPOMAR.

1 comment:

Sandi Mcbride said...

Okay, I have the creeps now and the cats are staring at me.

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