Inferno (1980) - The hands of an unseen monster attack Rose

Inferno (1980) – Visually Stunning Argento, Floundering Plot


Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980) marks his second entry into what would be know as his “Three Mothers” trilogy. It follows what many consider to be Argento’s magnum opus, Suspiria (1977)Suspiria exemplifies Argento’s fantastic use of color and set design and couples it with a fantastic plot concerning ancient coven of witches and centuries old secret societies. Undoubtedly, Argento set an extremely high bar with Suspiria.

Inferno (1980) - Mater Tenebrarum's Evil Stronghold
Mater Tenebrarum’s towering stronghold of evil


The Mothers series tell the story of a coven of ancient witches, evil sisters, that preside over strategic points in Rome, Friedberg and New York City. Originating in the the 11th century, The Three Mothers have amassed a trove of power and fortune. From this wealth, they commission the creation of three strongholds in each strategic location to be designed by a master architect named Varelli. From these locations, they run a secret cabal using their evil magic. The events of Suspiria take place in Friedberg at a ballet school in the home of Mater Suspiriorum.

The protagonists in Inferno suspect that The Mother of Shadows, Mater Tenebrarum, resides somewhere in a massive apartment complex in New York City.

Inferno (1980) - Rose Elliot is bathed in magenta light as she contemplates what lies in the basement
Rose Elliot contemplates what lies in the basement, bathed in magenta light

So it Begins

Inferno begins with a single woman named Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) reading a book titled “The Three Mothers” written by a man named Emelio Varelli. The book tells the tale of three sisters: Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum and Mater Lachrymarum. These evil sisters come for far east near the Baltic sea. There, the collective of witches acquired massive wealth and power. To provide a vehicle for focusing their power, the author explains that The Three Mothers commissioned three strongholds built for them. Emelio Varelli designed these bastions of evil.

Rose believes that she lives in one of these fortresses. Varelli goes on to explain that through his journeys, he grew to understand the terrible secret of The Three Mothers and he wrote the book in order to impart this knowledge on the world so that they may protect themselves.

I do not know what price I shall have to pay for breaking what we alchemists call Silentium, the life experiences of our colleagues should warn us not to upset laymen by imposing our knowledge upon them.

Varelli begins by offering three keys or secrets:

  1. The land in which the witches strongholds reside will devolve into sources of plague, famine and pestilence
  2. The name of The Mother that resides in the residence will be found in the basement of each home
  3. The third secret key resides underneath their feet
Inferno (1980) - Rose struggles with an underwater corpse
Rose struggles to free herself from the grip of an underwater corpse

With an unwavering curiosity, Rose proves, without a doubt, prepared to do what it takes to find out if Madam Tenenbrarum owns the apartment building she lives in. After asking the curio shop owner about the authenticity of the book he sold her, Rose finds her way into the basement of the apartment building. There she mostly finds a terrible mess, however she traces a water leak to a large hole punched into the concrete. As she leans over the edge, peering into the deep dark water, she drops her keys into the hole, just out of reach.

In an incredible display of bravery cut with a heaping helping of insanity, she dives into the hole in search of her keys. Reader should take heed as avoiding these types of maneuvers has proven critical to my decades long success in not being killed by a coven of witches.

As already discussed, the opening monologue pulls the audience in its clutches. The water scene ratchets that grip to the maximum pressure. What prevails may constitute one of the most harrowing and engaging scenes in Dario Argento’s vast catalog of harrowing and engaging scenes. Underwater, Rose finds the remains of a beautiful ballroom completely submerged. As she gropes for her keys hanging precariously on a chandelier, she accidently knocks them to the floor of the submerged room.

In accordance my above guidance, Rose squanders yet another opportunity to not get killed by a coven of witches. Rather than leave the keys, Rose Elliot grabs a another breath of air and dives down to the bottom.

Inferno (1980) - The hands of an unseen monster attack Rose
An unseen demonic monster attacks Rose with hand reminiscent of Suspiria (1977)

Whilst this occurs, Argento makes the audience privy to a painting emblazoned with the name “Mater Tenebrarum”. Argento does not make it clear that Rose recognized this, but for certain Argento reveals key number 2 to the audience. As Rose fumbles around the submerged carpet of the ballroom, a rotting corpse floats across the screen as Keith Emerson, from Emerson Lake and Palmer, dials up a disconcerting synthesizer squeal as the body hopelessly bounces off of Rose as if by some unseen force relentlessly pulls the body to her. Rose scrambles to escape. Argento’s scene seems to take forever as the audience holds its own breath. Argento’s start to Inferno is utterly fantastic in every way.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film struggles to maintain the energy created by this fantastic opening.

Inferno (1980) - Argento emplys more fantastic architecture to define his film
The brilliant architecture of Mater Tenebrarum’s lair in flames

Inferno or Dumpster Fire

Unfortunately, Dario Argento’s second and third acts stumble. A litany of characters come into frame, and leave violently without having a meaningful attachment to the story. Most of the characters are flat and unengaging, including the main character, Mark (Leigh McClosky), Rose’s brother that leaves Rome to follow Rose’s clues in New York. The typically stupendous Daria Nicolodi, Dario Argento’s wife at the time, plays another throw away character that gets slaughtered. Gabriele Lavia from Deep Red (1975) and Beyond the Door (1974), gets introduced as Carlo and then dispatched in a span of 10 minutes.

Not having a complete vision for the Three Mothers narrative in Suspiria, Argento tries to play catch-up by wedging a reference to Mater Lachrymarum (The youngest and most beautiful Mother of Tears) in order to plant seeds for a third movie that would come significantly later (Mother of Tears 2007).

The whole things feels poorly scripted, muddled and quite frankly not up to Dario Argento’s ultra-high standards.

Inferno (1980) - Mater Tenebrarum confronts Mark
Mater Tenebrarum confronts Mark when he arrives at her inner sanctum

As the second act bleeds into the third, Mark implausibly discovers the third key by lifting up floor boards and chiseling a hole in the concrete floor to reveal a crawlspace that leads to a hidden wing of the apartment building. Little does he know that a raging fire grows inside the building. Mark discovers that Varelli lives deep inside the building. During the exchange, Varelli attempts to protect his master by trying to drug Mark with a hypodermic needle. In the fray, Varelli dies. Ultimately, Mark discovers the inner sanctum of Mater Tenebarum.

There, Mark finds Romanian actress Veronic Lazar playing the evil Mater Tenebrarum. Fans of Italian horror recognize Lazar as Martha from Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981). Her looks have an evil sexual appeal as one would expect from a witch of her power and stature. In more astounding Argento imagery the building engulfs in flames. Mater Tenebarum spends a moment lamenting that another bastion of evil burns. Mater Tenebarum exclaims that she and he sisters are the personification of Death just before transforming into a ridiculous rubber skeleton straight out of Captain Clegg (1962). 

Mark barely escapes with his life as the burning building collapses around Mater Tenebarum.

Inferno (1980) - Mater Tenebrarum shows her final form as the personification of death
Mater Tenebrarum dons a ridiculous rubber skeleton as she becomes death

Inferno – Classic Nonetheless

By no measure does Inferno stack up to some of Dario Argento’s best work. Yet, Argento manages to pull together enough spectacle create a stunning picture. As discussed, the plot becomes extremely disjointed. It never becomes entirely clear the identity of Mater Tenebrarum’s minions. In fact, it’s not clear if they are the same or different people at various times. One of the minions possesses monster hands, not unlike the hands of the monster in Suspiria (1977). One can only suspect that this beast is some kind of familiar employed by the coven.

Still, the preamble to film in addition to the iconic underwater scene combine to create triumph of horror cinema. In addition, Argento picks up where he left off with Suspiria by draping the entire film in the most beautiful hues of violet, purple and magenta. The architecture of Mater Tenenbrarum’s stronghold are utterly fantastic and again stick tightly to Argento’s standard cinematic tactics. The kills come often and brutality echoes throughout the film. The absence of Claudio Simonetti and Goblin in the soundtrack does not go unnoticed. However, Keith Emerson manages his own successes and overall performs admirably in cementing Argento’s vision.

Inferno is awkward in its overall presentation, yet still manages to assert itself as viewing by anyone delving deep into the dark recesses of Dario Argento or Italian horror cinema.

Inferno (1980) - Visually Stunning Argento, Floundering Plot - Malevolent Dark
inferno the hands of an unknown demonic assailant

Director: Dario Argento

Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:33

Editor's Rating:

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