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July 2000

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Olmsted's Astro Hell

Dario Argento, Director
Anchor Bay

    Dario Argento's distinctive style is a sort of Sternberg meets Roger Corman - or for a more graphic image - memories of going to the movies coming off acid (kids, don't try this at home). His lighting shows at least 3 times more attention than even the conscientious efforts we see these days (and by the way, for a taste of Sternberg's use of color, check his bizarro JET PILOT). Argento's SUSPIRIA remains an incredible classic (1977), a movie I had mistakenly overlooked for years as one of those "godawful Italian horror movies." Which brings us to an interesting tendency to lump him in with Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava's son Lamberto (further confused by Argento's producing credits). The fact is, these directors are as disparate as Sean Cunningham, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper - American directors who also are often joined at the hip in discussions of the "slasher" sub-genre.

   INFERNO is Argento's sequel to SUSPIRIA, but this is more of a riff than a general follow-up, i.e., you won't need to have seen SUSPIRIA, even if you think you should've when you're done. By this, I mean that clarity is not Argento's strong suit. In fact, one shot is such a clear reference to the hand covered with ants in Bunuel/Dali's UN CHIEN ANDALOU that it reveals Argento's general interest in delirium. Perusing the screen "liner" notes of this DVD, one will find DeQuincy as the initial inspiration of a proposed trilogy Argento intended, the third as yet unrealized. But while SUSPIRIA might be a speedball, INFERNO is pure opiate. In fact, I literally thought of the word "opiated" while watching it, so imagine my surprise when DeQuincy came up afterward. For my personal tastes, this is not precisely good news. The plot suffers as these Italian horror films often do, from wooden dubbing and creaky, incoherent exposition. I found myself ceasing to care and just observing the weird goings-on with no real concern as to the outcome. Dig the "opiated" reference? There's even a shooting-up sequence.
   For exact insight into Argento's best aspects, consider his involvement in Leone's ONCE UPON THE TIME IN THE WEST (along with Bertolucci, if you didn't know) - Argento came up with Bronson's hanging motivation and the opening train station showdown. He can definitely excel in set pieces. Further insight will be gleaned from the documentary DARIO ARGENTO'S WORLD OF HORROR (on DVD - distributed by Synapse Films) which includes many of Argento's finest startling images. However, INFERNO suffers from some particularly dated gore - even for 1980 - laughable corpses (with eyeballs dangling) that are more reminiscent of William Castle than goremeister Fulci. There is, however, a particularly creepy scene where the crippled villain architect (is that who he is?) drags a bag of cats to be drowned in the river during an eclipse (oh that Argento!). Needless to say, much like kicking a dog, he is marked for almost instant cinematic comeuppance - by the mouths of ravenous rats and the butcher knife of a mysterious & demonic local diner cook (never identified) - all within minutes of each other. Clearly there is little concern for the cats, who earlier get tossed around quite a bit (as if attacking) and one cat devours an obviously live mouse. I may be a degenerate Buddhist, Jim, but I'm definitely not big on the real animal abuse that some of these Italian horror pictures extract their shock from.
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    Dare I attempt to give the plot? Everything revolves around a book called "The Three Mothers," a diary of an architect in Latin. One things leads to another and soon it is revealed that the evil old apartment building of our initial heroine (is that who she is?) was built for one of the Three Mothers, (here the Mother of Darkness [I think], as SUSPRIA concerned the Mother of Sighs). These Mothers (Shut your mouth! But I'm talking about Dario! Then we can dig it!) are apparently some sort of trinity of alchemical supernatural force, the origin of all sorrow & pain, that have been embodied from time to time. Are you with me? Watch the film and you soon won't be. It has been a while since I've seen SUSPIRIA but I can make no connection between the two, other than the vague alchemical Mother notion. The DVD "liner" notes say that the next picture in the trilogy was supposed to be on the Mother of Tears, but the IMDb synopsis says that the Mother of Tears is running the musicology school of INFERNO. You got me. Even my friend who bought this DVD - and is an Argento fan supremus - doesn't know.

   Keith Emerson (of the "bombastic & pompous Emerson, Lake & Palmer" as music critic Kris Casler pegged them) gives a turgid and yet flaccid score that makes me yearn for the far more intriguing Goblin of Argento's SUSPIRA and Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD.

   Although I find Argento to be a much more interesting director than Lucio Fulci's goofy if imaginative eyeball gougings, beyond SUSPIRIA and the previously mentioned documentary, you have to be pretty taken with him to put up with his dream-like narrative. I can't recommend INFERNO, but I know some who think it's great - and they weren't coming off acid. That would be a bummer best not contemplated.

   From the depths of my DVD Astro-Hell, I wish you further unspeakable viewing pleasures - INFERNO not among them.

Marc Olmsted

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