Inferno ★★★★½

Hooptober 5.0, 1/31
The Arrow Challenge, 14/100

A trip into the hellish recesses of Dario Argento’s twisted mind, Inferno walks in the footsteps of his prior commercial and critical success, Suspiria. As the second entry into the “The Three Mothers” trilogy, Inferno explores more of the mythology behind the three mothers. After Suspiria explored the terror surrounding the most powerful witch, the Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs) in Freiburg, Germany, Inferno moves the action to New York. There, Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness) can be found. Upon discovering a book about the three mothers, Rose Elliott (Irene Miracle) comes to believe that this mother lives in her apartment building, frantically alerting her brother to this fear (causing him to leave Rome for New York), and continuing to explore her suspicions, all while coming face-to-face with danger and being followed by figures lurking every shadow. With terror taking place in both New York and in Rome, the film shines a light on the dark shadows lurking into the corner of eerie, old buildings and shows that what is there may be best left to one’s imagination.

Inferno’s best qualities are plentiful, whether in the horror set-pieces, the score, the camera work, the lighting, the production design, or in the general, sinister mythology underlying so much of the action. In other words, this is a film with everything firing on all cylinders. Yet, it is still up to Argento put it all to good use and does he ever. Creating a sinister vibe from the very onset as Rose urgently tries to figure out if the book she bought about the Three Mothers is true, Argento has her begin to explore her building. Going down to the basement, she finds a hole in the floor leading to a flooded ballroom. As her keys fall in, she dives in after them only to drop them again and get somewhat disoriented, losing track of where she is in the room. All the while, Argento builds up anticipation for the scare to come. She looks around this odd room, putting the audience in a state of unease from the onset of the scene. From there, he paces the action wonderfully, cutting between Rose floating to her keys and the door becoming progressively more ajar. By the time the scare comes, the audience is ready to scream at the screen, urging her to quickly get her keys and swim away, all while some dead body floats about and whatever is lurking behind that door is still possibly there.

This scene relies on a variety of the aforementioned elements with smartly timed cuts to the door and to Rose’s face to build up the suspense of the moment, while the jagged and unsettling score from Keith Emerson lingers ominously in the background. The realization of this scene - set in a water tank - is just as impressive with this creepy ballroom just submerged underwater, creating a killer location for such a terrifying scene. This is a constant throughout such as Rose running through the servant’s entrance and getting lost while surrounded by oppressive red/purple/blue lights that seem to engulf her at every turn with Emerson’s nervy score continuing throughout, and with Argento never showing the mysterious monster that is after her until the time is just right. From there, he cuts between that which will be used against her (a guillotine) and her panicked face, building up to the horrifyingly bloody release in the scene. Other examples include Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) going through a creepy library with smoking pots all around as she encounters a sinister being as well as Mark (Leigh McCloskey) exploring the crawl space and coming face-to-face with the witch. Argento takes every element, whether it is the production design with creepy faces on rock walls or abandoned sections of this apartment building, the oppressively bright lighting, and the terrifying score, and uses it to create terror. Dropping a character into this hellish maze with seemingly no exit, he barely even shows the antagonist, just building anticipation by dragging out the moment, cutting to some nefarious element in the scene that will come into play shortly, and then delivering that scare. In this, the film builds up a lingering atmosphere that engulfs the viewer in a great sense of unease and terror, putting the audience right on the edge of their seat, ready to jump at anything.

The intricately designed sets with their gothic inspiration and the effects/designs created by Mario Bava combine with the color, camera angles, and music to often help Argento create the sinister atmosphere this film thrives off. As in Suspiria, the color is not just gorgeous and striking, but also quite oppressive as it seems to press down on the characters and engulfs them in these unsettling swathes off color as they run for their lives. Emerson’s with its frantic and terrifying notes only further adds to this. DP Romano Albani further adds to this in a rather interesting fashion with frequent low-angle shots of people as they move throughout this home or even overhead shots coupled with frequent pans, twists, or cranes. The camera seems to be constantly moving or in uncomfortable angles here.

The film seeks to quietly discomfort the audience in this way, even using a close-medium-long transition as it captures the penetrating stare of a mysterious student (Ania Pieroni) at Mark’s musicology lecture, in direct opposition to the more natural and commonly used long-medium-close transition. This breaking of convention alongside the constantly moving camera often creates a very visually off-putting vibe, dropping the audience in odd and unnatural angles while also capturing the situation the characters find themselves in quite nicely. With this Mother of Darkness looming around every corner, the film sometimes uses shadows and over-the-shoulder shots to show a shadowy or silhouetted figure looming behind a character, but these high-angle and odd overhead shots communicate the same: they are being followed. The audience is dropped into this voyeuristic positions to watch the characters, unable to help them escape from their peril and danger.

Inferno finds Argento working at his most nightmarish, coming off the similarly hellish terror found in Suspiria. A beautifully crafted film complete with a menacing story and on-point technical elements, Inferno is Argento continuing at the peak of his powers. Few directors are able to capture the feeling of a nightmare - some inconsistency and incoherence in the plot are certainly a feature of this, as opposed to a flaw - yet it seems to come so easy to Argento as encapsulates why bumps in the night, dark hallways, and old buildings can be so chilling. This is an often terrifying film that knows how to earn its scares, twisting the audience around its fingers and dragging them into an apartment packed with mystery, unexplained deaths, and insanity that only the total eclipse of the moon can explain.

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