There are sacraments of evil as well as good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight.
Arthur Machen, The Red Hand.
Dario Argento’s Inferno is a film that maybe one person in ten would actually sit all the way through. Even among aficionados of the once great Italian auteur’s filmography, it’s a highly divisive entry, adored by some and regarded by others as a considerably lesser stylistic rethread of Suspiria. It is off-putting to casual film viewers for a variety reasons, not least the dissociative, often unintentionally comic English dubbing common to much Italian horror cinema. Compounding this, Inferno abandons all but the merest skeleton of conventional narrative logic, becoming a succession of set-pieces, at times almost having the character of autonomous short films, held together only by the ghost of a narrative, and a deeper, errant logic of dreamlike correspondences. Virtually everything about the film gives it the feeling of something operating entirely in its own secluded realm. Its cast are largely unknowns, and compound their obscurity by playing characters as affectless as the marionettes we become in the deepest stages of dreaming. Much of its action is centred claustrophobically around a set which depicts a baroque New York apartment building, its sense of location being even more ghostly and unreal than the “New York” Stanley Kubrick created in Pinewood Studies for Eyes Wide Shut. All these things, combined with its distinct lack of a narrative centre of gravity, give the film the air of a disembodied, almost musty objet d’art; a film not so much dated as never belonging to a distinct temporal filmic current to begin with. And yet, despite its flaws, it may be one of the purest and most abstract of all horror films.
Argento started out working in the giallo tradition, a distinctly Italian film genre which combined visceral and graphic horror elements with the conventions of detective and whodunit fiction. The giallo film style was initiated by Mario Bava’s dazzling Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964), and formed the basis for the less sophisticated American slasher film. Working in this medium, the plots of Argento’s earlier films are essentially linear, conventional, and logical. But only to a certain extent. Argento always asserted that the primary difference between his cinema and that of his oft cited influence Alfred Hitchcock lay in a classical divergence between the Latin and Anglo-Saxon temperaments. Hitchcock’s cinema was supremely calculated, logical, and rational; Argento saw his work, on the other hand, as more passionate, instinctual, emotional, and undisciplined. This blunt comparison does some violence to both artists, but nevertheless highlights a defining characteristic of Italian thriller/horror cinema. Though their plots could occasionally be ingeniously woven, the giallo’s energies were primarily focused elsewhere: in baroque visual spectacle and operatic passion, in bravura style and sensory excess.
Detective/mystery fiction is a mode supremely conducive to the rational temperament; the detective is a logician who uses deductive reasoning to impose order on a world subject to the disruptive acts of the criminal and the madman. In this sense, it is a genre predicated on the satisfaction of the logical resolution, but which nevertheless maintains a fascination, even an obsession, with the disruptive pole of unreason and perversity. In Blue Velvet, Laura Dern tells Kyle MacLachlan “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.” Argento’s early cinema perfectly exemplified this slippery dichotomy between the detective and the pervert: director, protagonist, and audience all remain enthralled by the POV of the killer. In a crucial sense, they are the killer, just as the gloved hand was always Argento’s own. Considering Argento’s considerable identification with the unreasonable aspect of the detective’s soul, it is unsurprising that he gradually drifted away from the logical patina of his earlier films, into more exotic realms. Following the transitional masterpiece Profondo Rosso, Argento did just this with the first of what are called his “supernatural” films: Suspiria (1977) and its loose sequel Inferno (1980).
To understand what Argento was trying to achieve with these films, it is helpful to look at their primary literary influence: Suspiria de Profundis, a collection of short poetic essays written in “impassioned prose” by Thomas de Quincey, and intended as a companion piece to his phantasmagorical classic Confessions of an English Opium Eater. In Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow, de Quincey begins by discussing the role of Levana, the Roman deity evoked during rituals of childbirth. He imagines that Levana maintains a subtle influence and control over the education of those children whose birth she has anointed:
By the education of Levana, therefore, is meant,—not the poor machinery that moves by spelling-books and grammars, but by that mighty system of central forces hidden in the deep bosom of human life, which by passion, by strife, by temptation, by the energies of resistance, works for ever upon children,—resting not night or day, any more than the mighty wheel of day and night themselves, whose moments, like restless spokes, are glimmering for ever as they revolve.
De Quincey thus develops the rather shadowy Roman deity into a personification of some of the subtle forces operant in the world that act on individuals and mould their character. Since grief and suffering are perhaps the keenest crucibles in which character is shaped, de Quincey imagines Levana operating in counsel with a trio of personified figures that encompass between them the whole gamut of human suffering:
Therefore it is that Levana often communes with the powers that shake a man’s heart: therefore it is that she dotes on grief. “These ladies,” said I softly to myself, on seeing the ministers with whom Levana was conversing, “these are the Sorrows; and they are three in number, as the Graces are three, who dress man’s life with beauty; the Parcoeœ are three, who weave the dark arras of man’s life in their mysterious loom, always with colours sad in part, sometimes angry with tragic crimson and black; the Furies are three, who visit with retribution called from the other side of the grave offences that walk upon this; and once even the Muses were but three, who fit the harp, the trumpet, or the lute, to the great burdens of man’s impassioned creations. These are the Sorrows, all three of whom I know.”
These are de Quincey’s “Ladies of Sorrow” – by name, Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears, Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs, and Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness – which become the “Three Mothers” in Argento’s movies. De Quincey intended the Sorrows to serve as anthropomorphic symbols for the universal, abstract forces which between them engender all individual instances of human suffering: “If I say simply, “The Sorrows,” there will be a chance of mistaking the term; it might be understood of individual sorrow,—separate cases of sorrow,—whereas I want a term expressing the mighty abstractions that incarnate themselves in all individual sufferings of man’s heart; and I wish to have these abstractions presented as impersonations, that is, as clothed with human attributes of life, and with functions pointing to flesh. Let us call them, therefore, Our Ladies of Sorrow.”
In in Argento’s treatment, the Sorrows become a trio of ancient and powerful witches who exercise their malefic influence from three specifically designed buildings – one in Friburg, Germany, one in Rome, and one in New York. On the one hand, Argento’s movement from the detective to the supernatural mode represents a transition from realistically orientated, narrative-based cinema to a more abstract and purist cinema. In some respects, this is a natural progression from the giallo’s tendency to privilege stylization and ornamentation over plot to begin with. In Suspiria, the lush, otherworldliness of the style becomes more pronounced, with a heightened focus on architectural design, lighting, spatial composition, and a soundtrack barrage that threatens to overwhelm even the decadent richness of the imagery. What is left of conventional plot becomes elusive, fairy-tale or dream-like, and insubstantial in and of itself. However, while artistic abstraction plays a significant role in both Suspiria and Inferno, it serves a function beyond mere wilful aestheticism. The detective seeks to maintain the logical consistency and order of a world into which unreason and insanity make only temporary incursions. In his supernatural films, Argento attempted to create a world which was somehow irrational and threatening at its core – a world which could never facilitate the logically ordered conclusion of the detective story. In the giallo, the threat is localized in the figure of the killer, while in Suspiria and Inferno, the power of the witch is all-pervasive and non-local – it can be channelled through people, animals, and inanimate objects. Operant through architecture and the elements, through wind, water, and flame, it is part of the fabric of reality, part of what de Quincey calls “that mighty system of central forces hidden in the deep bosom of human life.”
In this sense, although Argento follows the symbolical attributes of de Quincey’s Ladies of Sorrow only very loosely, Suspiria and Inferno achieve a very close approximation of the spirit of the text. The Three Mothers are the outward forms of subtle and abstract forces which are deeply embedded in the whole fabric of the world. In a strikingly composed sequence in Suspiria, Suzy Bannion expresses her fears regarding the existence of a coven to a psychologist (played by a young Udo Kier). Although he attempts to downplay her anxiety with a defence of rational materialism (“Bad luck is caused by broken minds, not broken mirrors”), his older college Dr Milius asserts “In all times, in all places, magic is all around us.” In many respects, this serves as a keynote for the two films: the world as kind of a panpsychic dream (or nightmare), completely contrary in nature to the order of daylight reason and logic. Argento is thus attempting to craft a kind of mystical or metaphysical horror, and in this he follows de Quincey, who argues that the activities of the Sorrows are so pervasive and abstract that they cannot be readily articulated by reason or language:
Do they talk, then? O, no! mighty phantoms like these disdain the infirmities of language. They may utter voices through the organs of man when they dwell in human hearts, but amongst themselves there is no voice nor sound; eternal silence reigns in their kingdoms. They spoke not, as they talked with Levana; they whispered not; they sang not; though oftentimes methought they might have sung, for I upon earth had heard their mysteries oftentimes deciphered by harp and timbrel, by dulcimer and organ. Like God, whose servants they are, they utter their pleasure, not by sounds that perish, or by words that go astray, but by signs in heaven, by changes on earth, by pulses in secret rivers, heraldries painted on darkness, and hieroglyphics written on the tablets of the brain. They wheeled in mazes; I spelled the steps. They telegraphed from afar; I read the signals. They conspired together; and on the mirrors of darkness my eye traced the plots. Theirs were the symbols; mine are the words.
Suspiria introduced this panpsychic dream world by using Jessica Harper as a reference point to the familiar, everyday world which the audience could identify with, and by maintaining the rudiments of a conventional narrative structure. Inferno has always been a more difficult, alienating film. Like Psycho, it has a roving cast of protagonists: first Irene Miracle’s New York poetess Rose Elliot, then Eleonora Giorgi’s Roman music student Sara, and finally Rose’s brother Mark, virtually the only significant character to survive, and achieve a Pyrrhic and almost arbitrary victory over the forces of evil at the end. Inferno has no point of reference or connection to the real world, and remains enveloped in its own self-consistent but utterly inexplicable dream logic from beginning to end. Reflecting the influence of Michelangelo Antonioni, Argento has always devoted considerable screen time to observing characters, usually female, exploring and interacting with their environment. In Inferno, this tendency reaches an extreme level of abstraction, coming perhaps as close as film ever has to an Expressionist/Surrealist painting in three-dimensions:
Inferno inevitably pales in comparison with its predecessor. The production is less lavish and expansive, and the imagery somehow less indelible. It fares considerably less well with its lead; whereas Jessica Harper’s almost cartoonishly cute features blended perfectly into Suspiria’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs influenced Technicolor palette, Leigh McCloskey is a wooden and occasionally grating presence. Keith Emerson’s score has grown more on than away from me, but virtually nothing could compete with the sublime incantatory noise that the Goblin summoned for Suspiria. Nevertheless, Inferno remains perhaps the bolder and more interesting of the two, a film which at its best attains a strikingly pure Gothic grandeur and a rare sense of the ineffability of dreams and nightmares.