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Inferno (1980)

Review by: Jessica

Synopsis: Rose Elliot, a young poet in Rome, murdered after she reads a Latin book that tells the supernatural story of the Three Mothers. Her brother Mark investigates her murder and, after his friend Sara is killed, heads for New York.

Inferno , directed by Dario Argento, is the follow-up thematic sequel to Suspiria (1977) that continues the conceptual story of The Three Mothers. The trilogy ends with The Mother of Tears (2007). Argento based the concept of these films on Thomas de Quincey’s book Suspiria de Profundis (1845). This collection of essays in psychological fantasy contains the story Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow, which Argento used for inspiration. The essay is about Levana, the ancient Roman goddess of childbirth with her three companions Mater Lachrymarum (Our Lady of Tears), Mater Suspiriorum (Our Lady of Sighs), and Mater Tenebrarum (Our Lady of Darkness). This also inspired the re-imagining of Suspiria in 2018 by Luca Guadagnino. While Suspiria became Argento’s most successful feature film, Inferno received a very limited theatrical release and mostly negative critical reviews. Even now, years later, it still receives a mixed reception by viewers as a lackluster follow-up to its predecessor.

I watched this movie over two years ago when I picked up an Argento collection which included The Cat O’Nine Tails, Deep Red and Inferno. I was pretty excited to check out the sequel to what became one of my favourite horror films. On the first watch, I was confused, disappointed, and bored. Having watched it again for Italian Horror month, my reaction to Inferno was that it has disjointed storytelling that weakens the whole mythology about The Three Mothers. I know it is not uncommon for Italian horror films to have wacky storylines, but for this film, I was hoping for something a little more concise to flesh out those stories and capture the viewer's imagination about the covens of these three dangerous witches.

Inferno focuses on the Mater Tenebrarum (Our Lady of Darkness) who lives in New York and is apparently the cruelest of the Three Mothers. We learn more about the Mothers from a book written by the alchemist Varelli, who talks about the evil sisters and how they rule the world with sorrow, tears, and darkness. They do this from their three homes, built by Varelli in Freiburg (Mater Susiriorum, the Mother of Sighs), Rome (Mater Lachymarum, The Mother of Tears) and New York (Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness). This is as much as we learn about Mater Tenebrarum and her sisters in the film, which left me feeling disappointed, because in Suspiria, even in her briefest talk with the Doctor, Suzy learns a great deal about the Mothers and their covens.

While watching Inferno, I kept trying to figure out if the other residents in the apartment building were coven members or just devious people with agendas of their own. Perhaps the Mother of Darkness stands on her own and her evil spreads and infest the people around her but they don’t actually work for her. She doesn’t appear to have a coven like the Mother of Sighs does in Suspiria.

The plot itself is very confusing and at times I feel that some of the murders that occur are just there to give the audience a taste of what Italian horror is like. For example, vibrant, colourful and violent crimes with intense music to set the scene. I really did not understand the first half-hour of the movie where Marc leaves the letter behind from his sister Rose for Sarah, his friend, to find and read. She then starts to investigate the Three Mothers only to get herself and a complete stranger murdered in the end. Where is the logic in that? Or was it just a murder used as a spear point that would send Marc off to New York to find out what his sister wrote him? Instead he could have just read the letter when he had an opportunity to and not start following some random beautiful student with a cat. This student maybe a witch in cohorts with the Three Mothers, but it never gets explained and I am not a fan of loose ends in movies like that.

The beginning of the film starts with a woman who finds a book about The Three Mothers and she questions the antique dealer who sold her the book about its origins and relevance to her apartment building. Yet, I don’t understand why this woman, who we find out later is Rose, Marc’s sister, is investigating the Three Mothers and her apartment with no real reason other than the smell that permeates the building and from her conversations with the ill Countess, which she has befriended. The logic in this film barely exists and the acting just doesn’t grab my attention. I am a big fan of films that don’t always make sense because I can allow myself to think beyond what the director is trying to convey, but the combination of acting, score and dialogue has to make up for this weakness. However, I was happy that the antique dealer, Kazanian, became a victim of the witch in the end. Anyone who deals harm to cats and drowns a sack of them in a river deserves to be eaten alive by rats. I couldn’t care less for his character after the act of animal cruelty that was displayed and that is something I don’t care for in Italian horror films. The violence towards animals is unnecessary.

Nonetheless, I will not completely disregard this sequel to Suspiria because it really tries to capture the same beauty in colour, sound, and cinematography as Suspiria which helps me to appreciate what the film attempts to do even if the story becomes too convoluted. I can understand that there were challenges surrounding Inferno due to the illness that Argento experienced while filming. He did receive help from another well-known Italian director, Mario Bava (Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, Blood and Black Lace), which could have lead to changes in the film and influence from his style of direction. Bava’s secondary direction was able to help with the design of the scenery and special effects, which are all captivating. While many people are not a fan of the score done by progressive rocker Keith Emerson, which replaced Goblin for this film, I enjoyed it. The song used for the finale “Cigarettes, Ice, Etc” is wonderful and while it may not come close to Suspiria’s classic soundtrack, it can easily be recognized as music from an Argento film.

When I look at Inferno in its entirety, while it gives just a bit more information about The Three Mothers mythology and works to capture the same cinematic beauty as previous Argento films, the story just becomes too disjointed to hold up against the classic masterpiece that is Suspiria. My hope is that when I get to watch The Mother of Tears, it will satisfy my thirst for knowledge and curiosity like when I watched Suzy Banner escape the clutches of the Mother of Sighs in Freiburg, Germany in 1977 on film so many years ago.

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