Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 11 
10 June

this issue 
about us 
contact us 

more info 

english title 
original title 
article list 
journal list 
add a link 




    Printer-friendly version of this article

Dario Argento's Inferno (1980)HORROR
For the love
of smoke
and mirrors

Dario Argento's Inferno (1980)

Showing precisely where and how the film's detractors have misunderstood Argento's aims, Jodey Castricano argues convincingly for Inferno's place as a key work of dream-logic and self-reflexivity in the director's oeuvre.

To sleep, perchance to dream

Dario Argento's Inferno (1980)Imagine combining Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Victor Fleming's musical adaptation of Frank L Baum's novel The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Dante Alighieri's early 14th-century poem, "Inferno," which features a descent into Hell. To this heady mix, add characters who appear so one-dimensionally strange and alienating they seem to have stepped off a Brechtian stage. Include the almost-comic figure of Death from an amateur stage production or a medieval morality play and don't forget evil and the supernatural.

Set this hybrid construction to selections from Verdi's 1842 opera Nabucco and discordant music from Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; illuminate the highly stylised sets in surreal blues and reds and have the characters speak cryptically. The result is the profoundly haunting and disturbing dream-logic of Dario Argento's Inferno (1980), a film which appears to be self-consciously masquerading as a giallo-style, Gothic opera—albeit without singers.

While Inferno has often been criticized for terrible acting, dialogue and an incoherent plot, this compelling film—which Argento calls his "purest and most sincere"—seems less concerned with traditional narrative trajectories than it does with the art of horror film-making. Recalling the Russian Formalists' emphasis on form over content, "device" over message and strangeness over familiarity, Inferno involves the viewer in its "mind-boggling artificiality"[1] to dramatise the aesthetic and experiential links between film-making and viewing which Christian Metz, in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, likens to dreaming—a motif that Inferno takes up with a vengeance by turning that dream into nightmare.[2]

De Profundis

Dario Argento's Inferno (1980)
The Three Mothers
As the second installment of a proposed (and still unfinished) trilogy featuring the "Three Mothers"—evil women who are also sisters intent on bringing death and destruction into the world—Argento's Inferno follows Suspiria (1977). The films feature Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs; Mater Lacrimarum, the Mother of Tears; and Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness. The Mother of Sighs occupies a house in Freiburg, Germany (which was destroyed in Suspiria); the house of Mater Lacrimarum is in Rome; while Mater Tenebrarum, "the youngest and cruelest," occupies the house in New York.[3] All of these houses were built for the "mothers" by the architect and alchemist E Varelli, whose book, The Three Mothers, ends up in the hands of Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle), a poet living in New York who becomes obsessed with the suspicion that her apartment building is the dwelling place of some mysterious supernatural force.

In the prologue, the voice-over of Varelli utters the words that will draw Rose and viewer alike into Inferno's dream-logic:

I do not know what price I shall have to pay for breaking what we alchemists call Silentium. The life experience of our colleague should teach us not to upset laymen by imposing our knowledge upon them. I, Varelli, an architect living in London, met the Three Mothers and designed and built for them three dwelling places. ...I failed to discover until too late that from these three locations the Three Mothers rule the world with sorrow, tears, and darkness... And I built their horrible houses, the repositories of all their filthy secrets...
The land upon which the three houses have been constructed will eventually become deathly and plague-ridden, so much so that the area all around will reek horribly. And that is the first key to the mothers' secret, truly the primary key. The second key to the poisonous secret of the three sisters is hidden in the cellar under their houses. There you can find both the picture and the name of the sister living in that house. This is the location of the second key. The third key can be found under the soles of your shoes; there is the third key.

Dario Argento's Inferno (1980)While the smell which permeates her apartment is enough to convince Rose that her building houses Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, Rose questions the antique dealer, Mr Kazanian (Sacha Piteoff), who sold her the book. Like any enigmatic dream-figure, the shadowy Kazanian tells Rose not only that the "bittersweet" smell she complains of is coming from "the cake factory" (!) but also that she will "get used to it." Before dismissing Rose from his shop, Kazanian cryptically adds, "the only true mystery is that our lives are governed by dead people." Leaving the shop, Rose hesitates before an iron grate in an alleyway and, recalling the words of Varelli that the second key is "hidden in the cellar," descends the moonlit stairs in high Gothic style in search of the Mother's abode.

For those viewers conversant with the horror genre, the phrase "the key is hidden in the cellar" is wonderfully polysemic. Are we to find a literal key, a solution to a mystery, a musical note? In Inferno, Rose's descent into the cellar—staged by legendary giallo director Mario Bava—draws attention to what Maitland McDonagh argues is Argento's "extended meditation on certain conventions of the horror film and, by extension, the nature of the cinematic text."[4] In this instance, the cellar is a convention that signals an oneiric descent into the "underworld" or the unconscious. As Gaston Bachelard points out in The Poetics of Space, although the cellar can be "rationalized and its conveniences enumerated... it is first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces."[5] In Inferno, Argento stages a meeting between the audience and "the dark entity of the house" through the visual vocabulary of a mise-en-scène that appears inspired by the lucid dreaming of surrealism.

Lucid dreaming

Dario Argento's Inferno (1980)Argento's colour schemes and imagery are bizarre. In Inferno, colour—morphing blues and reds—is a language. Objects are surreal. A pipe without any ostensible purpose hangs suspended from the ceiling while a long, red wire protrudes from one end. Other pipes rise from floor to ceiling juxtaposed with Doric-style columns which, placed haphazardly, give the impression that one is backstage in an abandoned theatre. The camera follows a stream of water as it flows into a red and blue rivulet from a broken drainage pipe into a hole in the concrete floor of the cellar, which turns out to be the ceiling of a flooded room. When her keys fall into the hole, Rose casually removes her shoes, climbs into the overly blue water, and swims in search of them, but not before she is momentarily framed by the crazily-angled pipes, columns and posts that surround the hole. In one of the film's most eerie scenes (filmed by Lorenzo Battaglia), Rose swims languidly underwater in what we dimly perceive in the gloom is a flooded ballroom in which still hangs a poster bearing the name and image of "Mater Tenebrarum."

Dario Argento's Inferno (1980)In this most dream-like of all scenes, Rose swims unhurriedly downwards towards the floor where her keys lie on the carpet. By the time Rose's hands slowly reach out for her keys, the viewer is as deeply submerged in Inferno's dream-logic as is Rose Elliot in the flooded ballroom. In Inferno, Argento seems to be saying that the filmic state, like a rebus, is oneirically complex. To search for the key in Argento's films is to do dreamwork. This realisation comes upon us with a vengeance when, suddenly, a door in the flooded room bursts open in a current that sends out a badly decomposed corpse which, in floating upwards, seems to pursue Rose in her desperate attempt to find the hole through which she entered the room. As Rose swims frantically in search of the opening, her feet kick in revulsion at the head of the rising corpse. In his study, The Philosophy of Horror, Noël Carroll points out that in the aesthetics of Gothic horror the key element is disgust, and this sequence is classic abjection material.[6]

After her horrifying experience, Rose attempts to contact her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a student of music studying in Rome. We first come upon Mark in a large lecture hall where he and his fellow student and friend, Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), are listening to selections from Verdi on headphones. While attempting to read Rose's letter, Mark seems drowsy. He rubs his eyes and when he looks up, it is as if he is having a lucid dream when he becomes entranced by a strange woman who gazes back at him.

The fact that no one else appears to notice the woman (Ana Pieroni, who would also have a role in Argento's Tenebre [1982]) is quite strange, especially since she is provocatively attired and strokes a Persian cat. Once again, Argento places us in a dream space. Later we conclude that Pieroni's nameless character must be Mater Lacrimarum, since she disappears following the lecture, only to reappear later in the film when she rides past the apartment of Mark's murdered friend Sara (who is killed after reading Rose's letter to Mark and attempting to investigate the secret of the Three Mothers).

The oneiric house

Dario Argento's Inferno (1980)Before her death, Sara phones Mark asking him to come to her apartment. However, he arrives at the scene of a double murder where he finds torn fragments of Rose's letter on the floor. In pursuit of the mystery, Mark is soon on his way to New York and arrives at the apartment building where Rose lives, only to find that she has disappeared. Here Inferno slips still further into dream-logic, never to return. Rose's building is labyrinthine—the epitome of the oneiric house: multiple stairways, baroque rooms, cluttered passages, heavy, theatrical curtains, false floors and vents which serve as listening conduits running throughout the structure.

It is inhabited by enigmatic figures: Rose's friend Elise Stallone Van Adler (Daria Nicolodi) who is injected with a mysterious substance by her ominous manservant, Carlo (Gabriele Lavia); the sinister concierge, Carol (Alida Valli, Suspiria's Miss Tanner) who welcomes Mark. When Mark takes the elevator, he meets an elderly man in a wheelchair (Feodor Chaliapin) who is accompanied by his nurse (Veroniz Lazar). Neither are as they seem, for the man will turn out to be Varelli, the architect and alchemist, and the nurse none other than Mater Tenebrarum herself.

Some critics have found fault with Inferno at this point, claiming (for instance) that "it begins to fall apart, becoming less coherent with each turn in the flimsy plot. Its artful set-pieces and dreamlike mood and images come to naught without a solid structure in which to frame them. Characters say and do stupid things."[7] I would argue, however, that "the dreamlike mood and images" actually serve to enhance Argento's attempts at meditating on the conventions of horror cinema. As McDonagh asserts, the

complex internal logic [of Argento's films] is connotative rather than denotative, metaphoric rather than metonymic...; images proceed from one to another not in the service of advancement of linear narrative, but by way of poetic connections, a kind of alchemical reasoning.[8]

Dario Argento's Inferno (1980)This notion of "alchemical reasoning" implies that Argento's reflections on horror conventions rely on a series of "correspondences" which "move by a relation of counterparts and doubles, and [are] subject to dangerous distortions and interferences."[9] And so, in response to the charge of incoherence, I would argue that Argento's Inferno demonstrates his affinity for analogies and parallelisms by way of "poetic connections" that give rise to the film's dream-logic.

In the labyrinthine design of our dreams, we often meet with enigmatic figures whose cryptic utterances seem absurd to the waking mind. In Inferno, such exchanges are commonplace and they create an overwhelming sense of strangeness, much like one would have in trying to explain the meaning of a dream in full upon waking. The exchange between Mark and the nurse illuminates this idea:

Nurse: ...What do you do?
Mark: I'm a student. Musicology.
Nurse: Oh, wonderful! A professor! Toxicology.

Later, when Mark has fainted, he is awakened by the building's concierge, Carol. Their conversation is equally strange:

Carol: It was your heart.
Mark: I don't have heart problems.
Carol: We gave you some heart medicine just the same.
Off to see the Wizard

Inverted logic, disjunctions and dislocations such as these are the heart of Inferno. When Mark discovers that the man in the wheelchairDario Argento's Inferno (1980) is really the architect Varelli, the scene reminds us of Dorothy's discovery in The Wizard of Oz that the "Wizard" is actually an unimposing-looking man concealed behind a screen who has the benefit of technology to create his desired effect—rather like a movie director.

In Inferno, Varelli is seated at a computer console and can speak only with the aid of an electronic device attached to his larynx. In this scene, he beckons to Mark to "come closer" so he "can whisper" what Mark wants to hear. Instead, he produces a hypodermic needle and jabs it into Mark's arm. As Mark falls to the floor, Varelli's chair is overturned and he strangles on his microphone cord—but not before telling Mark that he is being watched by someone to whom he is "nothing but dust." At this point, Inferno lives up to its name and a fiery apocalypse produces another of the correspondences referred to above. As McDonagh points out, "Rose's underground trial... by water" is "the perfect structural adumbration of Mark's climactic encounter with the Mother of Darkness" in the chamber "alive with flames."[10]

What is just as bizarre about Mark's encounter with "the Mother of Darkness" is that she appears to have stepped out of a medieval morality play.

Medieval morality play
Medieval morality play
Her diabolical laughter is so theatrically wooden and less than horrifying that we become aware of the staging of the scene. It calls attention to its artificiality. Similarly, her costume might have been bought at a local shopping mall. Is this really the fearsome Mater Tenebrarum, the "cruelest" of the three? Why, at the eleventh hour, has Argento given us such a one-dimensional figure of Death unless it is to call attention to the role that allegory plays in his meditation on the theatrical conventions of the horror film? In medieval drama, morality plays often dramatised a confrontation with death.

In this scene we are also reminded of the encounter of Satan with his daughter Sin, as well as with Death, in Paradise Lost (Book II) and the fact that "sustained allegory was a favorite form in the Middle Ages... especially in the mode of the dream-vision."[11] The artificiality of the film's conclusion demands that we think of the cinematic text's relationship to mimesis as a form of smoke and mirrors, especially since Argento includes these elements in the final scene as if calling direct attention to his involvement as a film director.

As Mater Tenebrarum tellingly says to Mark before she breaks through a barrier, "I'm no magician." Similarly, the excessive theatricality of the finale also reminds us that throughout Inferno there are many promising operatic moments, not the least of which is the musical and visual conflagration which brings down the house of Mater Tenebrarum.[12] Lastly, Inferno tells us that the subject of Dario Argento's "purest and most sincere film" is the oneiric play of shadow and light which is nothing if not film-making itself.

Jodey Castricano

    Printer-friendly version of this article

Also of interest
About the author

Jodey Castricano teaches in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of Cryptomimesis: The Gothic and Jacques Derrida's Ghost Writing (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001).

return to the Kinoeye home page
return to the main page for this issue


1. Maitland McDonagh's Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: the Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (London: Sun Tavern Fields, 1991), 128.return to text

2. Christian Metz in Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier. Ed Stephen Heath and Colin MacCabe. Trans Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzzetti (London: The MacMillan Press Ltd, 1982).return to text

3. In a compelling discussion, McDonagh credits Suspiria de Profundis, a collection of essays by 19th-century writer Thomas De Quincey, for "the essential notions that underlie Suspiria and Inferno and that will equally shape the third film—tentatively referred to as Mother of Tears" (134-35). In "Levana and Our Lady of Sorrows," de Quincey explicitly discusses the three "Ladies of Sorrow," namely, Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum and, the youngest, Mater Tenebrarum ("Our Lady of Darkness" qtd in McDonagh 136-37).return to text

4. McDonagh, 7.return to text

5. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places. Trans Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 18.return to text

6. Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990), 158.return to text

7. Brian Lindsey, "Eccentric Cinema Reviews: Inferno."return to text

8. McDonagh, 21-22.return to text

9. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (North Stratford, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, 1999), 40.return to text

10. McDonagh, 148.return to text

11. See "Allegory" in M H Abrams A Glossary of Literary Terms (4th Edition) (New York: Hold, Rinehard and Winston, 1981).return to text

12. As Anne Williams points out, "opera and the Gothic have their origins in an intellectual project designed to initiate a cultural reform" (109). It is interesting then that before she is murdered, Sara, who is a music student, plays Verdi's "Va, pensiero" for Carlo, the sportscast writer. Taken from Verdi's Nabucco, "Va, pensiero" ("Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves") attained great political significance by becoming the Italian underground's national song of liberation. See Anne Williams, "Monstrous Pleasures: Horace Walpole, Opera, and the Conception of the Gothic," Gothic Studies 2.2, May 2000: 104-118.return to text

  Copyright © Kinoeye 2001-2018