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From the Vaults: 'Inferno' (1980)

June 28, 2010 |  6:32 am

Infernofire OK, here's where I alienate all you nice "His Girl Friday" fans from last week; sorry. This week's movie does not have Cary Grant, but it does have a man being eaten alive by rats!

"Inferno" is the second in Dario Argento's loose trilogy "Three Mothers," following his 1977 masterpiece "Suspiria"; the third, "Mother of Tears," wasn't released until 2007. None of the movies share characters, just a concept: three evil female forces (fates? witches?) lie waiting, each in her own building, in her own city. People who come asking questions feel her wrath, often in gruesome ways! In "Inferno," the Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness, or Shadows) lurks in a massive New York apartment building. One of the residents starts asking questions, and -- uh-oh.

It's barely a plot, just a flimsy structure to hang some of Argento's beautiful horror sequences around. But those sequences are why you're here, and Argento delivers magnificently. My favorite is the first big death scene: a young couple is in a big apartment listening to opera (Verdi's "Va' pensiero...") when the power starts flickering -- the lights switch off and on, and eerily, so does the music. The guy heads down to check the fuse box, and if you've ever seen a horror movie, you know how this ends up. Ciao, young couple! But the scene is played so elegantly, it's unforgettable.

As the movie goes on, the deaths get increasingly zany: A countess (Daria Nicolodi, Argento's then-partner) gets attacked by a pack of vicious cats in a sequence that actually reminded me a bit of "Night of the Lepus." (It just takes some careful framing to make it look like cats are biting someone. The camera kept cutting to a cat's claws on the floor.) An antiques dealer (Sacha Pitoeff) falls victim to the rats. A butler's eyes pop out. A concierge catches on fire. There are plenty of stabbings.

As Argento movies go, it's actually pretty tame; there's nothing quite as melodramatic as the stabbing/hanging that opens "Suspiria," or the fabulous bit in "Mother of Tears" in which the museum employee (Nicolodi again, bless her oops, it's Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni; many thanks, M Frost) is strangled with her own entrails; but the deaths are still pretty creative. Argento, as always, walks the line between gonzo and baroque. (Lamberto Bava, son of "Black Sunday" director Mario, was an assistant director. I got to see Lamberto on an Italian-horror panel at Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors last year, and he was cute as a button! But I digress.)

InfernoswimThe most notable feature of "Inferno" for my money is its extraordinary beauty. Our protagonists, siblings  Mark and Rose (Leigh McCloskey and Irene Miracle), are sort of beside the point; the real star is Mater Tenebrarum's apartment building, which turns out to be full of long hallways, shadowy corners and empty apartments.

And under the basement, strangely, is an empty apartment that's under water, still filled with furniture, not to mention the odd corpse; Rose swims into it early on to find a key, in a magnificently creepy sequence.

At times this movie really taps into the everyday fears of the apartment dweller: Can the neighbors hear everything I'm saying? Why are there so many stray cats here, and what are they eating anyway? Does anyone even live in that place where I never see a light on? But the movie just hints at such quotidian concerns before barreling off in its own eldritch direction. The building is just otherworldly. You never get a sense of its layout, but that's OK, because it's just supernatural. Every shot is framed like a painting, or a photograph; the composition and colors are impeccable. I started making a list of screen grabs I wanted, and then just had to stop -- there's hardly an un-gorgeous frame in the whole film. The plot drags, and the soundtrack pales beside Argento's other movies (which usually feature his band Goblin), but the look of it is beautiful enough that you really don't mind.

Also, Veronica Lazar is magnificent as the Mother of Darkness. Her identity isn't revealed until the end, but she utterly owns her few scenes: she's completely loopy and utterly hypnotic. Plus she looks fab in her cinch-waisted black dress. She is without question my favorite Mother!

So if you're curious about Argento but not sure you've got the stomach for him, this is a great movie to start with. If you like this, try "Suspiria." (Only try "Mother of Tears" if you're a real completist. I enjoyed it, but -- well, there's a scene where a baby falls off a bridge, and the baby doll's arm visibly breaks off. It's not quite Argento at the top of his craft. But it is a heck of a lot of fun, with a nice lead performance by Argento & Nicolodi's daughter Asia.)

My personal favorite Argento movie is 1985's "Phenomena," starring a "Labyrinth"-era Jennifer Connelly as a girl who can communicate with insects; it's got Donald Pleasance and songs by Iron Maiden and a big pit of maggots, and oh, it's just the best! If, you know, you like that sort of thing.

Next week: something or other from 1960!

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images: Top, Leigh McCloskey comes face to face with the inferno, as embodied by Veronica Lazar; below, Irene Miracle takes a dive.