Dario Argento, like Mario Bava, is better when he’s working with the supernatural, not with sexy psycho killers. Bava’s a wunderkind when it comes to films like Kill, Baby, Kill; superiorly baroque atmosphere is much more interesting than the enthusiastic slaughters of Bay of Blood. Argento is no different — giallo fans can lump him into the subgenre all they want with films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, but he’s at his prime when flirting with Douglas Sirk-color and incomprehensibility, as evidenced by his legendary Three Mothers trilogy.
It’s popular opinion by now that Suspiria is the greatest of the trio. With its gumdrop sweet Technicolor photography, explosively mounted bloodshed, and cacophonous soundtrack by prog-rock group The Goblins, it is, as I declared in my original review, “the closest thing the movies have ever come to capturing a nightmare on the screen." It is such a horror masterpiece that any sort of follow-up is destined to be proven as an underwhelming affair.
So while it’s true that its sequel, Inferno, is inferior to its predecessor, there is no denying its mastery — if it weren’t the work of Argento, it would be lauded as, yes, a horror masterpiece. But even for Argento, it’s a minor masterpiece, more static than Suspiria, more engrossed by its own ambience.
It continues the story kicked off by its 1977 counterpart, which saw ancient witch Mater Suspiriorum terrorizing a spooky ballet studio in Freiburg, Germany. That film, of course, led to her murder at the hands of naïve dance student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper). Inferno, in turn, switches its location to New York City, where Mater Tenebrarum (The Lady of Darkness) is said to reside. Though equipped with new characters, a slightly refreshed plot (a concerned Leigh McCloskey travels to the city to search for sister Irene Miracle after receiving a strange letter), and a different location (an elaborately designed hotel instead of an elaborately designed school), not much about Inferno deviates from Suspiria. It’s another case of labyrinthine stalk and slashes mystifying and nightmarish, more concerned with scary style than a plodding plot.
But what style! Reminiscent of the neon artifice of Fassbinder’s Lola or Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, light exists only as a colored medium — naked bulbs are nowhere in sight, replaced by shadows and CinemaScope saturation distinctly fake but raucously sumptuous. Blues have the deep richness of cerulean salt, reds hypnotizing and devilish; a case of sore-eyed design, like a bookcase or a door, seems to be hiding something. In Inferno, artful contrivance is reality — in a world where three witches use their sizable powers to manipulate the Earth, evil is more pronounced than the stakes of everyday life.
Which is why Suspiria and Inferno so easily creep under the skin. The villains on the prowl are so knowing, so far beyond regular menace, that their very threat looms over every individual shot. There’s never a moment we can exhale in relief — it’s as though they’re always watching, waiting to kill us off in a bafflingly complex way after changing their minds about someone else. An inexplicable evil is, inarguably, always much more disturbing in a horror movie than an analyzed Norman Bates type — we don’t want to be left in the know. It would mare the malevolence.
The biggest shock of all, though, is Inferno’s lack of gore. Whereas Suspiria was a carousel of gruesome effects, Inferno is more intent on suspense, drawing out its kill-offs to near unbearable lengths. I loved how eccentric each death is portrayed — consider that one ready-to-be-dropped fly is eaten alive by rats, only to be stabbed by a nearby hot dog vendor possibly possessed by Mater Tenebrarum herself. Another girl is chased and later attacked by a never revealed foe with a set of hands evocative of a centuries old warlock. Nothing in Inferno really makes sense, and that’s precisely the point. If it weren’t for the sudden, final ending, it would be an endless loop of nightmarish imagery. It’s Suspiria minus the orotund butchery, which is still, if I may say so, pretty remarkable. A-