Film Review: Inferno (1980)

Dario Argento is a writer/director who does not lack vision. From his brutal gialli films to his more surreal supernatural horrors, this is a creator who understands the need for a concept. His films are easily described by calling them stylish followed by a quick logline of the story. Inferno is no exception. This stylish and surreal supernatural thriller centers around the idea that three ancient mothers--witches--live inside three custom-built structures in three major cities. Young poet Rose Elliot becomes obsessed with their story and alleged power, putting everyone she knows and loves in great danger from the mothers' seemingly infinite reach. Essentially, it is a nightmarish haunted house film that is not afraid to go for the jugular for almost two straight hours.

Shot in stylish washes of red, blue, green, yellow, and white, Inferno is an incredibly unnerving visual spectacle. By the safer light of day, a red hallway already looks menacing; by night, it glows a ghastly hue of crimson that immediately sets you on edge. Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is the effortless combination of colors. The lighting is so precise that there is never so much as a centimeter of cross-over between conflicting or even complimentary hues. The blue will be blue whether its totally surrounded by yellow, green, white, or red and nothing will change that.

The tricky part of evaluating the performances in a film like Inferno is the standard of the Italian film industry for many years. In order to capitalize on an international market, many Italian films were shot without sound using an international cast of characters. Some people spoke English; others spoke Italian, French, German, Spanish, or whatever language they were most comfortable with. The voices were then dubbed over by actors from the country the film would be released in. If the original actor spoke Italian, they dubbed their own voice for the Italian release, but were dubbed by someone else for England, America, France, and anywhere else it was released. It's actually a rather ingenious device when used correctly.

Argento uses it correctly. His voice actors/English speaking cast (in this case) dubbed the dialog to almost seamlessly match up with the movement of the actors' mouths. This, in turn, accentuates the physical nuances of every performance. There is no weak link in this cast as every actor fully embodies the character they are playing. The standout to me has to be Sacha Pitoeff as antiques dealer Kazanian. He sells a difficult physical role--the character requires two crutches to walk--with a tricky position as a narrator to the three mothers story and foil to the present action. It's a flashy performance that helps set the tone of the film from the first scene.

If there is a weakness to Inferno, it is--like Suspiria--how quickly the film goes off the rails in the final scenes. Thankfully, this is not caused by an inane twist that comes out of nowhere and destroys all the good will the film previously created. We know from the first scene about the sisters and the supernatural influence of the film. This time, Argento got way too ambitious with the stunt sequences. Until the titular inferno breaks out, the long single-person driven exploration/stunt sequences are terrifying. I actually had to stop the tape many times to walk away and regain my composure. Once the flames erupt, the focus shifts from suspense to cramming as many explosions as possible into the final few minutes of the film.

The technical work is solid, but it's so flashy and Hollywood that it goes against the quieter nightmarish notes of the rest. I can't explain the logic of the constantly shifting color palette of this strange building, but I can explain the physics of a fire tearing through a building. There is no mystery when the threat is that relevant in an otherwise otherworldly feature.

If you like stylish thrillers and aren't afraid of blood, you'll probably enjoy Inferno. It's the kind of film that works sitting alone on a Saturday night, with a few friends over after work, or even just as an interest piece muted at a large party. It's horrifying with enough style to win over non-horror fans and isn't afraid to go for every possible scare in a scene.

Rating: 6/10

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