This year marks the 40th anniversary of Dario Argento’s 1977 nightmare fairy tale, Suspiria. In it, an American dance student, Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper), discovers that a coven of witches own and operate a ballet school in Freiburg, Germany, all in service of a dark master, the Mother of Sighs. The film is notorious for its splashes of bright color, Goblin soundtrack, and the overall effect of its sensory assault.
Suspiria follows Suzy’s slow discovery of the horrible truth at her Freiburg dance school, as fellow students and friends disappear or are murdered. The film spawned two sequels, each devoted to another Mother, rounding out a trilogy: in 2007, Argento concluded his triad with Mother of Tears, starring his daughter Asia Argento, which takes place in Rome. The middle film, Inferno (1980), is set in a New York City tenement building that is both opulent and run-down, governed by the Mother of Darkness; as this would suggest, it is the darkest and most nightmarish of the three films.
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Like its predecessor, the lesser-known Inferno is about solving a mystery. The film’s protagonist is Mark Elliot (Leigh McCloskey), a college student studying music in Rome. Across the Atlantic in New York City, Mark’s sister Rose (Irene Miracle), spurred on by a book of mythology she picked up in an antique store, has become convinced that the building she lives in is the domain of the Mother of Darkness, a mysterious force responsible for terrible evil. She expresses her fears in a letter to Mark, but she is murdered inside the building. The letter reaches Mark, but his girlfriend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) reads it instead, and she is also killed brutally. Mark returns to New York, looking for his sister, who has disappeared. Inside the tenement where she lived, Mark is briefly aided by Elise (Daria Nicolodi — also Inferno’s co-writer), a sickly woman who is also killed. Mark must descend alone into the recesses of the building in order to find out the truth behind its walls and beneath its floors.
The plot, however, is almost beside the point. The real strength of Inferno is the dominant sense of terror that Argento creates through his mastery of physical space (shaded by bright reds and blues, contrastive images of grandeur and decay in the production design) and, in its conclusion, the blazing fire that tears through the building. In his construction of this nightmare space, Argento builds upon his work in Suspiria to create an unnerving, discomfiting experience.
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Unlike many of Argento’s giallo films, such as The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) or Tenebre (1982), the Three Mothers pictures deal with mystical elements that create supernatural horror. In these witch productions, Argento manipulates physical space to construct a pervasive sense of evil’s presence, the films’ reliance on stark color/light (which seem to emanate from no natural source) removes the monstrous effect from the mental recesses of black-gloved psycho killers and instead locates it in the characters’ environments. The predominance of evil forecloses the opportunity of escape, as several characters in the Three Mothers trilogy, and especially in Inferno, discover firsthand.
At its core, Suspiria is a kind of haunted house film. One of its most famous sequences is when Sara (Stefania Casini) — there is a Sara in each of the three films — is pursued through a dance school at night by unknown villains. The scene is a showcase for Argento’s flashy control of color, as Sara is bathed in washes of bright blue light as she hides from her pursuers. The symmetrical, architecturally pleasing design of the school’s grand hallways and staircases is contrasted with its back rooms and its storage closets, as Sara evades capture by scurrying into the building’s guts. One of the film’s most iconic images results when Sara drops through a window from one room into another, only to land, painfully, fatally, in a coiled mess of barbed wire seemingly designed for no other purpose than to ensnare a fleeing girl. She writhes in pain, screaming, as Goblin’s music drones on the soundtrack. The building itself has turned against her.
Inferno is made up of one sequence after another that follow this same model. It is as if Argento took the section of Suspiria that he felt was most successful, and translated it into an entire film. This approach would explain the relatively shambolic nature of much of the narrative, which seems tenuously pasted together. It is the individual sequence that is most important; story considerations are largely secondary.
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Though the plotting of Inferno is somewhat slapdash, the exacting control Argento exercises over physical space creates an overwhelming sense of horror. The images in the film are characterized by the director’s crafting of a dominant impression in each shot; the production design and the use of color and light work together to convey a singular feeling. Sometimes, this is manifest in a frame in which bright blue is the only color present. In other moments, the red walls, though not the only color represented in the frame, are so emphatically rendered that they communicate an oppressive sense of inescapability.
During Inferno’s climax, Elise, separated from Mark, gets lost inside the tenement. The sequence that follows, which will end with Elise’s death, illustrates Argento’s use of physical space; in one shot, taken looking up from the bottom of a winding stairwell, Argento includes both of his dominant colors: red appears in the frame’s foreground on its right side, broken up by the shadow of a window frame, and blue appears in the center of the frame’s background, a cartoon rendering of the night sky shining in through an overhead window. Between these two colors is the haunted face of Elise, staring down at the camera, calling out for Mark. The winding staircase further closes her in so much that open space in the frame makes up only a tiny sliver of its center. There is no room for Elise’s goodness in this evil, tightly compacted space.
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One other remarkable image appears a moment later in the sequence, as Elise descends the stairs. Argento begins the shot looking through the jagged shards of a broken stained glass window, its yellowed points jutting into the frame. He will move the camera in a moment, but not before Elise steps into it, her face surrounded by the broken glass; with the arched stained glass forming the outer side of the frame, Argento cranes down, the stairwell itself filled with a red key light shining down from above, with blue fill coming in from behind. Elise’s nightgown, white and reflective, absorbs both colors — the building has already got her. She just doesn’t know it yet.
The characters of Inferno are also preoccupied with the darkness that spaces can represent. In the film’s final sequence, Mark digs through Rose’s apartment floor, and crawls underneath, through cobwebbed pylons. He discovers a door that leads to a centralized staircase, deep within the building’s structure, like a spine. He descends the staircase, and through a door, finds Varelli (Feodor Chilapin), the wheelchair-bound architect who has designed the buildings for the Three Mothers. He tells Mark, “I built the houses for the three mothers. Houses which became their eyes and ears. Then, I buried myself here. This building has become my body, its bricks my cells, its passageways my veins, and its horror my very heart.”
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Inferno foregrounds body horror, as the bodies of its three principle female murder victims (in addition to others less important to the narrative, such as it is) are each torn apart by physical space. Where it extends the aesthetic of Suspiria, however, is in fully articulating the dominant imposition of the tenement upon the Mother of Darkness’s victims. In this film, the color and light, paired with the production design, feels more fully developed and connected to the motivating force of the film’s evil.
This dynamic coalesces in the film’s final moments, as the tenement erupts in flames. Suspiria ends somewhat similarly, as Suzy flees the dance school and looks back inside to see a fire raging through a window. Inferno, however, has to live up to its title, and burns the building. Fleeing the Mother of Darkness after she reveals her true form, Mark must navigate his way through the burning apartment, the fire all around him. Light fixtures explode, raining glass down. Wooden beams collapse, falling in his path. The blue and red colors that have dominated the film are joined in its final moments by dancing orange fire, lashing out and threatening to turn Mark into a blackened, smoldering corpse. Windows detonate. Mark reaches the front door, itself made of glass. It shatters from the heat, and Mark escapes.
The space has allowed him to escape. For now.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.