“I don’t 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.” This voiceover from the prologue of Dario Argento’s Inferno describes De Quincey’s matriarchal trinity by way of the fictional tome The Three Mothers, written by E. Varelli. With a Cassell’s Latin dictionary by her side, New Yorker Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) learns of the three homes Varelli built for the Three Mothers: one in Rome, one in New York, and the third in Freiburg, Germany. This passage seemingly explains the events that transpired in Suspiria—the witches at the Tanzakademie called on the strength of Helena Marcos in honor of Mater Suspiriorum—while setting up the events of Inferno and the yet to be produced Mother of Tears (which, according to Daria Nicolodi, has been ready to film since 1984). Without a heart-pumping Goblin score, the relatively plot-senseless Inferno—even after multiple viewings—feels like the sub-par version of Suspiria. More so than any other Argento film, this one is for the fans, especially for those interested in the details of the Three Mothers trilogy.
Rose, a poet, comes to believe that her gothic abode is a coven for Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness. Rose’s building is inhabited by curious characters: her rich friend Elise Stallone Van Adler (Daria Nicolodi), her ominous manservant Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), an elderly cripple (Feodor Chaliapin), his nurse (Veroniz Lazar) and the building’s landlady, Carol (Alida Valli, Suspiria’s Miss Tanner). Rose’s brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome, receives a letter from his sister, asking that he come to New York to help her investigate. (He will eventually come face to face with Mater Tenebrarum after toiling his way through the concealed passageways of Rose’s building.) Mark lives in Rome, the dwelling place of Mater Lachrymarum. While reading Rose’s letter in one of his music classes, Mark becomes entranced by a female in the class, a campy femme fatale who strokes a fluffy white cat. Played by Ana Pieroni (Tenebre), the woman makes one more appearance in the film. She rides past the apartment of Mark’s murdered girlfriend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), the first person to stumble across the secret of the Three Mothers. Pieroni’s nameless character is Mater Lachrymarum herself, ridding Rome of busybodies just as Mater Tenebrarum does the dirty work in the film’s New York locale. (Pieroni’s death in Tenebre is perhaps a hidden reference to the unfinished status of Three Mothers film trilogy.)
Varelli’s text details that “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.” The mothers’ secrets are accessible through three keys: the first, no doubt, was the iris in Madame Blanc’s Suspiria office; the second “is hidden in the cellar under their houses”; and the third key “can be found under the soles of your shoes.” The smell that consumes the Inferno building is enough to convince Rose that she must be living inside Mater Tenebrarum’s deadly abode. In the film’s most outstanding set piece, she goes looking for the mother’s key by diving through a hole in the building’s cellar. There she encounters Mater Tenebrarum’s underwater chamber and a hideous floating corpse to boot. Giallo director Mario Bava, whose influence on Argento is legendary, staged this sequence for his protege. Bava’s presence here may explain why the film’s subdued lighting brings to mind Bava’s The Whip and the Body. If Inferno is remarkable to look at, Argento’s use of signs and metaphors are loopy at best.
Kazanian, the antique bookseller, tries to drown a sack full of cumbersome cats in a Central Park pond. When his crutches fall to the ground, rats begin to feast on his writhing body. Undoubtedly controlled by the city’s first total eclipse in almost 50 years, the rats have been seemingly controlled by a knife-wielding hot dog vendor. If this sequence comes out of nowhere then more dubious is the water imagery Argento toys with throughout the film. Consumed by the smell of Rose’s building, Mark faints and dreams of crashing waves. When he awakens, Carol and the nurse stand above him celebrating the effects of their “heart medicine.” If there’s any logic to this peculiar behavior, it’s spuriously explained by film’s end. Oblivious to the fact that her building had ears, Elise is killed with little fanfare and leaves her manservant and Carol to ghoulishly salivate over her fortune. When they too are done away with, the elderly cripple reveals himself as the author Varelli (in hindsight, this isn’t a particularly interesting revelations), who constructed the building for Mater Tenebrarum, his nurse. The final showdown between Mark and Death incarnate pales in comparison to Suspiria’s delirious finale. Argento undervalues his material, but his set pieces are glorious enough that the film’s plot contrivances can be forgiven.