Monday, November 13, 2006

Dario Argento: "Inferno".

I've written an earlier post about my appreciation for Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977). Over the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to see a few additional films by Argento. Nothing I have seen has been close to the quality of Suspiria. Deep Red (1975) was a fairly conventional example of the Italian Giallo genre. Trauma (1993) was simply abysmal. The director's reputation suggests that I have missed several quality works, and if they are anything like his masterpiece... I simply don't want to miss them.

So it was with subtle anticpation that I watched Inferno (1980) last night. This was the official sequel to Suspiria, and seemed to promise an exciting installment in a planned trilogy. The story (such as it is) presents the mythology of three sisters who seem to have found their embodiment in the architecture of a mad alchemist. Two siblings, separated in New York and Rome, become aware of the lingering presences of strange malevolent spirits in their apartment buildings. Predictably they feel an odd need to explore the darkness. This is the device for a series of gruesome murders and elaborately-constructed setpieces. As with its genius predecessor, Inferno is shot in primary colors, and built on an atmosphere of dread and fascination, with brilliant cinematography and a taut, anxiety-ridden soundtrack (this time around Keith Emerson from Emerson, Lake and Palmer provides the compositions).

I knew from watching Suspiria that the plot wouldn't be the focus of my attentions. I wasn't disappointed during the first half of the film. Early in the film, one of the siblings discovers an underwater room in the basement of her apartment building, and her exploration of the creepy depths sets a suitably ominous tone. As the film progresses, we meet a number of freaky characters and travel through increasingly surreal environments. The sharp angles of the designs, and dreamlike lighting of the interiors make the gory interludes startling and cringe-worthy. For awhile, I was completely caught up in the film. And then the bottom dropped out.

For some reason Argento chooses to have a peripheral character attacked by a mob of cats. We see a number of reluctant felines tossed at the hapless victim, only to bounce off and withdraw imediately. This shot is interspliced with a series of kitty profile close-ups... mewing mouths and shifting eyes. I couldn't help laughing, and the mood was effectively shot for the remainder of the film. As if one segment of "When Animals Attack" wasn't sufficient, we later see a bookseller besieged by a teeming mass of rats while ironically trying to drown a bag of snarling cats.

Then the slip into folly acceralates. The only incongruous moment in Suspiria was a cheesey floating pair of yellow eyes that appeared in the darkness through a windowpane. It's meant to be foreboding, but fails miserably. Argento inexplicably manages to repeat the exact same mistake in Inferno, and in this case we simply can't forgive him as we did before. The effects get so low rent toward the end of the film, that it is impossible for Argento to recapture the tone. The conclusion depicts the transformation of a fairly-attractive witch into a skeletal figure of death. The results evoke unfortunate comparisons to the bag-of-bones Halloween costumes that the "bad karate-school" kids wore in the Karate Kid. It's supposed to be unsettling, but I am once again compelled to fits of laughter.

The film's dramatic descent into silliness is a shame. So much care had been taken to assemble genuinely disturbing sets and to shoot with imagination... it makes the incompetent second half of the film seem almost criminal in its execution. One wonders if Argento ran out of money, or simply lost interest. It certainly foretells the corresponding descent in the director's filmmaking career since the mid-80's. IMDB reports that Argento is completing the trilogy that began with Suspiria and Inferno. One can only hope he returns to the inspiration of the former, rather than the inconsistent mess of the latter.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

ps I love these people and you will too

12:14 PM  

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