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Film / Inferno (1980)

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"Very soon now, everything around you will become dark, and someone will take your hand."

A 1980 Italian horror film by Dario Argento, not to be confused with Dante's poem or the novel and film of the same name.

Rose Elliot, a poetess living in New York City, purchases a book from a local antiques dealer. Written by an alchemist known as Varelli, the book explains how the author was commissioned by three evil (and very powerful) witches to construct stately mansions for them, from which they rule over the world with insanity, grief and despair. Realizing that the apartment she now resides in might be the home of Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, Rose writes to her brother Mark, currently studying music in Rome, to warn him of her fears.

Mark returns to New York, and finds that Rose has vanished. Taking up residence in her apartment, Mark tries to piece together the whereabouts of his sister, only to discover that her initial fears were horribly correct.

The second film in a loose trilogy (between Suspiria and Mother of Tears), in terms of storytelling Inferno is the most alien of the three. While Suspiria walked a thin line between murder mystery and surreal horror, Inferno dispenses with any sort of narrative structure, instead running on a dream logic that makes no concessions to reality.

This film provides examples of:

  • Alien Geometries: The far out architecture of Rose's apartment (to say nothing of the Tanz Akademie or the Palazzo Varelli) makes more sense when you realize it was designed by a medieval alchemist.
  • Apartment Complex of Horrors: The film mostly happens in a lush, vintage castle-like building in New York. Beneath its grand appearance, lies a labyrinth of decayed corridors, decrepit passages, secret crawlspaces and the basement lair of an ages-old witch named Mater Tenebrarum.
  • Asshole Victim: Kazanian who drowns a few cats out of mere annoyance and immediately afterwards ends up in turn eaten by rats and stabbed to death simultaneously.
    • Also Carol who is in cahoots with the coven and ends up burned to death.
  • Big Bad: The main antagonist of the movie and the one behind the killings (since this is a horror movie) is Mater Tenebrarum, who is disguised as the silent old man's nurse.
  • The Butler Did It: Subverted, though it's implied not for lack of trying. Elise's butler conspired with his wife to kill her at some point, but ends up taking advantage of his employer's death to steal her belongings. Not that it saves him from Tenebrarum, though.
  • Call-Back: When the apartment building begins to burn, Mater Tenebrarum cryptically says it's happening "Just like before." This may refer to the destruction of the Tanz Akademie in Suspiria (1977).
  • Cats Are Mean: Inferno has one of the most prominent examples of cats being threats to men in film. It starts with them intruding into Kazanian's property and pestering the elderly antique shop owner but it gets much worse when a clowder of them attacks Countess Elise when she ventures into a secret corridor of the building and keep her trapped there until the masked assailant catches up with her. Subverted however once the viewers put the pieces of the puzzle together and it becomes clear that the cats don't act on their own agency but have their simple minds clouded by the darkness of Mater Tenebrarum. As all animals can, which is confirmed by the rat attack on Kazanian.
  • Creepy Basement: According to the "Three Mothers" book, the "second key" to the secret of the mothers lies in the basement of their lairs. With the words ringing in her ears, Rose decides to look into it and goes down the basement of her apartment building: there are at least two stories of basement, plus a flooded sub-basement where Tenebrarum's portrait is hanging on the wall, along with some floating decomposed corpses.
  • Creepy Long Fingers: Some of the killings are done by an assailant with long, almost skeletal fingers.
  • The Cruella: Kazanian, the antique shop owner, practically abhors the cats that creep into his store. Although considering events earlier in the film, he may be somewhat justified.
  • Dark Is Evil: Again, the main threat is one of three evil witches, all equally wicked. The witch's name is even "Mother of Darkness" (or "Mother of Shadows").
  • Death by Materialism: Elise's butler and the woman concièrge rejoice that Countess Elise has gone missing, but has left her jewels and money. She tells the butler to make a false phone call to Elise's husband, so they could throw him off their backs. This actually leads to both their deaths.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Several. Rose, Sara, and Elise are all protagonists till they get killed one by one. Finally, Mark turns out to be the true protagonist but he himself does not do much to advance the story.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: The kind nurse and her unassuming elderly patient in the wheelchair? Respectively, Mater Tenebrarum, one of the villainous Three Mothers, and Varelli, the architect who designed their houses/lairs.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Mater Lachrymarum, who serves as the main antagonist in Mother of Tears, makes a brief appearance in this film, although played by a different actress.
  • Eaten Alive: Kazanian by rats.
  • Encyclopedia Exposita: The Three Mothers, by E. Varelli. The book spills the secrets of the Three Mothers: where their lairs are located, how to identify one (by a sickly sweet smell in the air) and how to discern the mistress of her lair, by checking the basement.
  • Evil Tainted the Place: According to "The Three Mothers" book, the location of the Mothers' lair will eventually suck the life out of the land and nearby areas will "reek horribly".
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The film is titled Inferno, a word that means 'a raging, uncontrollable fire'. Guess what happens in the climactic sequence?
  • The Faceless: In contrast to Suspiria, where the entire faculty belongs to the coven, the faces of Tenebrarum's coven and servants are appropriately masked by shadow at all times.
  • Failure Hero: Unlike Suzy in Suspiria, Mark had done nothing to contribute to the villains's defeat. Tenebrarum died in the fire that she had unintentionally caused on her own through one of her murders.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Mater Tenebrarum does an excellent job of killing off the would-be heroes, but also manages to off herself by her tendency to sadistic overkill (Specifically, her insistence on killing off a couple of mildly rebellious underlings causes the fire that consumes the apartment building, to which her survival is tied).
  • He Knows Too Much: Why Sara (Mark's college mate), Rose (Mark's Sister), and Elise are all killed:
    • Rose buys a book called "The Three Mothers" from a nearby antique shop, who reveals that the apartment building she lives in may be the lair of an ages-old witch.
    • Sara reads Rose's letter to Mark and decides to investigate into Lachrymarum and the other mothers. As she approaches her destination, a library, she notices a "sickly sweet smell" in the air. As the "Three Mothers" book states, this is a sign of the presence of the Mothers.
  • The Hecate Sisters: The Three Mothers. As the "Three Mothers" book indicates, there is a Crone, but the Maiden role (young and alluring) is shared between the other two:
    • Suspiriorum is the oldest of them;
    • Tenebrarum (the main villain), said to be "the youngest and cruelest" of the three;
    • Lachrymarum (the Italian student with the intense gaze) is "the most beautiful" of the three.
  • Ironic Last Words: Varelli/the old man in the wheelchair tells Mark he built the houses for the Three Mothers (as revealed earlier in the film, one in Freiburg, Germany; another in New York, and the third one in Rome, Italy), and "buried himself" in the New York manor. Of course, he meant it metaphorically, but he dies asfixiated by a cord and his body burns as the whole manor catches on fire in the climax.
  • Kill It with Fire: At the very end of the film, Mater Tenebrarum becomes a giant skeleton (like the incarnation of Death) and stands amidst the fires burning the apartment building. She then utters a scream and disappears.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Elise's butler and Carol the caretaker are glad that she is gone because they can steal her belongings. Carol even implies that she knows and is allied with Elise's killers. The butler has his eyes gouged out (but still attached to the nerves), and Carol accidentally starts the fire which destroys the building. In her attempt to put the flames out, she gets tangled in curtains, set on fire, and then stumbles out a window and falls several stories to her death.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: The main threat is a woman named Mater Tenebrarum (Latin for 'mother of darkness', although she is also referred to as 'mother of shadows'). Equally villainous are her sisters, both with equally pompous names: "Mother of Sighs" and "Mother of Tears".
  • Numerological Motif: The giant, hotel-like apartment building in New York where Rose lives is numbered 49. Likewise, in Italy, after Sara (Mark's college mate) reads Rose's letter to him, she asks a taxi driver to go to Via dei Bagni, 49 (a public access library). In both locations, there is a "sickly sweet smell" in the air, indicating these are places connected to the Three Mothers.
  • Off with His Head!: Subverted. Rose is nearly decapitated by a large pane of glass, only it doesn't completely sever her head from her body. Instead, it's repeatedly slammed into her neck harder and harder, cutting deeper through until she finally dies.
  • Pinball Protagonist: Played straight, but arguably proof that Tropes Are Not Bad. Mark survived and may have played a role in the death of Mater Tenebrarum, but even at the end has little more than faint hints as to what happened. As shown in a pre-climax dialogue:
    Varelli/Old Man in a Wheelchair: Now, I suppose, you know who I am...
    Mark: No, I don't...
  • Pop-Star Composer: Keith Emerson wrote the music.
  • Rule of Three: The "Three Mothers" book states that the titular Three Mothers are also three sisters, replicating iconic trinities of culture, like the Three Fates and Three Graces.
  • Scenery Porn: Much like Suspiria, this is a stunning film with a great score by Keith Emerson.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Perhaps the best music for sneaking around the Big Bad's lair isn't bombastic Ominous Latin Chanting set to synthesized and up-tempo organ. However, it makes sense in terms of being a key component to support Argento's visual aesthetic.
  • Swarm of Rats: Kazanian encounters these after drowning a sackful of cats. Just desserts, perhaps.
  • Thematic Series: The second part of the Three Mothers Trilogy with Susperia and Mother of Tears.
  • Video Nasty: Was placed on the list in 1984, was dropped just a year later, and was released uncut in 2010.
  • Villainous Breakdown: As soon as she realizes Mark managed to escape the burning apartment building, Mater Tenebrarum lets out a furious scream as everything around her burns not caring about the debris falling around her and presumably killing her.
  • Walk on Water: After Kazanian falls into the Central Park Lake and is attacked by rats, a hotdog vendor brandishing a knife runs across the lake and finishes him off.