Inferno

Our lives are governed by dead people.
★★★
☆
Released: 
1980
Director: 
Dario Argento
Starring: 
Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolindi
The Setup: 
Haunted apartment building in New York.
Discussion: 

So Netflix streaming has become an excellent resource for those cases in which everything I have on disc is too serious or too dreary, with lots of cheesy horror selections that promise not to tax one's brain but provide a lot of cheesy fun. I tend to stay away from Argento films, as they're often so frustrating, but this one benefited immensely from a quick look at the IMDb, where I learned the crucial information that this movie makes no sense at all, and is ultimately just a series of scary scenes with only the slightest connecting tissue, which was an invaluable aid to enjoyment, as if I hadn't read that I would have been expecting everything to add up, and growing more and more frustrated. So I advise you, if you're going to watch this, just enjoy it for what it is-- a series of fairly good scares--and don't expect so much as a larger narrative. You'll be much happier!

(Since I've posted this several people have come to this movie's defense with good points... like that it is part of a trilogy with Suspiria and makes much more sense in that regard... if you're interested, I suggest you read the comments below to get a fuller picture than my review alone offers).

So we open with a title that says "New York - April," and for a while the movie jumps around between different cities, but as far as I can tell none of it adds up to anything, so I wouldn't bother trying to track all this on a calendar. This woman, Rose, is fingering this book called "The Three Mothers," and goes next door to the antique store to ask about it, only to find that the proprietor is not especially helpful. When she mentions that she's trying to solve some mystery, the owner says "The only real mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people." Hmmm, good to know, thanks! Rose goes back but sees this little cellar next to her apartment building, and decides it might be a great idea to go down there. She wanders around, then finds a hole in the floor that's full of water, and oops--her keys fall in! When reaching in won't get them, she decides to just get completely into the hole! Ummm, you know, I'm sure the super has an extra set, toots. Once down there she finds a whole furnished floor of the apartment building underwater, which is fairly spooky and means that the whole scene is eerily silent, and soon Rose is menaced by ye olde floating dead body. No matter how she pushes it way, it keeps coming at her. She gets out and--well, that's it, then. She'll likely want a shower.

Now another title--Rome, May--where another, unrelated woman is killed (still have no idea who she was), then we meet Mark, this blond dude with a slight stache and a confused look ever on his face, who turns out to be Rose's brother. He's in music appreciation class when he notices this lovely lass turned around and staring at him. But when he looks again--she's gone! Then he comes to New York to visit Rose, who has called that she's all spooked about something, he arrives just as some other, again unrelated, dude has received a knife through the throat. Mark arrives as the body is being brought out, and sees the mysterious woman from his music class again! Woah, she must have taken the Concorde. You might be thinking this woman is significant, but actually she never shows up again for the course of the movie.

By now one has noticed that this is one of those things that was filmed entirely in Italy, especially the interiors of the supposedly New York apartment, with a few inserts and cutaways of New York thrown in. But what of Rose? Well, she's right inside, only she starts getting spooked in her apartment, and ends up ascending to the creepy attic, which has a strong blue and red lighting scheme. So blue and red that I hunted up a pair of old 3D glasses and watched the scene through them (no big effect). Anyway, spooky stuff here, spooky stuff there, until finally she's grabbed by a pair of old witch hands and given the old dull guillotine treatment. I mean that the guillotine is dull, not the scene, which is actually one of the highlights of the movie.

Mark goes upstairs and looks for Rose, then meets Daria Nicolindi, Rose's friend. They end up finding these back passageways, where they get separated. She goes upstairs and gets cats whipped at her head (someone offscreen is literally throwing live cats at her head), and he goes downstairs, where is soon nearly passes out. He ends up in the lobby where he is found by two creepy women, one of whom says "He says it's his heart," and the other nefariously replies "Then he needs some HEART MEDICINE." He wakes the next day and is fine.

So Mark goes next door to the antique dealer's, and finds him none too friendly or helpful. The dealer is being plagued by the satanic cats that chill around the building, so he catches them all and takes them to Central Park to drown them. This man walks on crutches and starts wading into one of the ponds--on crutches. Is that a wise move? You tell me. He ends up falling, and is soon beset by rats, during an eclipse which, hey, you might have thought would be significant. A nearby hot dog vendor hears his screams and comes to help! Except--oh, I guess he wasn't coming to help, then.

Meanwhile we learn that one of the landladies is killing residents and taking their valuables. One of her schemes results in an apartment catching on fire, which will continue to spread during the final scenes. Mark finds that there are secret passageways between each floor, and a whole secret infrastructure to the building, leading him downstairs to a basement, where he meets an old man and learns of the three mothers. Then--why look, it's one of the mothers now, and she reveals herself--as death! Woah. By then the whole place is on fire, and Mark makes it out, and it burns down, the end.

So, you know, amusing enough, as far as it goes. Which isn't all that far, since there's no comprehensible story, no drama, nothing to be done or solved or figured out, and thus nothing to really get involved with. It really is just a series of vaguely connected horror set pieces, which wouldn't work at all... if some of the set pieces weren't so darn awesome. But they are. Some of them become pretty scary in their own right, and some of them are just so weirdly over-aestheticized--the the whole furnished room underwater or the strangely beautiful blue and red attic, that they kind of work in themselves. But after a while you realize that none of this is going anywhere and none of it is adding up to anything, and that can make interest flag. I can only imagine how frustrated I'd be if I hadn't known up front not to expect any sense-making, and was trying to figure out what's going on.

So if you're up for a bunch of vaguely-connected set pieces, go for it. Don't expect it to make any sense, and you'll be fine. Only, the fact that there's barely a story and none of it comes to anything also makes this purely inessential, and for Argento completists only. Which is fine, in it's own way.

Should you watch it: 

If you're a total Argento fan. Utterly inessential for anyone else.