Review: Inferno (1980)


I first saw Inferno on late night TV, maybe somewhere in the 12-14 age bracket. It holds the distinction of being one of the very few films that ever genuinely scared me.



Later in life I rediscovered it as one of Italian horror legend Dario Argento’s masterpieces, a companion piece to the absolutely sublime Suspiria, one of my all time favourite cinematic experiences. They both feature the same bizarre mythology around the Three Mothers, Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum. They both feature the same insanely lurid colour palette and utterly dreamlike narration. They both use striking music to excellent effect.


Along the way I had came to regard Inferno as the lesser of the pair, neglecting its own magnificence, and hadn’t watched it for most of a decade. Rewatching it recently was a real treat.

Gorgeous, incredibly atmospheric and dreamlike. Very little actually happens in the story; it is an intense exercise in style in the telling. The action is simultaneously grounded in simple moments of reality that extend out forever – how can he hold the shots so long, and make them so gripping? – and a surreal inescapable nightmare layer, a world of constant descents into weirdly lit labyrinthine spaces.

What scared the younger me was not being able to work out what was happening. Atmospheric whispers, hooded figures, old books, malevolent cats, strange women, not quite human hands…. It was just so weird. Something is clearly going on, people are being killed horribly, but the motive and murderer is generally unknown; perhaps simply the power of evil itself unleashed.

As an adult the film barely makes sense, even on multiple viewings. It almost coheres, but is most effective on an unconscious, metaphoric and symbolic level. The encounter with a genuine archetypal force beyond us, working through us and the world, will not be a rational one.

And ultimately the forces at work in Inferno are transcendent. Death itself, present as a purposive force. There is no escape. Triumph is an abeyance. The flames change nothing.

Beyond its immediate visceral impact, Inferno remains a work of art with depth that rewards repeated consideration.


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