Dario Argento’s surreal supernatural “Inferno” was the second film in his Three Mothers trilogy

By on December 6, 2018

Dario Argento’s surreal supernatural Inferno (1980) — the second film, following Suspiria, in his “Three Mothers” trilogy — is a heart-pounding, gratuitously gory thriller featuring a throbbing, thunderous original score by keyboardist Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Watch Inferno and other Dario Argento films — including The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) and Deep Red (1975) — on Night Flight Plus.

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Despite it being a sequel-of-sorts to his very successful Suspiria — which was based loosely on partially derived from the concept of “Our Ladies of Sorrow” originally devised by Thomas de Quincey in his 1845 book Suspiria de Profundis — Argento had wanted Inferno to have a completely different feel, with his signature use of extreme colors and lighting used to create the appropriate moods he wanted.

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Inferno follows a writer named “Rose Elliot” (Irene Miracle) who discovers a mysterious diary penned by an ancient architect named “E. Varelli,” revealing the secret alchemy of three powerful witches, “The Three Mothers,” who run the world with sorrow, tears, and darkness.

Varelli’s book describes how he designed and built three houses for each of them: one in Freiburg (as seen in Suspiria), one in New York, and a third house in Rome.

Rose believes that the building she lives in the art deco New York City dwelling, inhabited by dozens of cats.

Rose now feels that she is in imminent danger because of her discovery, so she contacts her brother “Mark Elliot” (Leigh McCloskey), a music student living in Rome, and asks him to come to New York.

Before he arrives, however, she’s brutally murdered by an unseen assailant (a nod of homage to Hitchcock killing off his heroine early on in Psycho).

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Mark must then piece together cryptic clues in order to find out what happened to his sister, all while the Mother of Darkness — “Mater Tenebrarum,” the youngest and most cruel sister to Suspiria‘s “Mater Suspiriorum” — closes in.

Argento’s longtime girlfriend, co-writer and actress Daria Nicolodi plays a neurotic, pill-popping aristocrat (the Countess “Elise De Longvalle Adler”) who briefly helps Mark with his amateur sleuthing before she’s attacked by the cats and then stabbed to death by one of Argento’s trademark black-gloved killers.

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The third film in the “Three Mothers” trilogy, 2007’s somewhat controversial Mother of Tears, takes place in the Rome setting and features the third sister, “Mater Lachrymarum.”

Read more about Inferno below.

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Dario Argento wrote the screenplay for Inferno in New York City in a hotel room overlooking Central Park while suffering from hepatitis at the time.

He was assisted by three other screenwriters — Nocolodi, Franco Ferrini, and Dardano Sacchetti — although his was the only named credited as writer on the final release print.

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Argento wanted Inferno to have a dreamy, hallucinatory feel, which was reportedly inspired by his viewings of French director Alain Resnai’s 1961 art-house classic Last Year in Marienbad.

The director relied heavily upon production designer Giuseppe Bassan’s incredible set design, as well as the ethereal cinematography from Romano Albani, who would later lens his 1985 film Phenomena.

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Argento’s U.S. film distributor 20th Century Fox were hopeful for another hit after the surprising box-office success of Suspiria, but during Inferno‘s production — which began in Rome in May of 1979 — the studio’s new head of production shelved all of the projects that were currently underway.

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Argento had assembled a fine cast for his film, beginning with Leigh McCloskey — known to American audiences for his appearances on TV’s primetime “Dallas” soap — who replaced the original actor tipped for the role, James Woods, who was too busy filming David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.

For Rose, Argento cast the star of Late Night Trains (1975), a friend of Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci.

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Director William “Bill” Lustig worked as a production assistant on Inferno and reportedly told Argento about the film he was trying to make, Maniac, one of the other titles we also have streaming in our Blue Underground section on Night Flight Plus.

Argento even planned to distribute Lustig’s Maniac in Europe, but those plans fell through.

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We learn in the film that there are three keys to unlocking the secrets of the Three Mothers, the first of which is discerning the presence of a particular strange bittersweet odor that Rose and her friend “Sara” (Eleonora Giorgi) take notice of.

The second key is hidden in the cellar of Rose’s building’s cellar, taking the form of a picture of one of the three Mothers, bearing the name of whichever witch lives in that house.

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Mario Bava and Dario Argento on the set of Inferno

Rose discovers this picture in the underwater ballroom, in an otherworldly special effects sequence designed and shot in a water tank in Rome by the Father of Italian Horror, Mario Bava, his son Lamberto, and cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia.

This scene and the climatic sequence — where the Mother of Darkness bursts through a mirror to reveal her true form, a giant skeletal death head — were Bava’s last cinematic contributions before he died in 1980.

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Inferno‘s dazzling score — featuring piano, synthesizers and a 90-piece orchestra playing the libretto to Giuseppe Verdi’s 1841 opera Nabucco, with soaring operatic vocals by the Chorus of Rome singing Verdi’s “Chorus of Hebrew Slaves” — was composed by ELP’s Keith Emerson.

Argento had wanted something that would match in the intense grandeur of Goblin’s scores (they were unable to work on Inferno).

Unfortunately, Emerson wasn’t properly credited by Argento and didn’t work with him again.

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Watch Inferno on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.