Cinefamily’s Video Nasties #6: INFERNO

Argento creates a witch's brew of beautiful women, haunted houses and murder, murder, murder!

Hello, Nasty-fans. I’ve sensed a shifting of the zeitgeist lately, and seen the future of horror.

Okay, I will get to the point at hand, but to explain how I felt watching Inferno Saturday night, I gotta go on a bit of a tangent.

For the past decade horror has been primarily dominated by two trends and their aftermath. There has been the “found footage” horror movie, that has held on for an amazing length of time (who’d have thought that we’d still be seeing echoes of Blair Witch Project over ten years later?),  signifying perhaps an influence of reality TV, perhaps a rebellion against staring at CGI monsters that scare us about as much as a Saturday morning cartoon, or perhaps just a clever way to cover up a low budget. Regardless, the idea of lending a weight and reality to a scary movie through this documentary conceit has even felt present in films that didn’t literally fit the bill - with indie drama / hand-held aesthetics reigning supreme in innumerable low budget horror movies.

And secondly, we’ve had the “torture porn” horror film, utilizing not so much classic models of suspense and surprise, but an emphasis on the bodily destruction itself; the audience isn’t worrying if a character will get away or not, or when, but merely steeling themselves for the inevitable and painful destruction to be metered out upon them. It’s about squirming in your seat (and often the victims in their seat, tied to it in fact), while a series of increasing malfeasances are brought upon them. These are films of escalating excruciation but diminishing returns, as the can-you-handle-this gruesomeness has driven regular folk like me away from horror films, like a reactionary waiting out the storm for the good ol’ days to return.

Even films that aren’t strictly one of these two things are swimming in the same waters. In a film like Kill List - one I like, by the way - the drama is treated in a semi-improvised style meant to make the blood and mayhem all the more visceral. When violence does erupt it’s not about eliciting cheers and/or screams, but about genuine horrified shock. For better or worse, these movies are measured by walkouts and vomit-tales, and rarely do we call a horror flick a “good time” anymore. What film style does tend to exist is a kind of muddying murk of desaturated colors, filthy set designs and sped-up apertures capturing dirt and blood as it flies through the air in crisp detail. It’s a bummer, man.

The desire for a different kind of movie is in the air, a movie you can take a girl to, a movie that is fun, and alive with creativity. A movie that is designed, with the obvious hand of an artist composing it all for our pleasure. Yes, a horror movie that is fun, or a feast for our senses.  While a movie like Beyond The Black Rainbow didn’t really fulfill this promise for me, what struck me is that it made that promise - and when I played the film’s trailer, the audience crackled with anticipation. And its runaway success seemed to evidence a shifting tide in audience needs.

I suggest that Dario Argento’s Inferno is a model example of what’s missing from modern horror, and will soon rise again.  If everything is real in recent horror, nothing is real in peak-period Argento film. What you are watching is so clearly a construction, an elaborate music video, a book of poems, all there only to serve a director’s vision. It is candy for the eyes, as they say. It is Willy Wonka horror.

It’s the peak of his career, and Argento in 1980 (right off Suspiria) is a director letting his imagination go with a witch's brew of beautiful women, haunted houses and murder, murder, murder! The latter half of the film centers its energies on one fantastic set (as Suspiria centered on a girls’ boarding school), giving Argento much opportunity to exercise his ample sense of design. Its a gigantic house of unknown and inconsistent dimensions, with spacious basements that open up into underwater kingdoms and hallways that never end, but lighten and darken impressionistically according to the director's needs, sometimes changing within a single shot. It is an Art Deco hell, dappled in gothic shadows and splashed with colored lights. And fans probably have noticed Argento’s favorite color is I would note is the most unreal of colors, the one least likely to be found in nature.

Today, because the story doesn’t make a lot of narrative sense, defenders often resort to saying Inferno has a “dreamlike” logic. I suggest something different. It is not like a’s like a movie. Movies are not reality. They have their own momentum,  potentialities and feeling, and they, more than dreams even, have their own special yet consistent internal logic. Movies are not bound by the laws of our day-to-day reality. We film nerds love to laugh in knowing joy at the unrealities all the time, at how in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones apparently clings to the side of a submarine as it travels across the Atlantic ocean, or the physical impossibilities of  a gigantic ape clinging to the Empire State Building. What we are marvelling at isn’t that the movie blew it, or how dumb it was, but how the rhythm and flow of a movie is more important than reality, and how moments that feel right in the editing room exceed the mere banalities of continuity. A good, natural filmmaker has feeling for this - they know when to shun mere reality in favor of what makes a sequence sing.  They have an innate cinematic sense. And this sense is like a jazz - you know it when you hear it.

Well, Argento has got it. Inferno is the film in which he indulges this sensibility the most, and elaborate sequences are constructed just so he can whale like the devil on virtuoso solos of technique. One fantastic scene is set to an operatic piece by Verdi, and each edit and actor’s movement seems as determined by what would feel right set to this music, as what would feel right to the “story," as it were. As the suspense builds, he begins to play with the suture between the two elements - music and image - by having the building’s power cut in and out, causing the music and lights to stop and start together to gleefully discomfiting effect. Throughout the film, there are a range of visual devices and top notch set pieces like these that rival the best work he’s ever done. For lovers of film for film’s sake, Inferno is a treasure trove.

Some would reasonably say all these pyrotechnics come at the cost of story - and that Suspiria is a better balanced movie. I would agree that in summation, Inferno isn’t a real crowd-pleaser; but I think there's something of greater importance than story problems holding it back. You can get away without much plot, but the lack of character is killer (though some would say they’re the same thing, but that’s another essay). You know what I’m talking about...likable humans running around that we care about or at least find interesting. Leigh McCloskey is not Jessica Harper, in other words.

But focusing on what we do love is the way to watch this film, and there’s plenty to love. That’s how I did it Saturday night anyway.


Tonight! Visit The Cinefamily for the next entry in their Video Nasties series: Visiting Hours!