Movie Postmortems: INFERNO

by John S.

Movie Postmortems is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

THE CASUALTY: Inferno

THE CASE HISTORY: 1977. The popularity of an Italian horror film titled Suspiria is sweeping the world. It’s a fairly simple tale of American ballet student Susy Banyon (Jessica Harper) who travels to the Black Forest region of Germany to attend the famed Tanz Akademie, an elite dance school with a dark history of witchcraft that soon engulfs Susy and others. However, what the film lacks in plot complexity, it more than makes up for in atmosphere and style. Quite simply, it is a dazzling tour de force that overwhelms the senses, filled with stark primary colors, unsettling imagery, and evocative music, suggesting a Disney cartoon or Grimm’s fairy tale gone very, very bad.

Not surprising, since it is directed by Dario Argento, who has been hailed as “The Italian Hitchcock.” From 1970 to 1975, Argento has been making a name for himself in his native Italy and the rest of the world by perfecting the “Giallo.” Coined after the yellow cover used for mystery/thriller paperbacks in Italy around the 1930s and onward (giallo is the word for yellow in Italian), Gialli (plural of Giallo) are also known as “Stylish Spaghetti Thrillers” and have very distinct features.

The typical Giallo formula does not feature supernatural elements. However, Argento’s skillful blending of its characterisitics with Euro-Horror trappings proves highly successful in Suspiria. Twentieth Century Fox acquires the film for distribution in North America but releases the film through its International Classics division because it is reportedly not keen on it. To Fox’s pleasure, though, Suspiria is a big surprise hit in the U.S. – commercially if not critically. Argento spends time in Los Angeles in the wake of Suspiria’s American success and is courted by Fox for a sequel. This dovetails with Argento’s pitch that Suspiria is actually the first entry in a trilogy that explores the sinister myth of the “Three Mothers,” a trinity of evil witches who have separate abodes in Friberg, New York, and Rome. Suspiria is meant to be the Friberg chapter, dealing with the Mother of Sighs. Fox agrees to finance the sequel.

Filming on Inferno occurs over a few months 1979 in Rome with some location lensing in New York. The film is slated for a 1980 release in the United States and overseas. However, a regime change around that time in Fox management leads to a re-assessment of the project. Incoming studio president Sherry Lansing reportedly tells Argento after a screening that the film is too intense for the American marketplace. Possibly for this reason and others, Inferno is shelved and never receives the wide theatrical release it was initially intended for. Five years later in 1985, Fox finally releases the film on home video and the critical reception is mixed to negative. To say it falls short of its predecessor’s great success is an understatement.

So… what the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS:  In many ways, Inferno is actually a more ambitious film than Suspiria.  It follows a twistier path and doesn’t connect the dots for the audience. You actually have to think this time. Also, in this day and age with Hollywood all mad about shared universes and world-building, Argento was way ahead of his time by creating an expansive mythology with parallel threads unfolding in the United States and Europe at the same time. Had Inferno not been shelved by Fox and attained some degree of commercial success, the universe of the Three Mothers would have  surely been further explored immediately in a third movie – not put off for over two-and-a-half decades until the release of the similarly-underrated Mother of Tears in 2006.

Inferno starts off strong and does what all good sequels should do. That is, it does not simply rehash the original but take its themes and tropes and expands on them, upping  the stakes in the process. Argento opts for a less brutal approach than Suspiria and instead gives the story a more sensual, langurous feel. Indeed, if it weren’t for the occasional violent death, Inferno would register as more of a romantic mystery/drama. As I told a friend recently, “Suspiria screams deafeningly in your face as it rips your head off your shoulders. Inferno whispers seductively in your ear as it slides a knife between your ribs.”

Unfortunately, Argento stumbles about three quarters into the film and never really recovers the escalating dread he beautifully builds up until that point. The setpiece involving Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff) and his unpleasant nocturnal foray into Central Park with the bag of cats derails the forward momentum of the narrative when it should be heating up. This sequence is clearly meant to mirror the scene in Suspiria of the blind pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci) being murdered by his seeing-eye dog in the middle of a deserted city square at night. The problem is Kazanian’s death has no meaningful impact on Inferno’s plot. While the scene by itself has an unexpected but satisyingly nasty payoff, it feels out of place. Also, Kazanian is a loathsome character (unlike the likable and sympathetic Daniel) so the scene has zero suspense and is pointless because we don’t care about his fate.

Which brings us to the primary reason Inferno ultimately falls short of what it might have been: unlike Suspiria, it does not have a solid protagonist to root for. Without Jessica Harper’s vivid turn as sweet-but-spunky Susy Banyon, Suspiria would not have been as effective as it is. With Inferno, Leigh McCloskey’s Mark Elliott is the nominal lead; however, because the character is constantly sidelined he doesn’t get anywhere as much screentime as Susy to develop. Unlike her, Mark is never given a chance to understand what he’s dealing with and be an active participant in his own narrative. This makes his final escape and survival feel unearned. The talented McCloskey (who would later feature on Dallas and in my favorite 1980s teen comedy, Just One Of The Guys) does what he can but he is given very little to work with by Argento.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: There’s so much Argento gets right with Inferno that it’s a shame he ultimately drops the ball in the fourth quarter. The shelving of the film by Fox couldn’t have helped, either. In the UK Arrow Blu Ray release of Inferno, Argento states in an interview that he and then-incoming Fox president Sherry Lansing viewed the film in a private screening. He claims she kept grabbing his arm in fright throughout most of it, but ultimately told him it was too violent for American audiences. Given that Suspiria is technically the more graphic film which was a hit with Americans, I tend to think Lansing might have liked Inferno but also recognized its narrative flaws and was graciously trying to let Argento down gently. Thankfully, Inferno has been rediscovered over the years to be a classic in its own right.

NEXT CASUALTY: The Holiday – “From the Director of What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give…”

You know you’re a big deal when your movie poster doesn’t need an actual tagline and just has a simple sentence about the very successful movies you’ve directed in the past. In December 2006, this flick was released and was expected to do the same big business as director Nancy Meyers’ two previous upscale romantic comedies, both also released in Decembers past. Instead, The Holiday only pulled in a fraction of their domestic box-office. Even with Cameron Diaz and Jack Black toplining. What gives?

 

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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