Dario Argento’s films often feel like a vivid nightmare, and Inferno might just be his most nightmarish work. This is both a compliment and a detriment. When Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) purchases The Three Mothers book from a spooky antique store adjacent to her apartment complex her curiosity gets the best of her, in more ways than one. In a marvelous opening sequence, drenched in deep blues and reds, she wanders into a cellar, drops her keys into a waterhole, and is forced to swim down into a terrifying antique looking room. It is an example of Argento at his best, creating a lush and horrific atmosphere alongside inventive and effective horror. It’s a nightmare.
Inferno is several nightmares for several characters, never once coming anywhere near anything resembling realism. Argento keeps the images basked in evocative and surreal lighting, disregarding any semblance of a story in favor of episodic stalk-and-kill sequences. Simultaneously fascinating and frustrating, this structure is often successful in creating a terrible dreamlike atmosphere (we in the audience are often dropped into the middle of events, refused sufficient exposition, assaulted by surrealistic imagery, and bombarded by Keith Emerson’s raging eclectic music). These successive dream scenes are effective on their own, with Argento staging and directing imaginatively, but they unfortunately wear quite thin when stretched over Inferno’s near 2-hour runtime.
As a single, unified picture it doesn’t work. Emerson’s score is often more confusing than immersive, dancing across genres and styles so frequently it becomes quite jarring. As atmospheric and frightening as many of the nightmares are (a scene involving man-eating rats comes to mind) the lack of concrete story, and competent storytelling, tires them out. Even as I write I’m extremely fuzzy on what the story is. As a successor to Suspiria it is clear that it concerns a coven of witches, and they take up residence in a New York apartment complex… I think? Although much of Inferno features Dario Argento at his experimental and daring best (the finale is truly epic in scope) it ultimately struggles to amount to a satisfying experience thanks to Argento’s lack of concern with telling even a middling story.