Saturday, February 6, 2016

Managing Expectations: Dario Argento’s INFERNO

Some of my best cinematic experiences came about from going into a movie blind.  It can keep the surprises fresh, the twists unspoiled.  I love the nervous uncertainty a really creative movie can produce as I view it unaware.  IT FOLLOWS was like that, all I knew before hand was that it was a horror movie that had something to do with sex.  I knew even less about HOSTEL, and I was thrilled and disturbed at where it took me.  The real advantage with going in blind is the lack of expectations.  Expectations can color your appreciation of anything.  You can be disappointed by a good movie if your expectations are too high, or too narrow.  This is especially true with a sequel.  If you saw the previous movie, you have a good idea what to expect, regardless of what you know of this one.  I went into HOSTEL PART 2 (or MORE HOSTEL, as it should have been called) with some specific ideas of what I wanted it to give me.  It gave me different ones.  I hated it.  But over time, I’ve warmed up to it, to the point I think it’s a pretty interesting film.  This pales compared to my reaction to the sequel of one of my all-time favorite horror movies, SUSPIRIA.  If you watch INFERNO expecting it to expand on SUSPIRIA’s theme, link things together, or most importantly, make any sense at all, start banging your head into the wall now.  INFERNO laughs at your expectations, and then stabs them in the neck.

The Capsule:

New York City girl Rose is intrigued by an old book about powerful witches called “The Three Mothers”, one of which is supposed to live in a spooky apartment building that sounds much like the one Rose lives in.  She writes of her suspicions to her brother Mark (played by an actor you will immediately recognize from a million TV shows in the ‘80’s, but never remember which ones).  He is studying music in Rome, which, coincidentally, is where another Mother lives.  He loses the letter before reading it, because he is kind of a dope.  His girlfriend finds it, though, and begins her own investigation, which leads to her almost immediate death.  Mark goes to New York to find out what is going on, but Rose is already missing (aka dead). He talks to the various weirdos who live in the apartment building, almost all of whom die in grizzly, colorful ways afterwards.  A woman is pelted to death by cats.  A crippled bookshop owner who tries to get rid of the cats is devoured by rats.  Eyes are gouged out.  Heads are guillotined by window panes.  Mark stumbles around with a blank expression on his face.  Will Mark survive his final encounter with the Mother of Shadows?  Does anyone have a clue what the hell happened at the end of the movie?  Seriously, anyone?
Italian genre movies, particularly from the early ‘80’s, are notorious for defying logic.  They were all about atmosphere, style, and crazy set pieces.  Cohesive plots and realism took a backseat, often in a different car a few blocks away.  My earliest introduction to this world was through SUSPIRIA, Dario Argento’s "dances with witches" masterpiece.  It was sumptuously lit, super spooky, and very disorienting.  Still, it has to be one of Argento’s most straightforward narratives (American dancer goes to a ballet school in Germany secretly run by witches, witches try to kill her, she gets away).  When I found out years later there was a sequel, I was eager to find out more about the story.  INFERNO opened promisingly, with a voice over exposition from a book talking of the “Three Mothers”, powerful witches living in specially built houses, one in Germany (SUSPIRIA!), one in Rome, and one in New York.   It went on about the names of the witches and where special keys could be found.  A straight forward setup right from the start.  It’s all a tease, because everything beyond that point is simply insane.  Nothing makes any sense, things just happen.  It was incredibly frustrating for me.  I was so focused on putting together pieces that would never fit, I missed everything that made the movie awesome.  Almost everything.  Even while I stubbornly tried to force some reason to it, I couldn’t help but appreciate the movie’s most amazing scene, the underwater apartment.

This scene is the definition of dream logic.  In order to retrieve her fallen keys, Mark’s sister Rose lowers herself in to a water filled hole in the decrepit basement of the apartment building.  This is nuts to begin with, because come on, lady, they are just keys.  Call a locksmith.  The hole leads to a completely furnished, well lit, totally submerged apartment.  Under the basement, mind you.  She seems to have no problem seeing through the water or holding her breath for several minutes of strenuous activity.  She never even acknowledges that there is anything particularly odd about the situation until a decaying corpse floats by and sends her into a panic.  After getting out, she doesn’t tell the police, or anyone, about the body, she just sends her brother a cryptic letter and continues to live in the building.  The rent must have been ridiculously low.  This is New York, after all, that would be a big factor.

The movie is filled with this kind of beautifully executed, thoroughly incomprehensible scenes.  The only thing that is clear is that you shouldn't live in a witch house, or even know anyone who lives in a witch house.  It is not the kind of movie you will decipher, because the director never intended for you to.  I’m fairly sure Dario Argento had no clue what was going on, either.  Reportedly, he was seriously ill during the shoot, often directing while lying down.  He may have been barely lucid, but his imagination was running on all cylinders.   What we get is literally a fever dream put to film.  

The last time I watched it, and I’ve seen it many, many times, I was actually afraid it was starting to make sense.  I picked up on some threads I hadn’t noticed before.  It was heartbreaking.  I didn’t want the story demystified; unfathomable mystery is part of its charm.  To my relief, I was wrong; the movie didn’t make any more sense at the end than the first time I watched.  Maybe even less.

My favorite scene remains just as batshit insane as ever.  Skip this part if you haven’t seen the movie yet, it should be experienced unspoiled for maximum WTF impact.  The cat hating bookshop owner, Kazanian, is trying to drown a bag of cats in the pond.  Because they are evil, or annoying, or something.  Just as he pushes the bag into the middle of the pond, he is attacked by a hoard of rats.  He flops around in the water yelling for help.  A food truck cook hears him and starts to run across the park towards him.   It tensely cuts back and forth from Kazanian being gnawed on and the cook running to his rescue.  The cook reaches Kazanian just before he is overwhelmed by the rats, pulls him from the water, and then stabs him with his butcher knife.  Absolutely no explanation is offered.  We’ve never seen this cook before, and we never see him again.  It’s just a regular night in Witchville Park.

This is the first time I really noticed how much of a tool Mark is.  The sinister forces are always at least one step ahead of him.  He is more in the dark than the audience.  Any clues to what is happening, like his sister’s letter or the copies of the “Three Mothers” (which is more widely available in libraries and bookshops than you would expect for an ancient secret text), are taken away before he has the chance to discover them.  It’s probably why he lasts so long, everyone else who uncovers even a piece of the mystery winds up dead.  It’s like reverse exposition, the movie is actively taking away information that the hero needs.  At the end, when a major character reveals his true identity, Mark just looks on vacantly, because he had never heard of him.

I have a feeling I would have loved this one from the jump if I didn’t know it was a sequel to SUSPIRIA.  It doesn’t matter.  I gave it another chance, taking it for what it is rather than what I wanted it to be, and I loved it.  Going in blind may be the best way to see a movie, but the bigger the film, the harder it is to do these days.  So I try to keep my expectations in check and have an open mind.  Despite what Dalton from ROAD HOUSE says, sometimes it isn’t my way or the highway.

C Chaka

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