The flicks of Dario Argento, the legendary Italian horror director, seem to be an all or nothing proposition. His work is either utterly brilliant, such as the justly praised classic Susperia, or they are abysmal, such as the absurd and tedious Stendhal Syndrome. Unfortunately, Inferno, Argento's follow-up to Susperia and the second film in the Three Mothers trilogy, firmly belongs in the latter camp.
Inferno involves a young woman who, after reading a book about the sinister Three Sisters, becomes convinced that one of the creepy witches is trapped in the basement of her New York apartment building (New York being played by sound stage in Italy). This is bad news as, not only are the Three Sisters the very personification of fear and death, but they also make your neighborhood stink. Seriously. Because our curious heroine knows too much, she's quickly dispatched by the forces of eeee-vil. Enter her brother, who has the raw on-screen charisma of a man who has accidentally stumbled onto a movie but has decided to make a go of it. This dramatic null-value will finish his sister's investigation and, ultimately, come face to face with the almost scary witch.
The problems with Inferno are, it seems to me, endemic to Argento's entire body of work. As a director, Argento relies on visual bravado to charge through plots as thin and full of holes as a deli-sliced sliver of Swiss. Sometimes, this strategy works. In Susperia, the lavish sets and beautiful imagery take our mind of the fact that you don't even have to pretend to know what is going on to enjoy the flick. In some instances, Argento even manages to turn his fairly weak narrative sense into a dramatic strength. There's something fairy-tale like about the creaky plotting in Phenomena that adds, rather than detracts, from the film.
Problem is that Argento's visual sense is not always up to the challenge. Compared to sets of Susperia, which are like some Beardsley illustration come to life, the apartment sets of Inferno are mundane and timid. Where expressive lighting drew you deeper into the phantasmagoric world of the former film; in Inferno you're more likely to find yourself wondering why somebody painted all the street lights of New York City red. Unable to lull to viewer with the hypnotic force of his style, Argento leaves us free to puzzle over dead end subplots, details that never add up, and plot twists that are more confusing that shocking.
I've got no beef with putting style before substance. If you can make it work and that's how you want to swing, that's cool. But if that's the plan, you have to carry it off, and that's a lot harder than it sounds. Argento's done it before, but he doesn't do it here. Using the hard-hitting Cast of the 1913 Silent Film Classic The Rose of San Juan Film Rating System, I'm giving Inferno a weak Vivian Rich.