A thematic sequel to Suspiria (1977), the film is the second part of Argento's "The Three Mothers Trilogy". The long-delayed concluding entry, The Mother of Tears, was released in 2007. All three films are partially derived from the concept of "Our Ladies of Sorrow" (Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum, and Mater Tenebrarum) originally devised by Thomas de Quincey in his book Suspiria de Profundis (1845).
Unlike Suspiria, Inferno received a very limited theatrical release and the film was unable to match the box-office success of its predecessor. While the initial critical response to the film was mostly negative, its reputation has improved considerably over the years. Kim Newman has called it "...perhaps the most underrated horror movie of the 1980’s.” In 2005, the magazine Total Film named Inferno one of the 50 greatest horror films of all time.
Rose Elliot (Miracle), a poet living alone in New York City, discovers an ancient book called The Three Mothers. It tells of the existence of three evil sisters who rule the world with sorrow, tears, and darkness. The book, written by an architect named Varelli, reveals that the three dwell inside separate homes that had been specially designed and built for them by the architect in Rome, Freiburg, and New York. Rose suspects that she is living in one of the buildings and writes to her brother Mark (McCloskey), a music student in Rome, urging him to visit her. Using clues provided in Varelli's book as a guide, Rose searches the cellar of her building and discovers a hole in the floor which leads to a water-filled ballroom. After accidentally dropping her keys into the water, she enters the flooded room. Swimming under the surface, she sees a portrait bearing the words "Mater Tenebrarum" and is able to reclaim the keys. A putrid corpse suddenly rises from the depths, frightening her. She escapes, although a shadowy figure watches her leave the basement.
In Rome, Mark attempts to read Rose's letter during class. He is distracted by the intense gaze of a beautiful student (Ania Pieroni), who's revealed to be Mater Lachrymarum (The Mother of Tears). When the class ends she leaves suddenly; Mark follows, leaving the letter behind. His friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) picks up the letter, and eventually reads it. Horrified by the letter's contents, she takes a taxi to the Biblioteca Angelica and locates a copy of The Three Mothers. While looking for an exit, Sara is attacked by a monstrous figure who recognizes the book. She throws the book to the ground and escapes. Later that night, she seeks the company of a neighbor, Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) and both are stabbed to death by a gloved killer. Mark discovers the bodies and two torn fragments from Rose's letter. After the police arrive, he walks out of Sara's apartment and sees a taxi slowly driving by. In the back seat of the vehicle is the music student, staring at him intently once again.
Mark telephones Rose but is unable to hear her clearly. He promises to visit just before the connection fails. Cut off, Rose sees two shadowy figures preparing to enter her apartment. She leaves through a back door, but is followed. In a decrepit room, she is grabbed from behind by a clawed assailant and brutally murdered.
Upon arriving in New York, Mark meets some of the residents of Rose's building, including a nurse (Veronica Lazar) who is caring for the elderly Professor Arnold (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.), a wheelchair-bound mute. Mark learns from the sickly Countess Elise (Nicolodi) that Rose has disappeared. Elise explains how Rose had been acting strangely. After the two find blood on the carpet outside Rose's room, Mark follows the stains. He suddenly becomes ill and falls unconscious. Elise sees a black-robed figure dragging Mark away, but the figure suddenly stops and gives chase to Elise. She is attacked by dozens of cats, who bite and claw at her flesh. The hoo
ded figure then stabs her to death. Mark staggers to the house's foyer where the nurse and caretaker (Valli) put him to bed.
The next day, Mark asks Kazanian (Sacha Pitoëff), the antique dealer who sold Rose The Three Mothers, about Rose. However, the man provides no information. That night, Kazanian drowns several cats in a Central Park pond and accidentally falls into the water. Hundreds of rats from a nearby drain crawl all over him, gnawing his flesh. A hot dog vendor hears Kazanian's cries and rushes over. The man kills Kazanian with a knife.Carol, the caretaker, discovers the horribly mutilated corpse of Elise's butler (Leopoldo Mastelloni) in the Countess' apartment. Shocked, she drops a lit candle which starts a fire. Attempting to put out the flames, she becomes entangled in burning draperies and falls from a window to her death. Meanwhile, Mark uses a clue from Rose's letter to discover that beneath each floor is a secret crawl space. He follows the hidden passages to a suite of rooms where he finds Professor Arnold. The old man reveals, via a mechanical voice generator, that he is in fact Varelli. He tries to kill Mark with a hypodermic injection. During the struggle, Varelli's neck becomes caught in his vocal apparatus, choking him. Mark frees him, only to be told by the dying man, "Even now you are being watched." Mark follows a shadowy figure watching him from the doorway to a lavishly furnished chamber, where he finds Varelli's nurse. Laughing maniacally, she explains to him with growing intensity that she is Mater Tenebrarum. She suddenly transforms into Death Personified. However, the fire that has consumed much of the building enables Mark's escape from the witch's den. As the structural integrity of Tenebrarum's home fails, debris crashes down on the fiend, destroying her.
In 1977, Suspiria had been an unexpectedly big box office hit for Twentieth-Century Fox, released in the U.S. under their "International Classics" banner. Capitalizing on the commercial success of the film, Argento and Daria Nicolodi, who had co-written the screenplay, announced that Suspiria was only the first of a proposed trilogy, which they referred to as "The Three Mothers" trilogy. The basic concept of all three films is derived from Thomas de Quincey's Suspiria de Profundis, a sequel to his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. A prose poem of the book entitled "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow", details how, just as there are three Fates and three Graces, there are also three Sorrows: Mater Lachrymarum (The Lady of Tears), Mater Suspiriorum (The Lady of Sighs), and Mater Tenebrarum (The Lady of Darkness). As the title suggests, Suspiria focused on Mater Suspiriorum, and the evil sister featured in Inferno is Mater Tenebrarum. The concluding chapter of Argento's trilogy, The Mother of Tears (2007), is about Mater Lachrymarum.
When Argento proposed Inferno as his follow-up to Suspiria, Twentieth-Century Fox agreed to co-finance the production. The film was budgeted at US$3,000,000, and producer Claudio Argento secured additional co-production money from Italian and German consortiums. Nicolodi devised the original story concept, but received no on-screen credit for her work on the screenplay. Nicolodi explained that she did not seek credit because "having fought so hard to see my humble but excellent work in Suspiria recognized (up until a few days before the première I didn't know if I would see my name in the film credits), I didn't want to live through that again, so I said, 'Do as you please, in any case, the story will talk for me because I wrote it.'" Working from Nicolodi's original story notes, Argento wrote the screenplay while staying in a New York hotel room with a view of Central Park.
The filming of Inferno took place mainly on interior studio sets in Rome but a short amount of time was also set aside for location shooting in New York, including Central Park. Sacha Pitoëff's death scene was filmed on location in Central Park during the summer of 1979. William Lustig, who was credited as the film's Production Coordinator, recalled:
They filmed the actor carrying a bag that contained some kind of moving mechanism, to make it look like it was full of cats. He walked into the lake, pushed the bag underwater, and fell in. At that point, some phony, mechanical rats were attached to him for closeups. When the guy at the hamburger stand runs over the lake... that guy was actually running on a plexiglass bridge under the water; it made it look like he was actually running across the surface of the lake. All of the stuff with the live rats was shot back in Europe.
Argento invited his mentor, Mario Bava, to provide some of the optical effects, matte paintings, and trick shots for the film. Some of the cityscape views seen in Inferno were actually tabletop skyscrapers built by Bava out of milk cartons covered with photographs. The apartment building that Rose lived in was in fact only a partial set built in the studio—it was a few floors high and had to be visually augmented with a small sculpture constructed by Bava. This sculpture was set aflame toward the end of production and served as the burning building seen in the climax. Bava also provided some second unit direction for the production. Maitland McDonagh has suggested that Bava had his hand in the celebrated watery ballroom scene,] but that sequence was shot in a water tank by Gianlorenzo Battaglia, without any optical effects work at all. Bava's son, Lamberto Bava, was the film's assistant director.
The film's fiery final sequence was shot without a stunt performer filling in for Leigh McCloskey. After the production's principal photography had been completed, the film's producer, Claudio Argento, asked if McCloskey would be willing to perform the stuntwork himself, as the stuntman hired for the job had broken his leg. The producer assured the actor: "It'll be absolutely safe." The actor agreed, and when he walked onto the set the following day he observed "three rows of flexiglass in front of everything and everyone is wearing hard hats. I'm the only guy standing on the other side of this!...Needless to say, I did it all on instinct...I still feel that blast of the door blowing by me. When they tell you in words, its one thing, but when you feel that glass go flying past you with a sound like a Harrier jet, you never forget it!"
During the film's production, Argento became stricken with a severe case of hepatitis, and had to direct some sequences while lying on his back. At one point, the illness became so painful that he was bed-ridden for a few days; filming was then restricted to second unit work, some of it done by Mario Bava. Argento has repeatedly called Inferno one of the least favorite of his films, as his memories of the movie are tainted by his recollection of the painful illness he suffered.
For reasons never specified, Fox did not commit to a wide theatrical release of Inferno in the United States. In an interview with Maitland McDonagh, Argento speculated that Fox's decision was made due to an abrupt change in management at the studio that left Inferno and several dozen other films in limbo as a result of them having been greenlighted by the previous management. The movie sat on the shelf for five years and was released straight to videotape in 1985 via the studio’s Key Video subsidiary. The following year, it had a belated theatrical release by Fox, playing for a one week engagement in a New York City movie theatre. Worldwide, the film only had a very abbreviated and minimal theatrical release. Consequently, Inferno was not a commercial success. EnlargeR1 DVD coverInitial critical response was fairly muted. Several reviewers expressed disappointment, comparing the film unfavorably to the much more bombastic Suspiria. Scott Meek in Time Out said that of the two movies, Inferno was “…a much more conventional and unexciting piece of work…the meandering narrative confusions are amplified by weak performances.” In a review that was later reprinted in McDonagh's critically acclaimed Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (1994), Variety said Inferno was “A lavish, no-holds-barred witch story whose lack of both logic and technical skill are submerged in the sheer energy of the telling”, then complained that the film “fails mainly because it lacks restraint in setting up the terrifying moment, using close-ups and fancy camera angles gratuitously and with no relevance to the story.” Reviewing the film during its brief theatrical release in 1986, Nina Darnton of The New York Times noted, "The movie's distinguishing feature is not the number or variety of horrible murders, but the length of time it takes for the victims to die. This is a technique that may have been borrowed from Italian opera, but without the music, it loses some of its panache....The film...is shot in vivid colors, at some striking angles, and the background music is Verdi rather than heavy metal. But the script and acting are largely routine."
Inferno continues to have a mixed critical reputation. The film has a 60% favorable rating on the "Tomatometer" at Rotten Tomatoes, out of ten surveyed internet film reviewers. But several critics have praised the film. Upon its initial release on videotape, Tim Lucas in The Video Watchdog Book said “The movie is terrific, much more exciting than most contemporary horror video releases…” Kim Newman, in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, noted that Inferno was “…a dazzling series of set pieces designed to give the impression that the real world is terrifying, beautiful, erotic and dangerous…Inferno is a masterpiece of absolute film, and perhaps the most underrated horror movie of the 1980’s.” Nathaniel Thompson, reviewing the DVD of the film on his Mondo Digital website, said it was "a dazzling, stylish feast loaded with some of Argento's strongest visual strokes of genius. Designed more or less as a sequel to Suspiria (which focused on Mater Suspiriorum, or the Mother of Sighs), Inferno is a more challenging and languid affair..." Shane Dallmann noted on Images Journal that "Inferno is a film of sparse plot and indelible imagery...the combination of lighting, camerawork, design, decoration, and shock effects is indescribable in print but will not soon be forgotten by anyone who experiences it....Inferno functions on the level of a nightmare in all respects. Disturbing, unexplained images, such as a brief shot of a young woman hanging herself, occasionally punctuate the on-screen action, while the characters find themselves unable to react appropriately to the situations they encounter.
Dario Argento chose progressive rocker Keith Emerson to compose Inferno's soundtrack because he "wanted a different sort of score [from that by Italian progressive group Goblin on Suspiria], a more delicate one".
Argento prominently featured a selection from Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco throughout Inferno, the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves ("Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate"), an operatic chestnut, from scene 2 of the opera's third act. In two instances, a recording of the Sinphonic Orchestra and Chorus of Rome was used. Argento also tasked Emerson with including the piece in his soundtrack. He re-orchestrated "Va, pensiero..." in five-four time to mimic a "fast and bumpy" taxi ride through Rome. When Argento reviewed Emerson's progress he did not initially recognize the remix, but was later pleased to discover it was used for Sara's taxi ride.
Emerson's music met with a mixed response from critics, some of whom compared it unfavorably to Goblin's score for Suspiria. Time Out's Scott Meek noted that "Argento's own over-the-top score [for Suspiria] has been replaced by religioso thunderings from the keyboards of Keith Emerson". A review of the 2000 Cinevox CD from Allmusic notes, "The keyboard selections are rather unremarkable, except for the finale, "Cigarettes, Ice, Etc.," on which Emerson uses his full keyboard arsenal to excellent effect. Unfortunately, the choral segments sound rather pretentious and dated." In a review of the Anchor Bay DVD, Michael Mackenzie of DVD Times opined, "The music is more or less adequate and at times adds to the tension, but it frequently contradicts what is happening on-screen, and is certainly nothing when compared to Goblin's soundtrack for Suspiria." While Guido Henkel of the DVD Review website wrote that Emerson's score was "a beautiful and impressive piece", he felt that "[t]he music is poorly spotted and too often cues are placed where they shouldn’t be, or placed so that they actually break tension rather than help building it.