This time last year, enervated by the hollow experience of watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and then energized by a late-night viewing of John Carpenter’s lovely and terrifying The Fog, I began a week-long blog expedition to reclaim horror for myself, with a little help from my friends, of course. Sure, the films we discussed were recommendations to readers, but also ways to revive our own enthusiasm for a film genre that seemed to be either treading water or had descended into empty, gory nonsense. Of course, a year hasn’t made much of a difference. From the derivative insults and camptastic idiocies of Joshua to the useless “verité” of 28 Weeks Later to the tired excess of Robert Rodriguez’s waste-of-space half of Grindhouse, Planet Terror, and, finally, to the granddaddy of all badness, the loathsome, self-congratulatory Hostel Part Two, 2007 hasn’t exactly been a banner year for horror. Sure we had The Last Winter (but for God’s sake, we recommended that last Halloween), the tidy French import Them (but for God’s sake, too tidy!), and Rob Zombie’s expertly ruthless Halloween redo (but for God’s sake, it’s the eighth Michael Myers movie … or something). But two of horror’s essential elements, surprise and the unknown, seem to be in short supply.
These days the gritty, grimy, and handheld seem to be the prized aesthetic virtues of the horror film, and this pretty on-the-nose visual approximation of what “horror” is supposed to be has all but destroyed the possibility of beauty out of the genre. And whatever qualms I’ve had in the past about the nearly pathetic storytelling abilities and barely interested characterizations of Italian horror director Dario Argento seem to be dissipating with each passing year. At this point, I’d sacrifice ten motivationally sound, “realistic” scare machines for just one example of a horror film with the exquisite formal control of Argento in his heyday. The luscious Suspiria is rightfully lauded as his most tightly composed widescreen pleasure, Deep Red may have some of his most memorable death scenes and something nearing an actual protagonist, and Opera certainly remains his most eye-popping, literally and figuratively, yet upon this week’s viewing, Inferno seemed to me to be his most consistently gorgeous—it’s basically an endless series of dazzlingly colored and framed compositions, and it glides from one terrifying set piece to the next with devil-may-care fleetness.
The plot is, of course, a big, sweaty wad of dumb, but in the face of such a carefully crafted hallucination, why bother with such niggling details as coherent story? Meant to be watched late at night, and often through protective fingers, Inferno is the second in Argento’s haphazardly conceived “Three Mothers” trilogy, after Suspiria and before The Mother of Tears, his long-gestating conclusion, which, this year, finally premiered to the usual mix of cheers and chuckles at the Toronto Film Festival. It has something to do with a coven of evil witches who control powerful outposts in Freiburg (Suspiria), Rome, and, in this case, a suspiciously, gorgeously artificial version of New York City. Illuminated by bordello reds and emerald neon greens, this Manhattan is made up of basically a single block, containing a gothic apartment building, and Central Park, realized as a dreamlike composite, shot in Rome with New York skyscrapers superimposed around its perimeters. It’s dazzlingly cheap stuff, and when its lead “characters” skulk and are stalked around its environs, it seems as though it could all tumble into a sea of paper maché and cardboard at any moment.
Perhaps the lack of character is least conspicuous in Inferno because the film foregrounds its own attention to architecture and indeed, that’s where its horror derives from—like if Rosemary’s Baby had foregone its profound psychological terror and instead extended its opening credit sequence to become a visual essay on the Dakota building. Even more so than in its gruesome, creative killings, Inferno locates its fear through hallways, basements, shadows, colors, and crawlspaces. There’s a stunning bit of set design inside a mausoleum-like Roman library, which Argento surveys with a fascinated, lushly rising camera all the way to its disjunctively modern roof, and a truly unforgettable bit in which a regrettably nosy student goes diving into an underground room that’s been completely submerged in water. It’s tense, drawn-out, and paced to necessarily match the slowed-down underwater movements; while there’s a chintzy necessity to the filmmaking (there’s an obvious, if lovable, inability to capture the action from too many angles in such restricted spaces, resulting in limited coverage) this scene gets at the basic, undeniable seriousness with which Argento makes his essentially ridiculous movies. He wants to scare you by showing you things you haven’t seen before, or perhaps couldn’t even have imagined seeing.
We’ll bring you at least a movie a night until October 31. And in case you missed last year’s great pumpkins, here are some handy Halloween links.
And no Halloween is complete without:
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
”Candy candy candy candy candy candy!!” (thanks to Sarah Silver)