Mother of Gels

Inspired by our enjoyable viewing of SUSPIRIA in Bologna, we looked at Dario Argento’s follow-up, INFERNO (1980), which I hadn’t seen since around 1989, and which Fiona had never seen. I mainly remembered the bad bits, in particular the terrible cats-and-rats sequence in which the creepy bloke from MARIENBAD perishes in a heavily rodent-infested Central Park, crying, “The rats are eating me!” And the shifty butler overacting. And the crap skeleton saying “You mean you still don’t understand?” which it turns out doesn’t quite happen.

What DID happen was remarkable — by sheer coincidence we put the film on during a lunar eclipse AND a thunderstorm, and both a lunar eclipse and a thunderstorm are featured in the movie. And then our Tonkinese cat, Momo, who never watches television usually, started acting very strange during the cats-and-rats scene, prowling around the room and looking behind the TV in search of the source of all the mammalian vocals.

(I don’t now why Argento always has these animal atrocities in his films, they’re rarely convincing. The glove puppet seeing-eye dog in SUSPIRIA, and here, the cats being thrown at Daria Nicolodi (then Mrs. Argento), with the animal handlers’ hands actually visible onscreen, and then the rats that mainly just look confused. And none of it has anything to do with the “plot”. Maybe this helps: composer Simon Boswell remarked, “Dario is the only person I know who is regularly attacked by his own cats.” )

“I hope the house doesn’t burn down,” I said, after all these other coincidences. After the film ended, we became conscious of very loud engine noise coming from outside. We had the windows wide open due to the heat wave. I looked outside and saw three fire engines.

Building on the mythos invented for SUSPIRIA, Argento introduces the architect Varelli, responsible for constructing three witch houses –one of these burned down in the previous movie but the other two, an art deco palaces in New York and a creepy library in Rome, are encountered here. We seem to be following in the footsteps of ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE SEVENTH VICTIM, while anticipating GHOSTBUSTERS.

It’s Take Your Cat to Class Day, didn’t you know?

One thing that’s missing amid the supersaturated colours and moderne design is an interesting central character. Jessica Harper had worked wonders giving humanity to Argento’s sanguinary excercises du style, and poor Leigh McCloskey and his Action Man mustache aren’t up to the job, but then he never gets much to do and the movie keeps abandoning him so it can show some minor character getting stabbed up or defenestrated in flames. It’s not really McCloskey’s fault.

I did come around to Argento’s demented dialogue, though. A lot of what seems like sheer silliness or ineptitude may be entirely deliberate. My friend Alex had spoken enthusiastically of the bit in SUSPIRIA where Udo Kier says something like, “Of course there’s no such thing as witches. My friend will explain all that to you,” and then his friend appears as if by magic and says, “Yes, there are witches. It’s a house full of witches,” and Udo just smiles and nods as if this is what he’d expected to hear.

Why is that good? First, consider this quote from the Maestro ~

“I’m searching for panic, which is at another level to terror, it penetrates even further. If one wishes to compare panic to fear, we can say that fear is a 38-39 degree fever, while panic is 41 degrees. Therefore, it’s delirium”.

Now apply your memories of fever to this dialogue from INFERNO’s awkward elevator conversation ~

Nurse: “His name is Professor Arnold, he’s been quite ill for many years. And you, what do you do?”

McCloskey: “Oh, I’m a student. Musicology.”

“Oh, wonderful! A professor of toxicology. We know two other young men who -“

“No, no, it’s not toxicology. Musicology. It’s got nothing to do with medicine.”

“What is it then?”

[rather brilliant confused pause by McCloskey] “The study of music.”

“Oh yes, your sister’s involved in rather strange work too.”

“Strange? No, she writes poetry.”

“Oh. Yes, a pastime especially suited for women. Goodbye!”

Let’s just agree that this is, in fact, brilliant. McCloskey being prey to various unexplained ailments in the course of the “story” allows us to see this as a fever-dream dialogue whose demented improbabilities open portals to altered states of conversation. It makes us feel out of it. The words are wrong, the attitudes are wrong, and the voices don’t seem to emanate from the characters’ mouths. We’re sweating through a heat wave right now, so that only added to the feeling of roiling confusion.

Then there’s the strange superimposed titles, ostensibly giving us time and place as these things normally do ~

   

But, brilliantly, April (the cruellest month) has no story significance at all, and the film’s insistence that this is “the same night in April” is REALLY wacky, since the character above just got off the phone with her brother in Rome — obviously it’s the same night, since we’re in the middle of  continuous transatlantic conversation. Evidently, Argento’s mind doesn’t work along conventional narrative tracks, as if that wasn’t obvious from all the cobwebby stuffed crocodiles and gratuitous Verdi, and Keith Emerson’s score that seems to fold together Jerry Goldsmith’s OMEN theme with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. But maybe, just maybe, Argento understands normal human thought well enough to send it crashing off the rails with deliberately skewed narrative devices and exchanges.

It’s a theory, anyway.

        

(Poor old McCloskey, come to New York to investigate his sister’s disappearance, just like Kim Hunter in THE SEVENTH VICTIM, never does find out what became of her. Would having her corpse pop out at him sometime be too much to ask?)

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4 Responses to “Mother of Gels”

  1. Leigh McCloskey is far more at home HERE (a made-for-TV classic which also features the last performance of the great Jean Hagen)

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    When running Tsui Hark’s DANGEROUS ENCOUNTERS OF THE FIRST KIND my two cats similarly freaked out during a very brutal feline sequence that was obviously real.

  3. Some of the Inferno cats did NOT look happy.

    I just started reading The King in Yellow which is very Argentoesque (I’m sure he knows it) and it has a dwarf called Wilde who regularly provoke his cat into savage attacks on his person. Also, he has wax ears. Argento ought to have filmed it. Yellow in Italian is… giallo.

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