Creature-Feature Conversations: Inferno

Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.

Inferno, 1981, Directed by Dario Argento

With guest reviewer Sean M. Thompson

Jonathan Raab: I have a lot of fondness for Dario Argento’s Inferno, as it is a strong example of supernatural Italian horror—and yes, I would consider it a giallo, even if the emphasis is on the occult goings-on rather than the black-gloved killer.

Inferno very much works as a sequel to Suspiria, and, depending on my mood, sometimes I like it more than its predecessor. But I will admit it is not quite as visually interesting or coherent as the original, although the luxurious red, pink, and blue-purple lighting is wonderful, and many of the apartment building interiors have a delightful Art Deco flair that evokes the dancing academy of Suspiria.

It’s hard to describe the film’s plot, or even what it’s about, really, but I suppose we should give it a shot. The film begins by immediately connecting itself to the mythology of the first film through overwrought exposition delivered to us via an excitable narrator reading from a book called The Three Mothers by E. Varelli, which describes three powerful witches in three great houses in the U.S. and Europe. Inspired by the book’s reference to keys hidden away in secret areas, our heroine decides to go bother the antique bookseller, then climbs into a hidden basement, and loses her snake charm in a flooded, underground chamber below that.

The scene is actually quite beautiful, with the water giving the submerged room and its contents an ethereal, dream-like quality that will hang over the rest of the film. It doesn’t really make any sense whatsoever, but the corpse that emerges from the depths is fantastic, and the idea of swimming through that water makes my skin crawl.

SEAN M. THOMPSON: I love that during the water scene in question the logic goes from, okay let me just stick my arm into this water and try to reach for my jewelry to immediately like, okay, well, one attempt did not work so let me just SUBMERGE MY ENTIRE BODY into this gross standing water, in a basement in New York City. Girl, that’s how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were born! Anyway, the scene is certainly interesting, even if it is just a ploy for Argento to begin the string of women in soaked-through dresses throughout this film.

Alternate movie poster for Inferno

I like Inferno well enough, but I have to admit I literally memory dump any semblance of the “plot,” as soon as I finish watching it. For instance, the next scene, where we cut to a middle-aged man who is apparently in college (sigh) named Mark. Yeah, I did not remember this scene at all.

Mark is studying musicology, listening to some classical, and he looks across the room to see a woman staring at him lasciviously… holding a cat. Because, you know, I guess in Rome they just let you take your pets into your university classes?

As you mentioned before, it’s hard to describe the film’s plot. Inferno is more about atmosphere, and those sweet, sweet red and blue Argento gels. The purpose of this university scene is to show that Mark, rather than being a CPA is in fact in college (sure), and has received a letter from his sister in NYC—the woman in the water from the earlier scene we now learn is named Rose. I mean, I think we learn that.

Damn it, there is a woman with a cat we keep cutting back to who disappears—you can forgive me if any other aspect of the scene is lost on me. I don’t really remember who this woman is supposed to be. Maybe she’s the lady from the next scene? Christ, I don’t know, shut up and watch the pretty colors.

JR: Funny you should mention memory. I’ve seen this film three or four times now, and, aside from a couple of set pieces (the underwater scene, Mater Tenebrarum’s transformation into Death), it’s like watching it for the first time, every time. That could have something to do with how the plot is structured: first we follow the sister, then the brother briefly, then his girlfriend (?), then him again, then the weird neighbor lady, then the brother again—with a few offshoots with side characters here and there.

I think the woman holding the cat in class is the Mother of Tears, the third mother-sister-witch, but I’m not really sure what she’s up to, to be honest. 

It’s also interesting that I don’t seem to have space for this movie in my head outside of the vague impressions of color and weirdness, as this film is very much about space. On Twitter a few weeks ago I was talking to people about “horror movies about architecture,” and Inferno certainly fits the bill. The setup is literally about the forbidden knowledge of the Three Mothers as recorded in a book by a friend of the architect who built their great houses—and the architect even plays a role in the film’s final act.

Inferno is obsessed with secret spaces, wings, holes in the wall, ventilation systems that allow conversations to carry at great distances, a labyrinthine library, the secret flooded sub-basement, and the black-gloved killer’s manipulation of locks, doors, and the crawl spaces of the apartment building itself. These spaces enable violence and magic to seep into the world of the protagonists, or, rather, represent the unreality that they have ventured into themselves. There’s a moment where one of the female leads cuts her hand on a glass knob that shatters, drawing blood, thus gaining her entrance to these esoteric passageways.

ST: Yes, and in this regard, Inferno works as a wonderful horror film dealing with architecture. Arguably, some of the buildings are more characterized than the people, much in the vein of an H.P. Lovecraft story. 

There’s a real dreamlike quality to the film. There are moments, for instance, when the character of Sara goes to the library, where it’s like one moment she’s in the library, picking up the book about the Three Mothers, and then she wanders into the basement, and really, barely even hidden is a passage to a basement lair. In the lair is supposed to be an alchemist or wizard of some sort—who then of course proceeds to shove her head into a vat of boiling liquid. It is an Argento film, after all.

I want to talk about the music in this film for a second. The soundtrack is, frankly, one of the more schizophrenic combinations in any of Argento’s oeuvre. Unlike the soundtrack by Goblin from Suspiria, Keith Emerson does the main score for Inferno, which is more of a traditional style of score, if not very operatic… until it isn’t. There is one track, and I swear to you, it is just the theme to a level of Sonic the Hedgehog 2.

This music in part seems to contribute to the scattered nature of the film, as the score goes from one style, to a completely different style, from scene to scene. It almost plays like the music from completely different films spliced together. That’s not to say I don’t like it, it just comes across as really odd at times. I mean, the whole movie is really odd, so it fits.

And man, this movie does not mind killing off characters. If there is a main character I suppose it’s Mark, but jeez, we’ll spend 20 minutes with someone just to have their head pushed into a vat of boiling liquid, or have them stabbed, or stabbed in a different way, or cut: there’s a lot of knife action.

A woman stands outside of the haunted apartment building.

JR: Speaking of knife action, I know there’s purists out there who don’t consider these movies as representative of Argento’s giallo work, but to me they are inseparable. There’s a black-gloved killer and faceless others, including the alchemist/weirdo in the library underhalls, who commit all sorts of gnarly violence against our protagonists.

Before we let this one go, I want to say that I really, really like this movie, and think it’s almost as good as Suspiria in its own right.

And I can’t wrap up this conversation without mentioning the cats. There is a cat-attack scene wherein I believe you can see someone’s arm in the frame, because they just throw cats at the poor actress or stuntwoman or whomever, and those cats look pissed. Then there’s the weirdo antiques dealer who drowns a bag of angry cats and then falls into the water and is attacked by rats. A nearby hot dog vendor, possessed by the power of the eclipse or something, rushes over to slit his throat. This is all displayed without context or explanation. Magnifique.

The film works for me because it’s a joy to watch. It’s a beautiful mess, one born out of Argento’s messed up vision and iteration on the more pure gialli preceding it. Head into this one ready to absorb it into your subconscious, because trying to interpret it as anything other than pure black-magic chaos might just leave you frustrated.

ST: I want to say I’m iffy on this film, except I’ve seen it like three damn times, or possibly even more? This is a slippery piece of cinema. Is it giallo? Is it merely supernatural horror? Is it architecture porn? Is it all of them? The point is, it’s entertaining, it’s bananas, and if you want a good film to laugh and make fun of, one you can also appreciate the cinematography of, Inferno is a great pick. I think Suspiria is the better of the two films, but, as stated, I could still watch this film over and over. And damn if it doesn’t make you want to binge some more Argento. Amen.

Sean M. Thompson is the author of the novel TH3 D3M0N, the novellas Farmington Correctional and Hate From The Sky, and the short collection Too Late. He has had stories featured in Vastarien, Unnerving, Letters of Decline from Orford Parish Books, Behold the Undead of Dracula and Terror in 16-bits from Muzzleland Press, and Test Patterns from Planet X Publications. Though a native of Massachusetts, he recently uprooted his life and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the air is as dry as his sense of humor.

Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.

Creature-Feature Conversations: Zombie Lake

French movie poster for Zombie Lake

Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.

Zombie Lake (aka Le Lac des Morts Vivants), 1981, Directed by Jean Rollin

With guest reviewer Mer Whinery

Jonathan Raab: I have so many questions. What’s your history with this movie? Why’d you subject me to… to whatever it was I just watched?

Mer Whinery: I first encountered this oddity back when I was probably around twelve-ish. That would make it 1983. This was the Platinum Age of VHS and video rental stores. We had this video store in my hometown called Nite Owl Video, and for years it was the only rental place in town.

Now, this was McAlester, Oklahoma and not Tulsa. The kind of flicks that came our way were often the underside of the barrel bottom. Like the grimy shit you would scrape off that barrel bottom. The best of these trashtastic turds arrived in the form of a big box cover, and the box would be this glossy and garish number designed to get your attention. The images on the front usually involved tits and blood and were obviously directed at a target audience of me and my friends. Two of the biggest distributors of this rancid output were Lightning and Wizard Video. This was the only sort of entertainment these companies put out. Such notable titles I saw in the format were heavily butchered Fulci films, City of the Walking Dead (aka Nightmare City), Alien Prey and… Zombie Lake.

I think it was the cover art that got me. It reminded me of the cover of another undead Nazi movie I like called Shock Waves, which I think Zombie Lake was trying to rip off.

The first few minutes I got to see boobies. I was sold. It’s a repeat player for sure.

I chose this because I was pretty sure you had never seen it. It’s really transcendent with how godawful it is.

The main zombie stumbling around outside.

JR: I wouldn’t put this on the same level of Nightmare City, which is far and away a more competent movie, but I won’t deny that this film is very entertaining, mostly because of how baffling it is.

You mentioned the nudity—and, yeah, it’s got a ton of that, as every ten minutes or so another woman is taking her top off and going skinny dipping in the titular Zombie Lake, aka Lake of the Damned, aka the most disgusting water I’ve ever seen. Usually the boobs are followed by the emergence of the zombies—schlubby actors in green makeup that is running off their skin, and wearing Nazi uniforms. The film barely tries to explain how it is these undead Nazi bastards are able to return to life, and, if I was inclined to give this movie any credit, I’d say that contributes to the dream-logic and nightmare atmosphere. Instead I’d attribute those characteristics to what I can only assume is a complete and utter lack of a shooting script.

MW: You said titular. Hehehe.

JR: I was hoping someone would catch that.

MW: Seriously though.

I attribute the quality of the atmosphere to the director, Jean Rollin. This was characteristic for most of his cinematic output. He cranked out mostly erotic lesbian vampire flicks, all of them well worth your time. I believe when this film first came out he released it under another name. It was definitely a paycheck movie for him, although Good Lord it had to have been like thirty bucks and a case of Natty Light at the most. The Spanish director Jess Franco was the original captain of this leaky vessel, and it would have been interesting to see what he would have done with this. Probably would have turned out much worse, as this was near the end of Franco’s artistic heyday. I think that died with his muse, Soledad Miranda.

Ah, the makeup. That, and the fact the film has an utter disregard for annoying things such as the laws of time and narrative cohesion are what struck me the most. Even as a kid, stuffing my face with nachos and RC Cola, I was baffled by this. But I was also drawn to it. This was seriously weird stuff for that time. Movies like this—Nightmare City, Gates of Hell—all had a serious impact on me creatively.

JR: I definitely felt like I was watching a “Mer Whinery” movie, for sure, as it’s gratuitous, violent, and over the top—although those are generally good qualifiers for your work. In this film’s case, those things kept it entertaining, even when the “violence” was just the zombies popping a squib pack on some victim’s neck.

Personally I couldn’t follow what the hell was going on, and I was paying attention. There’s a plot involving one of the zombie-Nazis falling in love with a local woman after the worst battle scene ever filmed, their daughter, his death at the hands of resistance fighters, those same resistance fighters not aging at all in the 40 years since, rumors of devilry and black magic, a college women’s basketball team, a news reporter who dies for no reason, a zombie-on-zombie fight that’s completely pointless, and the daughter of the Nazi trapping the zombies by offering them blood in a barn that is promptly torched by a flamethrower. What the hell, man.

Also, is it just me, or does the film portray the Nazis as the good guys, and the resistance/townsfolk as reaping what they’ve sown?

That seems like a lot, and it is, but that implies that any of this adds up to anything, which it doesn’t, not really. But at the end of all of this I have to say that I had a lot of fun watching this flaming garbage pile, and I would seek out the director’s other works. It’s an exploitation film held together by fraying duct tape, but it’s worth a watch. Final thoughts?

The flame-soaked finale of Zombie Lake.

MW: Yeah I still don’t get it. I don’t care either. It’s fine. The zombie vs zombie fracas was basically just some dude came up with the idea “Hey, we have 10 mins to pad this sumbitch up with. These zombies getting into tussle might be rad.” Kinda like the shark vs. zombie scenario in Zombie. Is it necessary? No. Neato? Yes. Same thing with all the useless T&A. Give them what they want, and they will come.

Zombie Lake is most definitely a product of its time. It kinda dwells in that dim shadowland between incoherent and unsettling. Another similar film is Burial Ground. Wow, talk about craptastic. The intention of these monstrosities was just to simply make money. Fast money. Like, just quickly make enough money for Rollin to enjoy a week in Thailand, pay off the studio’s organized crime benefactors, and then forget about it. This was the primary goal of most filmmakers who worked in the direct-to-video market of the 80s/90s. It don’t have to be good, it just needs to tickle the peculiarities of that target audience. What’s funny is some of these films actually turned out to be more than decent. Of course, this isn’t one of them.

It definitely holds a special place in my past. I watch it and I am immediately transported back to that time and place I first encountered it. Sounds weird, but I find watching it oddly comforting, although the sensible adult in me is shaking his head going, “Wow, this really is just utter pig shit.” 

Mer Whinery was born and bred in southeast Oklahoma… aka Little Dixie. He frequently dreams of empty, lonely houses filled with screaming ghosts. He is the author of The Little Dixie Horror Show, Phantasmagoria Blues and Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun.

Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.

Support small press horror—and your local book store or library!

I’m using a different distribution platform for Behold the Undead of Dracula. Although the Kindle version will eventually be available on the Big A, I wanted to try a more independent model for the paperback.

If you still want a copy of Behold the Undead of Dracula AND also want to support your local indie book store or library, request a copy through them! It nets us a sale, supports local horror literature peddlers—and gets you the best Gothic horror anthology to grace the shelves this spooky season.

Behold the Undead of Dracula
ISBN/SKU: 9780997080377
ISBN Complete: 978-0-9970803-7-7
Publication Date: 9/21/2019
MSRP: $14.99

Join us for NecronomiCon Providence Friday through Sunday!

The Stars are Right… Again!

You can find me (Jonathan) and Jared Collins of Mississippi Bones selling books Friday – Sunday in the NecronomiCon Providence vendors’ room, including advance copies of Behold the Undead of Dracula! Each copy comes with a download code for Black Mountain Transmitter’s soundtrack for the anthology!

We’ll also have copies of Freaky Tales From the Force: Season One, the Turn To Ash novel Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI, the Sheriff Kotto rock album Radio Free Conspiracy Theory, and more!

Additionally, I’ll be reading from Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI sometime between 1:30 – 2:45 PM @ L’Apogee, Graduate 17th Floor on Friday, so consider stopping by to show me some moral support and talk me out of going into an impromptu lecture about the “true nature of ufological activity” instead of reading from my novel.

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