It is that time of year when all the youths dress up in ghoulish costumes and ambulate from door to door expecting tricks or treats; when sheeted ghosts and jointed skeletons adorn the walls, and gossamer cobwebs festoon the corners and ceilings. It is also the time when, according to the ancient Celts, the line between the world of the living and the world of the dead was thin, and nightmare legions of demonic spirits walked the dark autumn landscape.
Now, most are familiar with the early Celtic holiday of Samhain, so I will not discuss it here. I, personally, prefer Hallowe’en to Christmas, but even the October holiday has become saccharine and commercialised; the ghosts and witches that the Celts dreaded as they roamed the dark night have become mere decorations, but this is not the place to lament the present state of Hallowe’en (remember Conal Cochran?).
But even more than Hallowe’en, what I love about October, and autumn, is the sense of encroaching darkness, of ember vistas as the orange sun sets like a fire in the leaden clouds, of fallen dead leaves, of the lingering air of melancholy that ushers out the relaxed and ecstatic aroma of summer, like a grand palace fallen into decay after being occupied by dark and sullen poets. Artists and poets have captured the plaintive attraction and splendour of autumn, and people flock to the parks and countryside to witness the trees turn copper. Autumn, then, more so than any other season, truly is the season of poetry and mystery; the colourful sights of summer and spring and the snowy ambience of winter bow down to autumn’s wistful majesty.
To return to Hallowe’en, it is customary for everyone to watch horror films at this time. A popular name is the celebrated Italian giallo filmmaker, Dario Argento. Mr. Argento has received near universal praise for his stylish and visually impressive horror films, particularly Suspiria (1977). I, however, cannot count myself among his dozen admirers. Admittedly, I have only seen two of his films (discounting films that he has worked on and produced, but not directed), but the first one I watched, Deep Red, did not impress me at all. I have often thought that Mr. Argento’s films, whilst interesting on a visual level, are completely devoid of heart or soul or feeling, the three qualities that, I feel, make art more compelling. Many of the artists I admire had something to say, some burning message within their tortured soul, or created their art with passion. Mr. Argento’s films, however, strike me as little more than cold-blooded excuses to see women — and sometimes men — gruesomely butchered. The films of his contemporaries, Mario Bava, Michele Soavi, and his much-maligned rival, Lucio Fulci, on the other hand, seem to me to be more substantial on an emotional level — Fulci, in particular, strikes me as a haunted men exorcising his personal demons through violent cinema.
The accursed New York hotel where INFERNO takes place. G.I. Gurdjieff apparently once stayed here.
The only Argento film I have any liking for, and even that is flawed, is 1980’s Inferno, a dazzling tableaux of magical and macabre spectacles inspired by Thomas de Quincey’s strange, incantatory essay, Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow. If Mr. Argento’s reputation was based solely on this film, then it would be justifiable. It is replete with his customary gory murders, and the (anti)climatic reveal of Death almost ruins what has been an otherwise sloppy yet terrific fil, but I know of no other horror film that references the Armenian-Russian spiritual mystic and teacher, George Gurdjieff. My favourite scene — perhaps among my favourite scenes in any film — is when one hapless character, looking for a book about the demonic Three Mothers in a grand library, stumbles upon what appears to be an alchemist’s laboratory in the basement. I consider this film to be superior to Suspiria, which, in my opinion, is overrated nonsense. In theory, I should like and appreciate Suspiria, but, as it happens, there is little heart in this film. The late Joel Lane, as fine a commentator and critic as he was an author of fiction, shared my disliking of the 1977 film. I believe it is also to be remade and released sometime in the foreseeable future, with Tilda Swinton possibly playing the main antagonist. As much as this is yet another painful example of Hollywood’s self-cannibalizing, I do wonder if they will succeed where the original failed — that is, on an emotional level. I strongly doubt it will capture Mr. Argento’s visual flair, but let us hope that Miss. Tilda Swinton can add some of her signature elegance and distinctiveness to what is likely to be another uninspired horror film.
The Book of the Three Mothers, written by an architect and alchemist named Varelli.
So, overall, my favourite Dario Argento film is Inferno, even though it is far from perfect. It has one of my favourite film scenes of all time: a hapless young woman clutching the Three Mothers book stumbles into an alchemical laboratory in a New York library basement. The unseen, clawed alchemist, upon recognising the tome the intruder carries, pursuers her before she narrowly escapes; but, as ever in Mr. Argento’s world, no woman is safe. Much better than Suspiria, Inferno is, in my opinion, Dario Argento’s magnum opus and a masterpiece of dazzling, arcane horror that seems to have been abstracted from a dying alchemist’s fever-dream.
An alchemical bookbinder at work in his laboratory.