Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


English & Film Studies


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Paul Tiessen

Advisor Role

Thesis Supervisor


Inferno (1980) is a cult classic film written and directed by Dario Argento that both extends and resists the giallo genre. In the film, Argento continues his tradition of building a dense network of allusions that refers to his own and others’ films, as well as to canonical and ‘popular’ works of literature, politics, music, and film theory. The poetic effect of these elements, in combination with the film’s lack of continuity mechanisms, bizarrely detailed mise en scenes, gore-filled death scenes, and unpredictable and unlikely camera angles, both attracts and resists critical interpretation. The film’s penumbral location between categories of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art makes it a challenging subject of examination; in this thesis, I mean to increase our appreciation of the film’s rich level of interaction with other genres, media, and texts, as well as to experiment with my own interpretation and explication of some signs and codes operating within the film.

“Part I: Situating the art and the artist” establishes the generic context of the Italian giallo and introduces the somewhat divergent cultural milieu of high and low art in which we might encounter the film. As an organizational tool or framing apparatus through which an audience “reads” a film, genre is a critical factor that mitigates popular access and acceptance. While I discuss Inferno’s relation to the Gothic and melodrama in Part IV, its participation in, and resistance to, the giallo genre is particularly relevant to our discussion of high and low art. Following the summary of Argento’s oeuvre and an overview of existing scholarship concerning the director and film, I relate a number of provocative accounts of how the director, both personally and through his films, challenges social conventions.

In “Part II: Argento, Libere, De Quincey,” I reveal Fritz Leiber’s novel Our Lady of Darkness as an unacknowledged source for Argento’s film and outline how this discovery alters current critical accounts and evaluations of Inferno. Part II provides us with a foundation for understanding Inferno’s alignment with the Gothic tradition and resistance to the mystery structure, which I explore at greater length in Part IV. Inferno’s complex relationship with other texts lend richness to interpretations of the film; I illustrate this complexity by suggesting some potential links between the title of the film and other works, including Leiber’s novel.

“Part III: Reading Argento and his text” ascertains some conditions for reading the film, after providing a plot synopsis for my reader. In keeping with Barthes’ promotion of the “freedom of the reader” to explore and play with texts, I provide a number of experimental and sometimes contradictory readings of specific shot sequences in the film. This exercise reveals Inferno’s nuanced texture and openness to interpretation.

“Part IV: On genre” discusses how Inferno resists the rational and causal relationships underpinning the mystery, the generic tradition from which the giallo emerged in the 1960s. The film’s incorporation of key elements of the Gothic tradition leads into a discussion of the Gothic mode, in which I also refer to the psychoanalytic tradition of reading Gothic texts. In Inferno’s invocation of the Gothic, I find that the film operates by some of the same principles underlying melodrama, the theatrical antecedent to the Gothic novel. Using Brooks’ articulation of the “melodramatic mode,” I theorize how signs and codes function in Inferno.

In my conclusion, “Metaphysical Knots: The terror and pleasure of unstable signs,” I use Barthes’ concept of “parsimoniously plural” texts to reconcile the different approaches I have taken in Parts I-IV. Finally, I propose that Inferno’s diegetic and extra-diegetic resistance to linearity and causality illustrates a kind of Gothic economy, a system predicated upon repetition and exchange. With this proposal, I invite my reader to consider this thesis as a treatment leading to further critical exchanges and re-visions.

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