Wednesday, October 23, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: Mother of Tears

Beware the law of diminishing returns. The three years between ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’ saw a quality depletion from one of the all-time great horror movies to a very good but not great horror movie. The twenty-seven years between ‘Inferno’ and ‘Mother of Tears’ took Dario Argento past his final triptych of great movies (‘Tenebrae’, ‘Phenomena’ and ‘Opera’), through a decade of relative disappointment (‘Two Evil Eyes’, ‘Trauma’ and ‘The Stendahl Syndrome’), to the abject nadir of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. ‘Sleepless’ in 2001 was a decent enough reminder of his giallo supremacy but nothing special, while his best work of that decade was arguably a couple of for the TV show ‘Masters of Horror’.

By the time ‘Mother of Tears’ was released in 2007 there was plentiful evidence to consider Argento a spent force, while the fact that he’d finally deigned to complete the ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy (sequels or sequentiality are present nowhere else in his filmography) was enough to hold out hope that this might, finally, be a long hoped-for return to form.

Entirely devoid of baroque stylisations or extravagant camerawork (Argento hasn’t delivered anything truly special on a visual level since the heroine-steps-into-painting set piece in ‘Stendahl’), ‘Mother of Tears’ nonetheless starts out with a certain amount of promise as a churchyard excavation unearths a chest containing arcane artefacts that sends the local priest into a proper tizz. Next thing, Mater Lachrymarum (Moran Atias) is back in town and Rome is in the grip of suicide, violence and nihilism. This particular sequence kicks off with an act so unspeakable, and yet communicated so casually, that for one disturbingly glorious moment the Argento of old is back in all his glory.

Sadly, it doesn’t last and ‘Mother of Tears’ very quickly strikes an awkward balance between exploitative violence (there is gore aplenty but little of it delivered with the imaginative verve of, oh, any of the murders in ‘Deep Red’ for instance) and abject stupidity. Examples: Mater L gets her powers back by donning a red dress (supposedly centuries old) but it’s got sparkly disco writing on and doesn’t even cover her ass); Mater L’s acolytes regroup in Rome, but fly in and charge through the airport looking like they’re in town for a goth-themed hen party; Rome is being ravaged by anti-social behaviour yet taxis can still be flagged down at a moment’s notice and phone boxes remain unvandalised). Also, why do so many characters rely on phone boxes when they’re all shown using mobile phones elsewhere?

Equally annoyingly, the Varelli backstory is deviated from, establishing a discontinuity between ‘Inferno’ and this film that’s as pronounced as the discontinuity between ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’. On the plus side, ‘Mother of Tears’ returns the trilogy to a female protagonist – art student Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) after Mark Elliot’s bland hero in ‘Inferno’. However, it departs from chiefly locating the action in one of the Mother’s houses (Mater L’s pad doesn’t show up till almost the final reel) in favour of a city-wide theatre of action which the film quite patently doesn’t have the budget to achieve.

Beyond inheriting a poisoned chalice in having to fill the boots of ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’, ‘Mother of Tears’ doesn’t do itself any favours by bringing to mind several of Argento’s earlier, better films: Mater L has an almost psychic connection with a monkey (shades of ‘Phenomena’), a lesbian couple are attacked in their home (a la ‘Tenebrae’), Sarah spends several minutes exploring an old dark house (pace Marc Daly in ‘Deep Red’), and there’s a basement full of maggoty slime (‘Phenomena’ again). Likewise, the reuniting of Argento and composer Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin fame) recalls iconic collaborations while actually delivering something utilitarian and forgettable.

That ‘Mother of Tears’ is the weakest of the ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy is no real surprise. That it’s Argento’s best film of the last decade and a half is just plain depressing.


Tim said...

There is just no upshot to watching this movie. You're right that it's better than a lot of Argento's stuff leading up to it, but it's so much easier to compare it his good films that it feels harder to get through. Phantom is unbearable, but at least it feels like something inexplicable and random. Mother of Tears is so obviously a Dario Argento film, and that makes it a much sadder experience for me.

Neil Fulwood said...

Absolutely. The fact that it completes the only interconnected sequence of works within Argento's filmography - the first of which, 'Suspiria', is an outright masterpiece - doesn't allow for any dissociation the way 'The Card Player' or 'Phantom of the Opera' does. And at least 'Phantom' has that utterly bonkers moment with the souped up golf cart vacuuming up rats from the labyrinthine corridors.