Much anticipated by fans for many years now, "The Mother of Tears" — Dario Argento's third installment in his supernatural trilogy, which began in 1977 with the magnificent "Suspiria" — would seem fated only to disappoint after such a long time. Not only was the director at the top of his game and commanding some of the biggest audiences of his career back when "Suspiria" first appeared (although its Hollywood-leased 1980 follow up, "Inferno" was a flop in terms of box office), but the sheer visual opulence and the sweeping, kinetic confidence with which, in their day, both the first film and its follow-up blasted from the cinema screen , recalls a time when Argento, more than any other horror director before or since, seemed to bridge perfectly the gulf between an innocent golden-age of Italian Fantastique — embodied in the work of the great Mario Bava — with its colour-drenched painterly concerns with formal cinematic beauty; and the new age of shocks, gore and nastiness, which was fast becoming the norm in U.S. horror after the advent of the Slasher film and the Video Nasty "craze".
Looked at now, it seems unlikely that such an atmosphere could be picked up again, or recreated after a gap of over thirty years. Fans of the previous two films are bound to approach this late return to the subject matter with some degree of trepidation. The grammar of euro-horror, especially the combining of artistic beauty with the grotesque, does seem to be the product of another age. Argento's lack of concern with logical plot development or convincing dialogue has always been controversial; but those who accept his idiosyncratic style, which is nowhere more apparent than in the first two installments of the Three Mothers trilogy, will be apprehensive to know whether the director can even come close to recapturing the fairytale innocence of "Suspira" or the dreamlike logic of "Inferno", not to mention the sheer artistic splendour of both films (the two most visually pleasing in the Argento cannon).
During the interim, Argento's career has been patchy, with works spanning the highs of some of his best-regarded features, such as Inferno's successor, "Tenebre", and the almost universally declaimed "Phantom of the Opera". Argento has undoubtedly found it difficult to weave a course through the minefield of increasing expectations and the demands of long-term fans, and his own desire to move on and find new avenues of artistic expression. Ironically, a film such as the flawed but brilliant "The Stendhal Syndrome" was greeted with a mixture of confusion and outright suspicion when it first appeared (although its reputation seems to have grown somewhat since then), while the initially well-received giallo 'parody' "Sleepless" seems in retrospect an uneven and cynical attempt to pander to an increasingly unadventurous Argento fan base.
As his reputation has continued to grow among a core, cult audience in the "horror" community
(Outside Italy, the director can no longer expect to find a mainstream audience), the eventual appearance of a third film in the nominal Three Mothers trilogy seemed more and more like a sure bet. For years, the director was apparently dead set against it, especially around the time when he had to endure the most fan flack he has ever had to cope with, after the release of the derided (but I quite like it!) "Phantom of the Opera". But the fundamental premise of the first two films — that evil in the world stems from the machinations of three powerful witches known as the Three Mothers (The Mother of Sighs, the Mother of Darkness and the Mother of Tears — as inspired by a passage in Thomas De Quincy's "Suspiria de Profundis") — always cried out for a third entry, seeing as the first two films dealt mainly with the Mother of Sighs and the Mother of Darkness respectively.
So, the third entry finally arrives, scripted with the help of "Toolbox Murders" remake scribes Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch, employing key names from Argento's past, such as ex-wife Daria Nicolodi, and actor, Udo Kier — and with a score by long time music collaborator and ex-Goblin front man, Claudio Simonetti.
But does it work?
Opinion among Argento's fans seems to be split. But for me, this is definitely the best Argento film since "The Stendhal Syndrome" (speaking as someone who rates that film highly), and the most visually pleasing since "Opera". True, it is mightily flawed in places; and those fans expecting the film to look like "Suspiria" or "Inferno" will surely be disappointed. But it does have its own distinctive aesthetic look, equally as appealing in many ways, although far more subtle than were the previous two overtly painterly films in the trilogy. But this is the first Argento film in many a day to remind me of what got me excited about this man's cinema in the first place: the idiosyncratic obsession with and attention to such unlikely horror movie concerns as architecture, literature and art; the constant references to characters and situations from both "Suspiria" and "Inferno", tying them explicitly together for the first time (neither of the other two films really ever quoted each other) in an overarching mythos; the long tracking shots and distinctive, picturesque locations; not to mention obvious visual quotes spanning virtually the director's entire career. There is more than just intimation here of the baroque elegance of the director's better works. For the first time in ages, this actually feels like a proper Argento picture! (Unlike the rather dull police procedural of "The Card Player" which preceded it.)
The film doesn't start very promisingly though. After Simonetti's hideously bombastic Omen-style theme, the opening scene focuses on the discovery of a mysterious old casket in an old grave, which the presiding priest seals with candle wax and sends off to the Museum of Rome to be examined by his old friend, Michael Pierce (Adam James), the head of the museum's Antiquities Department — he apparently being more knowledgeable about occult and Alchemical matters. Late at night, inside the museum itself, we are introduced to archaeological student, Sarah Mandy (a rather ravishing looking Asia Argento, complete with disheveled Kate Bush-style hairdo!) and her supervisor, who just cannot resist taking a peek at the hidden sealed treasures within the casket, which turn out to be a bunch of etched stone daggers, a collection of grotesque-looking figurines and an old piece of robe with cryptic spells sewn into the material. Clearly never having watched any cheesy horror flicks in her life, the supervisor intones aloud the ancient "spells" while Sarah is off looking for some textbooks to help them interpret the discovery and, lo and behold, the most powerful of the three Mothers is unleashed on the world, heralding the second fall of Rome!
It's undeniably a bit of a disappointment to find such a hackneyed old euro-horror cliché at the centre of the plot. The dark fairy tale mysteries of "Suspiria" and the puzzles of architecture and alchemy inherent in "Inferno" are swapped for a rather dull premise more akin to Eighties' Fulci than prime Argento. Once the supernatural mayhem is let loose though, the film becomes a trek through the more cinematically pleasing streets of Rome as hoards of witches from all around the world descend on the City to welcome the return of the most powerful of the three sisters. The first murder set piece recaptures a lot of the director's former energy and adds more explicit gore than has been evident in his work for a long time. Gore has never seemed to me to be a major concern in Argento's work; his violence is choreographed with a stylised, balletic elegance that often brings a disturbing beauty to it, but usually without that much gory excess evident. But after the bloodlessness of "The Card Player", Argento was evidently concerned to pull out all the stops, and so the gore here and throughout is extreme, but also ridiculously OTT. Here again there are problems though. Danilo Bollettini and Sergio Stivaletti's special effects are hugely variable, ranging from the expertly realised to the strangely shoddy and fake looking. With KNB producing such consistently outstanding work for Eli Roth and many others (including Argento in his "Masters of Horror" episodes), some of the stuff here is unacceptably bad, looking like some of Lucio Fulci's hurried, late period work. Particularly poor and tacky is a sequence where one of the witch’s followers gets her head repeatedly slammed in a train door.
Where the film does win out though is in its disregard for normal plotting, concentrating instead on having Asia Argento's Sarah Mandy move from one set piece to the next in her quest to destroy the Mother of Tears, while the witch's followers peruse her across Rome, wreaking havoc wherever she goes. Logical plotting has never been what Argento's cinema has been about, so resolving things into a series of scenes involving a bunch of odd characters who might have information that will help Mandy in her quest, gets around this problem while freeing Argento to concentrate on what he does best. Thus, we get many memorable sequences full of outlandish magical conceits which make no sense in normal plot terms, but which work perfectly in the context of the strange half realistic, half shadowy fairyland, which the film seems to occupy. Along the way, Sarah Mandy encounters a lesbian white witch, a wheelchair-bound alchemist with a paralysing spray, a gaggle of New Romantic (?) witches, the reanimated corpse of a former lover and the wispy spirit of her dead mother (who turns out to be a former foe of Suspiria's Mother of Sighs), played by Asia's real-life mother, Daria Nicolodi (look out for the touching family photographs on display in one scene), who appears from out of a magic powder puff (?!) to help her daughter with advice, and provide her with the power of willed invisibility (???!!).
The film possesses a likable, almost naive charm that will endear it to fans of classic Eighties Italian horror flicks like "Demons" or "The Sect"; films not afraid to topple into utter camp ludicrousness on occasion. Yet, at the same time, Argento adds a tough, rather disturbing angle to this fantastical element: if the film's "mothers" represent evil, then the innocence of children gets dealt with incredibly brutally in this film: a baby is tossed off of a bridge by its nanny (the head slamming against a stone pillar before it plunges into the water); Sarah's boyfriend's child is kidnapped and cannibalised by witches; and a flaxen-haired, angelic-looking infant has his head bisected with a hatchet by a possessed mother! It's brutal stuff, and perhaps provides a more achievable representation of the second Fall of Rome considering the rather paltry budget Argento had to work with here. Other than that, the supposedly riotous behaviour that is meant to be taking over the city looks no worse than a Friday night out in a typical English town!
Although the film's cinematography looks far more naturalistic than either of the other two films in the trilogy, the final showdown between Sarah and the Mother of Tears, which takes place in a dilapidated villa reminiscent of the one seen explored by David Hemmings in "Deep Red", introduces a subtle colour-scheme composed of a luminous moonshine blue that alternates sporadically with a burnished copper-gold glow emanating from the shadowy catacombs beneath the dingy old dwelling (formerly a base for Satanic Nazi rituals, we're informed!). It is quite classy, and, together with the film's carefully judged Rome locations, serves to recapture that unique air of sophistication possessed by all the best Argento films. Most of the other indoor set-piece locations are equally as impressive. The half-lit echoing corridors of the Museum of Rome may provide an obviously suitable setting for an Argento murder but, elsewhere, every wall space seems to teem with interesting art or with book-crammed shelves. (One chase sequence even takes place in the rather unlikely setting of a bookshop!) It seems all of the protagonists or victims in this film are dedicated book and art lovers, and so the camera gets to lovingly track along book and painting-lined walls in almost every scene, a production design decision that subtly adds to the film's mise-en-scene of cultured elegance amid a chaotic, brutal, supernaturally wrought bloodshed.
It isn't all good of course, and there are a few puzzling missteps (besides those few poor make-up effects) which detract from the film's overall impact. Worst of all, perhaps, is the rubbish Mother of Tears herself: played by a middle-aged actor with a bad boob job! The finale, which sees Sarah do battle amid a witches orgy of writhing naked bodies, is totally ridiculous, and the method she uses to finally defeat the mother of all evil on earth is pathetically ad hoc. I won't give away the end here, but it would have had me laughing out loud if I wasn't so disappointed in such a lazy ending to an otherwise enjoyable experience (although the 'outré 'phallic' symbolism contained in it was enjoyable!). Other badly judged decisions stem from a bizarre obsession with Eighties fashion that all the witches seem to possess (does Argento think the Eighties revival is a Satanic conspiracy or something?). It certainly adds to the film's retro Italian horror vibe, but seems to stray too far into camp territory — something the other two films never did, despite all the usual issues with English dubbing and illogical plotting which always get brought up by Argento detractors. Simonetti's score can often be grating, with far too much over-scoring present, although it can also be sublime, particularly in a sequence where Asia re-enacts' the iconic taxi rides of "Suspiria" and "Inferno".
Overall though I was impressed with this film as a return to Agento's roots after a number of years seemingly floundering without direction. As a third offering in the trilogy though, it is some way behind its companion films.
Optimum Releasing provide a nice clear anamorphic transfer, preserving the film's original 2:35.1 aspect ratio (nice to see the director return to this ratio by the way!). Aside from a trailer though, this is a bare bones release.