In Suspiria (1977), we were treated to an opulent production design, the kind that makes a movie screen look twelve inches deep. Dario Argento’s love of color and textile showed up again in Suspiria’s unsung sequel, Inferno (1980), which was plump with beautiful moments: a tiered classroom ringing with Verdi, a woman swimming through a submerged rococo parlor, a man duck-walking through a crawlspace to the percussive impact Keith Emerson’s soundtrack. Both films traded primarily on their visual style, their score, and on a dreamlike atmosphere which lent credibility to their silly occult plots. The art-nouveau flourishes in Suspiria, the panning, gliding camera in Inferno, and the astonishing gel-work that visually links the two films never fell out of memory as we waited almost 30 years for Argento to complete his Three Mothers trilogy. The trilogy has now been hammered out, but the final installment, Mother of Tears, has none of the stunning moments of either of the first films, which is my biggest complaint; even Phantom of the Opera, as rancid as it was, had that eye-popping Turkish-bath set piece. Nothing really grabbed me, nothing sank claws into my memory bank — not even the Claudio Simonetti score, which tinkers with the sitar and mood and even the guttural whispers that Simonetti’s Goblin lavished all over Suspiria, but which never explodes. Mother of Tears is flat, pitiable and almost generic. It’s the kind of horror movie through which we cycle by the dozens in order to uncover the few prizes that addict us to the genre — only uber-fans will spot a glimmer of Argento in the hallmark composition, camera pans and kill scenes.
Mother of Tears opens outside a cemetery as a construction crew unearths a coffin buried on the wrong side of the gate. The coffin holds the body of a man who died in the early nineteenth century, after (legend has it) falling victim to a witch’s blight. Chained to the coffin is an ossuary, which a nervous priest sends to Rome’s Museum of Ancient Art. The box is examined by two archeologists who coo over the gem-studded medieval dagger they find inside, and the three stone fetishes, and the blood-red pagan tunic covered in script. When Sarah (Asia Argento) goes to fetch their dead-language dictionaries, the other archeologist (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) is attacked by a rout of ghouls egged on by a satanic monkey. I’ve never watched Argento for the gore, but I can report that splatter-hounds won’t be disappointed. Argento and his usual effects man, Sergio Stivaletti, blow their wads so you can blow chunks watching one woman get strangled with her own greasy intestines and another get impaled from vagina to skull. There are also plenty of gaping throat-smiles, and a torture tableau straight out of Bosch. Though it likely won’t be remembered as an iconic scene, the museum sequence is a strong enough open — probably the best part of the whole film — and worth repeat viewings for its solid Argento artistry. Asia Argento isn’t as oily as usual, here, and her character shows some wit by doing what a real, thinking person would do in her situation; when Sarah sees what’s happening to her coworker through a crack in the door, she silently retreats and takes off her noisy shoes before fleeing through the museum with the jerk monkey on her trail.
There was a lot of potential in those first fifteen minutes, which promised a better Argento film than we’ve seen in years — not least because of the meaty Three Mothers lore which he takes pains to connect back to the two earlier films. This was a movie built for the fans, no question, and it’s filigreed with allusions to Suspiria and Inferno, through story and participants. Along with Simonetti, Stivaletti, and longtime producer Claudio Argento, Udo Kier returns as an ailing exorcist, and Daria Nicolodi shows up as Sarah’s dead mother. It’s a shame that Nicolodi, a powerhouse behind the first two storyboards, didn’t lend her production talents to the third movie, whose final incarnation was scripted by others. Her creative input guided many of Argento’s best films of the 70s and early 80s and, like John Carpenter without Dean Cundey’s lens, or Wes Anderson without Owen Wilson’s pen, Argento without Nicolodi’s advice reveals the absurdity of the Great Man Theory and reminds us that creative clusters are bound to their time, place and company, and to whatever’s floating in the day’s ether. What might have been a tight little indulgence winds up being a lackluster exercise in naming off cities, characters and events from the first two films, with little actual reward.
Witchcraft, Catholicism, alchemy and occult violence may be overplayed in the genre, but they can lend good tone to a horror flick when handled well. When Sarah discovers her dead mother was a white witch, she begins to flex her own gifts against the black magic that gallops through Rome like an epidemic, causing women to toss babies over bridges and strangers to go rabid in the streets. The opening of the ossuary has awakened the power of the Third Mother, Mater Lachrymarum, the last surviving matriarch of sorrow. Witches from around the world begin to gather in Rome, but the witches are laughable; they’re Nomads’ punk-goth outsiders without the menace. The Mother of Tears herself is a disappointing lightweight, dubbed with a pipsqueak voice and way too bimbo to be imposing — at least the Mothers in Suspiria and Inferno had moments of growl, even if they weren’t convincing all the way to the finish. Mothers fare badly all around, actually — the spectral appearance of Sarah’s dead mom lacks affect, which is a must-have for screen ghosts. Atmosphere, in fact, is the major criminal absence in a movie that depends on one to fashion tension and make the hocus-pocus less nonsensical. Perhaps we’re just too inured, now, to covens, Gregorian chants, and title sequences of Medieval and Renaissance art depicting the torture of the damned. Or maybe it’s just a stupid, half-hearted film. Argento used to innovate, or at least take the innovations of others to delicious, shuddering extremes, like his famous crane-shot in Tenebre, his gel-work, his use of score, his kill scenes, his sinister close-ups of innocent objects, or his ability to establish an arcane mood. In Mother of Tears, he works with stale clay and fires up an imitation of lesser directors’ output, without decorating it with the aesthetic flourishes his knock-offs have always relied on for a pass.
Viewers who come to Argento for the first time via Mother of Tears might wonder what all the fuss is about. Argento’s flaws as a filmmaker are as notorious as his gifts, but those gifts were so hallelujah, back in the day, that they rained light and charm down on the defects and buoyed them up off the basement floor. Audiences were blinded by atmospheres and soundtracks so supercharged that thin acting, illogical leaps in character mood, and unsatisfying conclusions faded to gray (throw plot holes in with the negatives, if you must, but I believe that Argento’s best films have a perfect puzzle-logic if you really pay attention). But for one instance, Argento never worked with the same cinematographer twice between 1970 and 1982 (the period generally considered to be his finest); the startling composition found in every Argento film is a testament to the director’s own persistent eye for image. That much has been maintained over the years, and it adds a bit of luster to Mother of Tears, which boasts Roman cityscapes and a couple of balanced interiors (though nothing that rivals the interiors of Suspiria and Inferno, or the pristine modern sets of Argento’s early giallos).
Composition is the only thread that links his earlier work to his recent, which seems to be trying for a grittier, more realistic appearance. This isn’t a critique of change. Argento is entitled to evolve as a filmmaker and to deploy any aesthetic he chooses, even in a film meant to be part of a triad in which dream-scaping figures large. The problem here isn’t difference but execution. What Argento has been delivering stylistically in recent years fails to improve his films or to obscure the defects that have always been there to some degree. He’s not an actor’s director, or a storyteller, or a dialogue specialist, or a continuity technician, which are just some of the things a master filmmaker has to be. We’ve always watched Argento for what he’s able to do with a surface — we watch him for style and (if you’re in the mood to be taken) for tension. When he attempts nuance or minimalism or even restraint, his house of cards collapses into a mess of B-quality production values devoid of imagination. The center cannot hold, all is vanity, and I’m off to go bleed in a corner for having delivered such tart words about one of my favorite visual artists. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on June 9, 2008.)