Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Mother of Tears (2007) dir. Dario Argento

Logline: When art restoration specialist Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) cracks open an ancient box containing the magic cloak of the mythical witch Mater Lachrymarum, the world starts going to hell. Literally. Murderous mall goths, furry disemboweling monsters, and a pesky screeching monkey are only some of the horrors Sarah will have to face as she works with the sparkly ghost of her dead mom to send the Mother of Tears back to the evil dimension from which she sprang.

It's not as if there was any way that this could have turned out well. Filming and releasing the concluding chapter of a trilogy over 25 years after the previous installment hit screens would be an artistic gamble for a director whose career hadn't devolved into utter tripe, and so this effort from Dario Argento-- whose career by 2007 had long been demonstrating some arguably tripe-like qualities-- was doomed from the start. So why did he wait this long to make the The Mother of Tears? Glancing at its tortured pre-production history, we see that the film could have been made as early as 1984, when Argento and his former wife and collaborator Daria Nicolodi had finished a draft of the screenplay. But for whatever reason it wasn't, and it took a couple more decades of drafts and false starts before it materialized. Perhaps it took Argento and his collaborators that long to crack the film's story, but that argument implodes on itself when one watches The Mother of Tears and observes that it boasts the same basic structure as the previous installment, Inferno (1980), but with a more pronounced apocalyptic emphasis. A more likely reason is that it took those decades elapsing (and the critical regard of Argento's back catalogue rising) before any studios would dare pledge him the funds for another supernatural romp. Despite its recent appreciation, Inferno was a critical and box-office failure upon release (going straight-to-VHS in the United States, no less) and may have soured Argento's producers and financiers (and perhaps to some extent himself) on pursuing the surreal fantasy horror mythology he began in Suspiria (1977) with another loose sequel. It's telling that his immediate followup to Inferno, 1982's Tenebrae, was-- despite its being named after one of the Three Mothers-- a back-to-basics giallo. But the notion of a third film never totally faded, and by early 2006 it had acquired its financing from both Italian and American production studios and was on its way to being born.

What rough beast was born out of this deal is a melange of Argento's various periods and styles, all blurring and blending together into a frenzied, volatile, and yet often silly attempt to recapture the favorable critical regard of earlier years. There's decided effort here from Argento (in contrast to some of his other recent works) and this effort results in The Mother of Tears being a provocative film-- one that occasionally brushes up against the aesthetic chills of Argento's peak-- but it's never a satisfying viewing experience, and far less of a satisfying trilogy capper. Like Inferno, it's a messy, at times inscrutable fairy tale, but what coherence Inferno gained from its nightmare logic is traded in for the cheap but nonsensical magical wizardy of Mother of Tears, by which Asia Argento's character can become invisible when she concentrates really hard and the shimmering, floating ghost of Daria Nicolodi can manifest at convenient moments to drag demons down through a craggy portal to a computer-generated hell. These new elements feel frighteningly unimaginative-- the stuff of a lazy fantasist who has chewed on a few too many magical beans-- and those other fresh ingredients added to Argento's stew (like flesh-munching zombies and sudden demon face jump scares) are swiped directly from modern mainstream horror's typical bland entrees. (Credit where credit is due: The Mother of Tears was prescient in one aspect. It presented a series of wildly humorous unexplained mass suicides and murders-- including an uproarious scene in which a new mother throws her literal baby doll off a tall bridge-- a whole year before M. Night Shyamalan would concoct the same in his enviably insipid new comedy classic The Happening (2008).)

The "new things" that The Mother of Tears does it does poorly, without artistic finesse or the proper reverence for what had come before. (The film explicitly retcons the events of Suspiria in order to give a secondary character in this one a more prominent role, it recasts Udo Kier and Daria Nicolodi as entirely new characters from their previous appearances in the trilogy, and it banks on the fact that the viewer won't recognize how fundamentally similar its plot is to that of Inferno.) But, then, the whole ordeal is sort of worth it to glimpse the director's dark dreams alive on the screen once again, however fleetingly: an early scene, in which half-seen demons disembowel a young art curator in a museum and Asia's character, catching sight of the carnage, attempts to silently flee while being sniffed out by a cackling monkey, is the most suspenseful and visually appealing he's captured in over a decade. But that scene's existence within the film is more disheartening than anything else: the nicest thing one can say about The Mother of Tears, as a whole, is that it has its moment.

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