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Dario Argento has evolved. Not until nearly the end of his new film, Mother of Tears, does a frightened but irritatingly determined woman go wandering through some labyrinthine structure whose location or significance isn’t quite clear. This time, there are no blasts of red and blue so conspicuous they should be credited as characters. And, more shocking, the real characters—when they’re not being atrociously murdered—actually talk. A lot.
Ciao, giallo. Looks like Dario Argento has seen Saw.
Mother of Tears is the final installment of the Italian horror master’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, following 1977’s Suspiria and 1980’s Inferno. But besides being a continuation of Argento’s co-written mythology (Tears lists an unbelievable four writers in addition to the director), the third film feels quite different from the other two, a more stylish and sorcerous take on torture porn that you might expect from Eli Roth after an extended European vacation.
The biggest surprise is Argento’s swap of atmospherics for narrative. In Suspiria and especially Inferno, the legends of the Mother of Sighs and the Mother of Darkness were loosely told, the gist being that they each presided over their respective houses in Germany and New York, sowing death and destruction. The Mother of Tears, meanwhile, resided in Rome—these witches are quite cosmopolitan—and at the beginning of the new film, her spirit is unleashed when a couple of dumb museum workers open a recently unearthed urn. One of the employees is soon killed. (That’s a more polite way of saying she took a fist-wide screw through her throat and was then strangled with her own intestines.) The other, Sarah (Asia Argento, stiff as ever), escapes the hooded posse and evil monkey (!) that did it, with the help of a voice that opens formerly locked doors for her and instructs her when to run.
The police pretty much think Sarah’s nuts, and so does she. Her boyfriend, museum head Michael (Adam James), however, recognizes what’s happening when all of Rome goes into a homicidal frenzy and a group of shrieky women show up to annoy people in airports and on the street. Somewhere far from prying eyes, meanwhile, a chick with fake knockers and a great ass slips on a T-shirt-like talisman that’s been taken from the urn. By the sounds of her cackles, she’s not a Playboy model but Mater Lacrimarum herself, and her reunion with the conveniently sexy red frock is apparently all that was required to cue the mass mayhem. Sarah, of course, needs to figure out what it’s all about, and in her cryptic visits from one random character to the next she discovers that her own mother, killed when she was young, was a white witch.
Despite Mother of Tears’ more linear storyline, however, the details behind the evil mean less than the deeds themselves, and the film’s success will depend on your taste for the extremely grotesque. With the exception of a couple scenes of true eeriness and some stellar scares, Argento mostly goes for the jugular. And the gut. And the eyes—boy, does he like gouging folks in the eyes. Children are tossed over bridges and cleavered into bits; skulls are crushed over, and over, and over again. The violence, it must be said, is occasionally inventive, but ultimately it’s gratuitously stomach-churning and too often feels like warmed-over Jigsaw. Worse, a few of the effects are old-school horrible. Sure, CGI can look too slick. But a fake head is a fake head, and unless you’re trying to be campy, in 2008, it just looks ridiculous.
Claudio Simonetti, a frequent Argento collaborator, supplies the score, which also has been turned down a notch on the giallo scale and is significantly less intrusive than in the first two films. Argento was consistent with one aspect in the Mothers trilogy, however: The ending of Tears is abrupt and absurd, reinforcing the idea that the director’s works are to be savored for their ambience, not their intellect.