The Mother of Tears (La Terza Madre, 2007)

..Dario Argento’s fitful conclusion to the trilogy started with Suspiria (1976), and continued with Inferno (1980), is both an entertaining ghoul-fest and a let-down. Argento’s narrative begins with a nod to The Mummy (1932) when a buried sarcophagus and accompanying chest, unearthed by workmen and taken in care by a frightened monsignor, Brusca (Franco Leo), and sent for analysis by Michael (Adam James), an academic expert in the weird and obscure (how can I get such a job? does he have tenure?).
..When two art students, Giselle (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) and Michael’s girlfriend Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento), open the chest, they discover statuettes, a knife, and a garment that looks like it came out of a Target bargain bin. This awakens the title witch (Moran Atias), and her demonic minions, but they don’t settle for going for a little walk, no! Mater Lachrymarum definitely gets up on the wrong side of the bed, as she and her imps promptly eviscerate Giselle, smash her teeth, and strangle her with her own guts. Sarah flees the scene, aided by an invisible, supernatural helper.
..Police investigators, led by the spiffily polished hunk of mahogany Detective Enzo Marchi (Cristian Solimeno), suspect her of involvement, if not actually homicide. Michael investigates the chest's history, unearthing a history of of plague and destruction, as mass hysteria breaks out in Rome, rape, murder, and general mayhem infecting the populace, indicating the pattern of evil that follows the chest is repeating.
..Michael’s baby daughter is snatched by the supernatural minions to keep him silent long enough to work their misdeeds, and he soon disappears in trying to locate her. This leaves Sarah alone in attempting to unravel the mystery of Mater Lachrymarum and her own long-dead mother Elisa’s (Daria Nicolodi) legacy. Elisa died in battle with Mater Suspiriorum, but not before leaving her in the gnarled state she was found in by Suzy Bannion at the conclusion of Suspiria. She gains some assistance from lesbian white witch Marta Colussi (Valeria Cavalli) and vital advice from old-book-toting sages Father Johannes (Udo Kier) and alchemist Guglielmo De Witt (Philippe Leroy).
..The Mother of Tears retains a likeably retro cheesiness from the Euro-Horror of the ‘70s and ‘80s, with awkward dialogue and crappy dubbing in the supporting cast, sick charm in the largely analogue make-up effects, a tacky throw-it-at-the-screen approach to gore, and a perhaps deliberately non-eerie evocation of the supernatural (the prowling hordes of gothy bitch-witches in the film suggest rejects from the last St. Trinian’s film rather than the harbingers of chaos). Some scenes, like a climactic sado-masochistic orgy, and a memorably cruel sequence in which Marta and her girlfriend are gruesomely dispatched, with the third Mother on hand to lick the salty tears dribbling from Marta's face as she expires from having been vaginally impaled, display a pathological intensity of bleakly sexualized horror.
..As questionable as Argento’s misogynistic flourishes (the moment you see Marta’s girlfriend, you know we’ll have a gratuitous bed scene as a precursor to vicious slaughter) have always been, he does female protagonists well, with a constant motif of manichaeist doubles in fraught conflict (and often, as in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) or Tenebre (1982), proving to be contained by the same body).
..Dario sets up a potentially interesting contrast of wicked and good mothers competing for Sarah’s soul and the fate of the world – given extra charge by Nicolodi, Asia’s real-life mother, playing the role, in a film directed by the father Asia once rebuked for constantly casting her in gruesome psychodramas. The film is punctuated by extraordinary moments of intra-family violence (one mother drops her baby off a bridge; another eats her daughter and slaughters her priest/patriarch) that hint that a total assault on the family ideal is one of the last great taboos left.
..Unfortunately, Dario never does anything with this: it’s just a jolt of melodrama fuelling a harum-scarum thrill ride. His insistence on a dramatic arc, and a protagonist worth worrying about, is a bulwark to the increasingly gruelling, opportunistic nature of modern horror. But his slapdash approach to story development – major character Michael disappears from the film and only turns up when it needs another bogeyman, the subplot of his kidnapped child left totally severed – and an air of concession to the freak-house sensibility of Fangoria readers means that he doesn’t conclude his trilogy with any air of individuality.
..One too many old guys explaining the plot reeks less of a classicist sense of genre tropes, and more of uncertainty how to sustain the film between set-pieces, without a crucial sense of slowly revealed labyrinthine ways - the quality that's so hypnotic in both Suspiria and Inferno. Argento stages such scenes of pandemonium and grotesquery with aplomb, but doing full-bore apocalypse is beyond his scope, and, tragically, he displays none of the same intricate stylishness of his early work, which once made up for his disinterest in story.
..If the first two films in the trilogy are models of gothic artfulness realised in contemporary environments, and films like Suspiria and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage are rich and rare works of cinematic pop-art, The Mother of Tears is, in this regard, a total dud as a follow-up, lacking their games of perception, the inspiration in staging, and the inventive use of the cinematic canvas. In Bird and Suspiria, other art forms fuse with the cinematic style: here, despite Sarah’s metier, no effective dialogue develops between art and life, past and present: not even, indeed, despite the references to the earlier movies in the trilogy, with its own precursors.
..Mother pushes, regardless of fumbled story points and missed opportunities, giddily onwards with a kind of frantic, nightmarish enthusiasm, but runs headlong into anti-climax. The Mother of Tears herself is effective when barely glimpsed, but when she finally materialises, she proves to be a fashion model with too much eye-makeup, who ought to be gyrating in an ‘80s music video. Bringing her down proves a laughably easy affair. For a situation that has generated real menace. The very end, abruptly curtailed, where hero and heroine laugh in relief after escaping from a tunnel of bobbing body parts, encapsulates both a winking self-mockery and the dishevelled remnant of a great talent.
..Still, for all its faults, I can’t entirely put The Mother of Tears down, because it does what it does with gusto, and a sense of its audience as participants in its circus of the naughty. Nasty as he can be to his characters, Argento still seems to love the people who watch his films.
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