The film opens with the discovery of an ancient urn that, when opened by art student Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento), unleashes an evil force spreads chaos and sensless violence Rome and threatens the return of Mother Lachrymarum (Moran Atias) and a "second age of witches." An early scene that ends with a curator strangled with her own innards is impressively sick, and Sarah's subsequent escape from the museum promises some of the fairytale atmosphere that made Suspiria and Inferno so distinctive. Sadly, any sustained atmosphere is in short supply here - visually, Mother of Tears is flat and strangely generic. The baroque cinematography and bold color palettes of Argento's best work is replaced here with an perfunctory visual strategy straight out of a Sci-Fi Channel movie. The scenes of ordinary citizens committing random acts of violence were a perfect opportunity for Argento to recapture the hallucinatory mayhem that made Inferno so brilliant, but he eschews tension, even creative bloodletting, for matter-of-fact gore. Mother of Tears is a thuddingly literal-minded betrayal not only of the earlier films' marvelously sustained dream logic but of Argento's initial inspiration - shouldn't any work inspired by de Quincey at least aim for the uncanny?
The absence of any of Argento's strengths also makes his weaknesses more obvious. The setup could have been effective, but when the "age of witches" is represented by a bunch of sneering Goths led by a usually-topless Mother of Tears, it's more hokey than eerie. The cast, even the usually interesting Asia Argento, look bored as they go through the paces. And while Argento has done wonderful things with low-tech special effects in the past, CGI proves to be an uncomfortable fit - it's obvious and only draws further attention to Argento's distressingly anachronistic attempts to be hip and contemporary. Worst of all, Goblin's Claudio Simonetti trades the unnerving soundscapes of Deep Red and Suspiria for a loud, oppressive and completely forgettable score.
There are a few things to enjoy in Mother of Tears: there are a few impressively sickening moments, and the orgies Mother Lachrymarum hosts in an underground dungeon are impressively kinky. There's also some fun to be had in spotting Argento's recurring fetishes and obsessions - Asia has another questionable gratuitous nude scene shot by her dad, Argento's still working through tortured relationship with Daria Nicolodi (Asia's mother in the movie and real life), and monkeys are still threatening. And when Argento nods to his past successes - the recitation of the Three Mothers passage that opened Inferno, Asia wading through a pool of human decay exactly like the one in Phenomena, the self-consciously too-happy ending reminiscent of Opera - I got a slight buzz remembering those films. Unfortunately, those moments play less like a variation on familiar themes (as they often did to great effect in Inferno) and more like a slapped-together greatest hits collection for an underserved fan base. Mother of Tears is just good enough to hope that Argento has another classic up his sleeve, but bad enough to realize what an unlikely bit of alchemy that would be.