Monday, October 27, 2008

Who wants to eat the girl?

The recent work of Dario Argento reminds of Trainspotting's Sick Boy and his theory that all great artists decline with age. Watching Argento, a master stylist, reduced to making thrillers involving internet poker makes one approach each new film with trepidation. This is especially true of Mother of Tears, the long-awaited conclusion of Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy. The first two chapters, Suspiria and Inferno, are perfectly realized cinematic nightmares made by a more inventive, audacious Argento, and there was hope that Mother of Tears would mark a bold return to form. Unfortunately, Mother of Tears is a missed opportunity, a sometimes entertaining splatterfest that never comes close to the earlier films' macabre elegance.

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.


Anonymous said...

Argento's filmography is all over the place. Suspiria is his best film in my opinion. You know what I did like though (dare I say it)?

His Masters Of Horror entry "Jenifer."

Although the best episodes in that series (being the GIANT John Landis fan that I am) were "Deer Woman" and "Family."


Andrew Bemis said...

I haven't seen Jenifer - I was wary of MoH after the very disappointing Cigarette Burns, but maybe I'll have to check more of them out.

Paul C. said...

I just caught up with Tenebrae this past weekend, and it was awesome. Probably the best Argento I've seen so far- stylish, bloody, and about ten kinds of crazy. Here's my review:

Also, I haven't seen any second-season episodes of Masters of Horror, but both the Lucky McKee and the Joe Dante episodes from season 1 were pretty great.