Magic Flounders All Around Us… Dario Argento’s MOTHER OF TEARS Reviewed

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DVD. Region 2. Optimum. 18.

After a quarter of a Century’s teasing, here it is… the “thought you’d never live to see it” conclusion to Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy kicked off by the audio-visual assault dished out to viewers in Suspiria (1976) and continued in the stylishly enigmatic Inferno (1980.) The first of those dealt with the Mother Of Sighs (running a ballet school in Friburg as a front for her malevolent coven) while its successor concerned the Mother Of Darkness, up to God-knows-what in an apartment block built for her by the alchemically-inclined author and architect Varelli. Inferno gave us a preview glimpse of the Third Mother (in the succulently pouting form of Ania Pieroni) but Argento cooled on the idea of completing the trilogy, perhaps because the second instalment (despite its ongoing cult following) did pretty much zip commercially and possibly on account of his estrangement from former muse Daria Nicolodi, who maintained a creative and financial stake in the franchise. Every so often, Argento would express an interest in reviving the project (invoking such intriguing prospects as Jennifer Connelly playing the weep inducing witch) though one always suspected that these announcements amounted to little more than ploys intended to prop up interest in a directorial career that was going rapidly off the boil, reaching its stone cold nadir with the cinematic triptych (Trauma / Stendhal Syndrome / Phantom Of The Opera) that was intended to launch the acting career of his and Daria’s daughter, Asia.

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Meanwhile Nicolodi and Argento acolyte Luigi Cozzi collaborated on the latter’s
De Profondis aka The Black Cat (1989), a typically confused and confusing Cozzi effort which starts as an unofficial and uninvited conclusion to Argento’s occult odyssey before mutating (at the insistence of paymasters Cannon) into one of the countless Poe adaptations that were littering contemporary screens, with a squirt of Philip K. Dick introduced, a propos of nothing, at the death (which it effectively was for Cozzi’s directorial career.) That oddity notwithstanding, the trilogy has lacked a proper crowning piece… until now.

So why now? (where “now” = 2007) Perhaps John Moore’s 2006 Omen remake was a particularly big hit in Italy (certainly should have been, featuring as it does the godlike thespian genius of our old pal “John Morghen” / Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Whatever… does Mother Of Tears pass its MOT test? Surely there must be more substance to it than to Cozzi’s undoubtedly entertaining but ultimately shambolic concoction? Well no, not really, though of course a senseless schlock-fest from Dario Argento is always going to be an altogether more polished and up market proposition than one by his erstwhile assistant.

The action (and boy, there’s a lot of it) kicks off with the exhumation of a monk and a sealed casket covered in occult runes during the development of a piece of land outside Rome.  At the Eternal City’s antiquities museum, professor Giselle Mares (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni from Opera and Demons 2) and her assistant Sarah Mandy (Aaargh, it’s Asia again) open the casket but soon wish they hadn’t. The former is disembowelled and strangled with her own chitlins by cultists who want the contents of the box (a red, rune-covered robe, a fuck off ceremonial knife and several grotesque fetish figures) to facilitate the revival of Mater Lachrymarum’s  dark powers. As Rome descends into violent chaos, Sarah is obliged to confront the oncoming Apocalypse with the aid of her own rapidly awakening magic powers and the advice and encouragement she receives from pop-up blurry visions of her dead mother (Nicolodi, looking in every respect a shadow of her former self).

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“Hey, did you ever see that film, The Beyond?” “Never mind that… you can see our house from here!”

From here on in, up to the film’s arbitrary anticlimax, Argento packs in plenty of mortifying violence. Taking its cue from Hostel and its ilk, also following on from his own contributions to the Masters Of Horror cable TV series, this is hands down il Maestro’s goriest offering yet and also establishes another personal record with unprecedented levels of female nudity…. very nice, too. Characterisation is as flimsy as ever… Sarah’s lover Adam James and cop Cristian Solimeno could easily be cut straight out of the picture without anybody noticing the difference. Unfortunately the same could be said for Udo Kier, his presence here a token attempt to invoke the glories of Suspiria. As Father Johannes he also gets to mouth lines from Inferno, when not ranting  about the onset of “The Second Age Of Witches” (sorry, the first one appears to have passed me by.) To be fair, Kier’s grisly demise (in a picture that’s not exactly short of them) does provide Mother Of Tears with one of its most memorable moments. Discovering his possessed housekeeper tucking into the corpse of her infant son, he registers his dismay at this turn of events and is promptly dismembered on the staircase with an opportunely placed axe, neatly referencing another classic moment of Spaghetti Splatter hysteria, his death scene in Margheriti and Morrissey’s Blood For Dracula, 1973 (commemorated below.)

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Mind the doors!

Sarah develops a similarly summary and cavalier attitude towards human life (a witch glares at our heroine on a train so Sarah squashes her head to pulp in a door… when her boyfriend expresses some vaguely pro-witch sentiments she sets fire to him!) as The Eternal City descends into the thrall of Evil,though this process is not rendered particularly convincingly.

Italian exploitation directors, God bless ’em, have always struggled to portray the onset of The Apocalypse in a believable manner… remember the climax of Fulci’s marvellous Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), where a frenzied voice over attempt to convince us that New York is going into meltdown doesn’t quite gel with the closing visuals, in which shit faced deadsters stagger over the Brooklyn bridge while traffic proceeds in a perfectly orderly fashion beneath them? And what of Enzo Castellari’s New Barbarians (1982) and its post nuclear ilk… don’t start me! Similarly, Argento’s vision of “the second fall of Rome” comprises people scuffling on street corners as Asia walks down the road, and heavily made-up sluts in Goth gear shouting drunken abuse at passers-by… Dario, if I took you for a drink down my local high street next Saturday night you’d see far worse, mate!

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Girl Power spirals out of control in Mother Of Tears…

When Sarah seeks help from two of her mother’s spooky friends, a couple of lesbian witches, one has eyes gouged out and the other is fucked to death with a harpoon! Sarah must rely on her own burgeoning paranormal powers to locate the ongoing Sabbat in Rome’s catacombs that is responsible for all of this nonsense. In fact, all she has to do is follow a bunch of Hell’s Harpies then wade through showers of shit and pools of human offal (Jennifer Connelly did all of this and more for Argento in Phenomena and eventually won an Oscar, so maybe it’ll do the trick for Asia too) before witnessing the Satanic knees-up in question, which comprises mainly Hostel-style dismemberment plus some far out and, for the most part, physically impossible sexual unions (this stuff looking like out takes from Bran Yuzna’s Society) presided over by Ma Waterworks herself, in the sumptuous form of Israeli model / actress Moran Atias. “Who wants to eat the girl?” she asks her followers, indicating Sarah’s prone form (I’ll pass on Asia, who looks a bit sinewy, but would happily accept an invitation to a fish supper from Ms Atias anytime) before the good guys snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in improbable fashion.

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Mama Mia!

OK, let’s run down some of the problems with this picture… the misconceived fumetti inserts stick out like septic thumbs, the pointless outbreaks of CGI look more than ever as though they’ve been included just to keep FX man Sergio Stivaletti happy, DP Frederic Fasano’s attempts to invoke the cinematography of Suspiria and Inferno come across as distinctly half-assed and Claudio Simonetti’s “Original” Sound Track is similarly regurgitative of former glories. Once again Argento moves his camera around in disappointingly pedestrian style… no abseiling over the Konigsplatze here! As an unexpected plus point though, Asia didn’t grate on my nerves anything like as much as usual!

Does MOT make any kind of “sense”? Clearly not, though exactly same charge could be levelled at its highly rated predecessors. Does it employ everything but the kitchen sink (and that’ll probably turn up in some future “director’s cut”) en route to a finale that fizzles out like a wet fart? Sure, but again that’s entirely consistent with the first two-thirds of the series. In its general tone, is Mother Of Tears “like” Suspiria and Inferno? No (in fact there are closer parallels with the La Chiesa / La Setta brace that Argento produced for Michele Soavi in the early ‘90s) but then Suspiria and Inferno were hardly “like” each other, where they?

As I post this review, Luca Guadagnino is directing an Argento-approved reboot of Suspiria intended for release forty years after the original. I seriously doubt that anybody will consider it worth their while to remake Mother Of Tears in 2047.

MOT is crisply transferred in its original screen ratio (2.35:1) for Optimum’s DVD release. Bonus material is restricted to a theatrical trailer.

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Don’t like the look of yours much…

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