Monday, June 09, 2008

Review: Mother of Tears

What exactly went wrong with Dario Argento's latest offering? The conclusion of his "evil mothers" trilogy which also includes his masterwork Suspiria and the underrated Inferno leaves a great deal to be desired. It makes the viewer wonder if the great Italian horror maestro simply called "action" and then walked outside for a smoke or to get a pack of cheez-its from the vending machine. It's still early yet, but I'm willing to label Mother of Tears the biggest cinematic disappointment of 2008. In fact, I'd even be willing to call it one of the lousiest films I've ever had the misfortune of seeing in a theater.

Anyone who's seen any of his films will be able to tell you that plot and character development aren't Mr. Argento's strong points. Most of his films are full of gaping plot holes, with wooden performances by actors reciting dialogue that could've been penned by George Lucas in full-on Attack of the Clones mode. But that doesn't matter. The real reason to see an Argento film is the atmosphere - indeed, his 70's and 80's pictures are some of the few horror films that can be considered masterpieces of the genre due to atmosphere alone. Utilizing an acrobatic camera, a gorgeously poisoned-candy color palette, and some truly Rube Goldbergian death scenes, Argento movies operate not on a sense of regular logic, but a weird, nightmarish dream logic.

This is the problem with Mother of Tears. It doesn't look like an extravagant madman's nightmare. It looks like an episode of CSI. Whether this was intentional on Argento's part to ground the film in realism, or if he's simply getting sloppy as he gets older, the film is a visual bore, devoid of any of the wonderful atmosphere he brought to his earlier pictures. The visual ugliness causes us to focus instead on the plot, which is exactly where your attention shouldn't be focused when watching a Dario Argento movie. Those who previously hailed the man as one of the finest living horror directors, who would rather turn to their Anchor Bay DVD copies of Deep Red and Opera than blow their disposable income on the latest entries of the Saw franchise, will, after seeing Mother of Tears, find themselves cast into the abyss. The legions of Fangoria readers who uphold Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake as a pinaccle of modern horror will soon be at their door, torturing them with the jeering chant of "where's your Messiah now!?!"

Where was I?

Mother of Tears opens when a construction crew discovers a wooden trunk buried outside a rural cemetery. The priest sends the box to his associate Michael, the curator of the Rome Museum of Ancient Art. Upon opening the box, one of his interns is pounced upon by demons and strangled with her own innards. Her death doesn't look like an "Argento moment," but more like a clumsily-lensed third-rate Fulci imitator.

After the box is opened, a wave of violence spreads over Rome (i.e., small groups of unpaid extras appear to have been offered donuts in exchange for pretending to strangle each other). Groups of witches, who look like they took a time machine from a 1985 Siouxsie and the Banshees concert start arriving at the airport. As we come to understand, this is all the doing of the mostly-nude titular Third Mother. Meanwhile, Asia Argento slowly learns that she has psychic powers, such as being able to open doors with her mind, and to appear invisible if she concentrates real hard and rubs her temples. She is egged on by the hovering specter of her mother, a la Chef Linguini in Ratatouille. She also takes her clothes off and takes a shower, which seems a little odd in a film directed by your old man. I wonder what her home life was like.

Udo Kier, who shows up in a brief cameo, and an evil monkey, respectively, give the best performances in the film. Makes me wish the pair of them had stuck around longer. Argento looks genuinely confused and sometimes stoned, and everyone else seems to be reading their lines off of cue cards. Argento seems to have tried to attempted to inject the low-key immediacy of The Exorcist into a Fulci-styled end-of-the-world film, but Mother of Tears lacks the firm grounding in reality that Friedkin's film has, and Argento can't really come close to the genuine misanthropy and mean-spiritedness that raised Fulci's work above the rest of the crop. You can't fault a director for trying something new, but truly there seems to have been something in Argento's mind that did not successfully make it to the screen. It's something I'd really only reccomend to fans of the director, if they want to see how badly a great genre filmmaker can go wrong.


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