Thursday, October 09, 2008

Horror master Dario Argento concludes 30-year-old trilogy

Just in time for Halloween, the final installment of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy has hit DVD. So, the question is: Was it worth the 30-year wait?

“Mother of Tears” completes a cycle that began with Argento’s 1977 masterpiece “Suspiria” — a film that routinely makes most “scariest horror movie” lists — and continued in 1980 with “Inferno.” Inspired by “Suspiria de Profundis,” a 19th century “prose poem” by English essayist Thomas de Quincey, the trilogy tells of three witches known as the Three Mothers.

Hundreds of years old and leaving only misery and death in their wake, the three are the Mother of Sighs, based in Freiburg, Germany, and the oldest of the Mothers; the Mother of Darkness, based in New York City; and Mater Lachrimarum — the Mother of Tears — who lives in Rome, Italy.

“Suspiria” and “Inferno” dealt with the Mother of Sighs and the Mother of Darkness, respectively. Now, it’s the Mother of Tears’ turn to unleash chaos on unsuspecting mortals.

And that’s just what she does, when she reawakens after an urn containing her relics is unearthed in a church graveyard and opened by two unsuspecting museum curators.

As he did in “Suspiria,” Argento opens with a grizzly murder that makes everything that follows seem almost tame. Without cataloging the — ahem! — gory details, it’s a new height of carnage even for Argento, who has never exactly been shy when it comes to gore and bloodletting.

One curator’s death scene is so brutal, it would probably be more at home in a Lucio Fulci film. If Argento is Italy’s answer to Alfred Hitchcock, Fulci was Italy’s George Romero, except his films are even gorier than Romero’s.

The other curator, Sarah, played by Dario’s daughter, Asia Argento (“Land of the Dead,” “The Last Mistress”), escapes the slaughter only through the supernatural intervention of her dead mother, played by Asia’s real-life mother, Daria Nicolodi (“Deep Red,” “Tenebre”).

As Mater Lachrimarum’s influence spreads, Rome descends into chaos. People randomly commit acts of murder and destruction, while witches from around the world converge to celebrate the Third Mother’s rebirth.

Meanwhile, on the run from the witches and their minions, Sarah learns her mother was a white witch who died, not in an accident, but during a failed attempt to kill the Mother of Sighs. (She did, however, weaken the First Mother, leading up to the events in “Suspiria.”) Now, having inherited her mother’s supernatural abilities, only Sarah can stop the Mother of Tears before she can plunge the world into a new Dark Age.

While not perfect, “The Mother of Tears” is a satisfying conclusion to Dario’s saga. His films have always been more about visual flair than plot coherence, and this one is no exception. (If you’re looking for a flawless Argento story, you’ll have to go back to the one he co-wrote for Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.”) The script relies heavily on coincidence, starting with the urn just happening to be opened by someone already connected to the Three Mothers.

Some of the casting is also suspect. Unless ghosts continue to age, which would make the afterlife suck even more, Nicolodi is 30 years too old for her role. As for the Mother of Tears herself, Israeli model-turned-actress Moran Atias spends most of the movie naked, which makes up somewhat for her deficiencies as an actress.

But nobody watches Argento’s films for their plots, and “Mother of Tears” has everything you could want from the master director, from gorgeous cinematography to meticulously staged death scenes. Of course, the film also gives Argento’s critics plenty of new ammunition — especially critics who believe Dario really, really hates women.

Even if it isn’t a masterpiece like “Suspiria” or “Deep Red” (1975), “Mother of Tears” is still probably Argento’s best film since 1982’s “Tenebre.” And that makes it well worth a rental on a cool October night.

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