Walk into the final installment of Dario Argento's Three Mothers trilogy anticipating the kind of nightmarish, candy-colored surrealism that defined Suspiria and Inferno, and you're bound to be disappointed. Take a step back, jettison those expectations, and accept the fact that Argento simply isn't the same filmmaker he was when those films were released roughly 30 years ago, and chances are you'll enjoy this nasty apocalyptic shocker for what it really is, rather than what it may have been.
Argento has never been a filmmaker known for his subtlety, and with Mother of Tears, he pulls out all the stops to deliver a thrilling, hyper-violent tale of one woman's race to defeat the cruelest witch to ever walk the Earth. The third chapter in the Three Mothers trilogy doesn't possess the kind of malevolent magic either of its predecessors did, but then again it was produced in an entirely different era and under entirely different circumstances (and, it should be noted, with a fresh set of writers in the form of Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch -- but more on that later). It seems as if each film Argento has directed since The Stendhal Syndrome has been touted as a "return to form" for the infamous Italian filmmaker, but while this sort of unimaginative selling point may serve well to whet the appetites of longtime fans, one can only hear such claims once or twice before growing a bit bored and cynical. The sad truth is that Argento hasn't delivered an undisputed classic since 1987's Opera, and with the notable exceptions of his two Masters of Horror episodes, he has seemed reluctant to venture outside the tried-and-true formula regardless of the diminishing returns. His once-intoxicating visual style has lost most of its luster, and his willingness to branch out and explore intriguing new avenues of terror (à la the bizarre psychic communication aspects of Phenomena and the compelling psychological torment of The Stendhal Syndrome) seems to have been abandoned in favor of following yet another black-gloved killer. With this film, the viewer gets the impression that Argento truly set out to dazzle his fans and push some boundaries rather than simply delivering another by-the-numbers giallo -- and that sort of ambition can go a long way, even if the end product isn't exactly flawless.
Of course, it would have been logical to conclude the trilogy in a more timely manner. Twenty-seven years between installments is quite a stretch (even by George Lucas' standards), but sometimes greater forces prevent the most obvious thing from happening. Save for the heavy metal music featured prominently on the soundtrack, Argento's own 1985 thriller Phenomena feels closer in tone, style, and structure to Suspiria and Inferno than does Mother of Tears. Perhaps in some alternate universe Phenomena was the true closing chapter in the trilogy and Mother of Tears was just a freewheeling tribute to the past -- a sort of reinvigorating experiment that would allow Argento to shake off the dust and break a few rules before reminding us once again what he's truly capable of.
Mother of Tears isn't likely what many fans spent the past three decades hoping for as they dreamt of a conclusion to the series, but it's a bit unfair to hold Argento to the same standards as we did back when he was turning out true classics like Profondo Rosso and Tenebre. The fact is that filmmakers, like most of us, change over time. Like many his filmmaking peers -- including John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper -- Argento seemed to have hit his creative peak back in the 1970s and '80s, not necessarily resting on his laurels but also not achieving the kind of late-career fame experienced by the likes of Wes Craven or David Cronenberg, either. Mother of Tears may not be Argento's Scream or Eastern Promises, but his return to supernatural elements is deeply refreshing and, some would say, long overdue.
Mother of Tears opens in 21st century Rome, where a sarcophagus has just been unearthed containing an ancient urn belonging to Mater Lachrymarum (stunning Moran Atias) -- the most beautiful and cruel of all witches. The weighty coffin is quickly rushed to a researcher for examination, but when the seal is broken by an archeologist (Argento regular Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) and an unassuming art student named Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento), all hell literally breaks loose. From this point on, Sarah must avoid the authorities who think that she's got something to do with a recent rash of vicious crimes occurring all over the city (which, in reality, are the product of Mater Lachrymarum's infernal wrath), and realize her own unique powers by uncovering the truth about her deceased mother -- a brave white witch who perished attempting to defeat Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs. But before she realizes her true potential, Sarah will have to contend with malevolent monkeys, cackling witches clad in '80s goth garb (no, they're not emo!), persistent policemen, and any other poor sap who happens to have fallen under Mater Lachrymarum's murderous spell.
Visually speaking, Mother of Tears is far and away the weakest installment of the trilogy. None of the scenes here even come close to achieving the kind of phantasmagoric, fever-dream imagery that fueled Suspiria and Inferno, yet there's also no question that this is still Argento's most eye-poppingly impressive film in years. Having previously shot features for both Dario (Do You Like Hitchcock?) and daughter Asia (Scarlet Diva), director of photography Frederic Fasano does seem to have a certain handle on the flamboyant style that goes with the family brand, and to be totally fair, Fasano does a commendable job behind the camera, even if the primary colors that once seemed to define the Three Mothers series are noticeably absent here. The screenplay, penned by Argento in collaboration with Anderson and Gierasch, playfully strives to appease fans of the trilogy by tying the three films together while delivering a fair number of outrageous set pieces and keeping the action constantly moving forward. As a result, Mother of Tears is never boring, at times even bordering on Grand Guignol camp. The main weakness of the screenplay is the ending, which is so abrupt and unsatisfying that it makes even Inferno's notoriously anemic finale feel deeply gratifying by comparison. And even if the Mother of Tears' lair does mirror the best of Bosch, the scenes set there generally fly by so fast that the viewer doesn't even have a chance to admire the infernal beauty of the torch-lit set. It's a terrible way to tie up a trilogy, but at the same time it's fittingly consistent with the awkward endings of its predecessors, so it's hard to hold it to a higher standard. Still, it's great to see Daria Nicolodi turn up for an extended cameo -- her presence sets the stage for one of the film's most unique and tense scenes, and serves as a playful nod to fans who know the turbulent history of the series. Additionally, the fact that Argento, Anderson, and Gierasch have seen fit to include a small role for Udo Kier (not reprising his role from Suspiria) proves a real treat for keen-eyed Euro-cult cinema devotees. Composer Claudio Simonetti, (formerly of Goblin) returns to provide musical accompaniment to the onscreen mayhem, and the result is a score that blends the most effective elements of Goblin's bombastic, innovative soundtrack to Suspiria with the most melodic, haunting elements of Keith Emerson's melodic score to Inferno. It all adds up to a fun, gory ride that lovingly recalls the '70s and '80s heydays of anything-goes Italian horror cinema -- even if it won't achieve the classic status of its legendary predecessors -- and anyone who can set aside their expectations and succumb to its diabolical charms is sure to have a gruesome good time.