Bright Lights Film Journal

An Argento Family Reunion Special: Crying over the Spilled Mother of Tears


With Italian horror cinema maestro Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears (2007) comes not just the end of the “Three Mothers Trilogy” that all Argento fans have been waiting for, but the end of filmmaking as we know it; or as Argento knows it, the apocalyptic cave-in of horror cinema’s symbolic common language. In short it is, by any stretch, a stinker.

The question then arises, is it a stinker on purpose? All horror films of the “bad” exploitative sort cater a bit to the Ed Wood or “trash” aesthetic. If a shot turns out to be, say, out of focus, they don’t reshoot it; it was supposed to be that way … it’s artsy! This is not something to be condemned; by letting the seams show we learn to sew like the masters. Similarly, free-form jazz musicians will incorporate their mistakes and “bad” playing into their solos, repeating off-key signatures until they’re meshed into the overall framework. Stoned or drunk cinema fans of all ages glean truth and wisdom from slow pacing and terrible continuity of blood-drenched rubbish in a similar fashion. The obvious fakeness of the gore scenes in Argento (the stabbed flesh has a distinct rubber look, especially in the clear light of DVD) helps us process them — it’s only a movie — and all things are impermanent. The question then arises, as our favorite horror directors all seem to be letting their work take a nosedive: Have they grown lazy or merely Brechtian? Are they trying to be bad on purpose?

Mother of Tears isn’t just bad in and of itself, but bad in a way that makes it of a set with recent bad films from horror masters, all of which involve Satanic possession, self-mutilation and piercing, blood sacrifice, pagan idolatry, etc., as if these auteurs are communicating their intellectual bankruptcy to each other in the form of Trent Reznor clone-style auto-mutilation and ritual murder. There was Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999), which had Johnny Depp as an unscrupulous aesthete tracking down a rare book and winding up at a mansion full of blood drinking Satanists. There was John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001), which had Martian spores rising from an ancient tomb and taking over miners’ bodies and cutting and piercing their new bodies up like the gangbangers from ye old Max Max 2. And Quentin Tarantino has Death-Proof (2007) which “quotes” seventies car movies through a ritual murdering speed freak/Godard lens (as I’ve written about in a past issue); its glitches are clearly intentional. Is that playing it safe? What if there wasn’t the “grindhouse” excuse and the film was really jumpy and disjointed? Would we “get it”? Is there something to get with Argento in Mother, and if so what is it?

The film has the titular mother rising from the beyond when a magic box is found buried in an old cemetery in Rome. Asia Argento is the heroine, an archeologist at a big old museum, who is sent the box and then watches her assistant get torn limb from limb by demons under the control of a very nasty monkey. The monkey spots Asia hiding in the corner, and the game of bleed and scream and run is on. Meanwhile, the Mother’s evil influence causes murder and mayhem to sweep across Rome. An ancient “tunic” was in that box, and when the evil Mother of Tears (who has fake breasts and a shawl and struts around her basement den surrounded by debauched Euro-clubbing neo-pagans) dons it, she will be able to finally walk above ground and usher in a new Dark Ages. Asia runs around Rome meanwhile, crosscutting her way through random scenes of street violence, interviewing an array of friend and family decked out like priests or librarians — these bits in libraries with ancient texts and ancient actors reciting old legends are de rigeur in such cases; the “endless underlit exposition” vibe in The Da Vinci Code is only one more variation — and occasionally a cop is following her and occasionally her real mom (Daria Niccoldi) shows up as a ghost to give her directions! What, dear reader, is not to love?

For all its faults, Mother of Tears is a welcome throwback when most Satan-themed horror films (Stigmata, God Bless the Child, Exorcist 4, Lost Souls) are basically long MTV-edited videos with lots of blood and arcane symbols rendered on white walls and shot with high-contrast shakycams, drowned in screams and Goth-metal soundtracks. The “Satanic” debauchery here is hilarious, as it in most of these films, the sort of drugginess imagined by 16-year old kids who are still not allowed out past 9 pm and sure the whole world is having fun without them. In other words, the decadent violence and debauchery is silly. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing. I’m just wondering why, how, since Argento’s earlier stuff like Suspiria and (my favorite) Phenomena still set the benchmark for trippy Eurohorror?

Perhaps these artists can’t just “stay” in formula— the formula being limited — and so, being the literate hipsters they are, they become deconstructive, instructive, reflexive. They watch a Godard film and an Ed Wood film in the same night and they get some “crazy” ideas. But when you see the auteur wink back at you with little references, you not only feel happy to be recognized, you feel the tacky thrill of being part of the mythology. Films like Blade Runner, Alien, Terminator, Mad Max, The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, they’re all part of our collective culture, as solid as concrete and brick in our collective archetypal film-going foundations. Argento winks at us throughout his oeuvre, signaling not just these films but also loads of references to Hitchcock, Fellini and Antonioni, Bava, Romero, and fairy tales and the sludgy somnambulistic wanderings of childhood nightmares, this is part of what makes his films so watchable for the non-gorehound. They move and resonate and open you up like a fish on the cutting board.

For example, there’s a scene in Mother where Asia is just running down some museum steps and the soundtrack cue is a burst of Gregorian chant followed by a drum roll and then nothing again. Totally lazy! Why would you play just a snippet of soundtrack over a long scene of stair running, leaving the first and last two flights unadorned? It’s as if Argento is just bored and distracted at his final cut pro station, adding cues while watching youtube videos, trying shit out. There’s similar “what the fuck?” moments in the aforementioned films. In Ghosts of Mars, Natasha Henstridge relays what just happened to someone while in a flashback, and for a few minutes we have a flashback within a flashback to just what happened in the last flashback. I remember seeing this in an audience of young urbanites expecting typical horror ala Carpenter. They were pissed! They felt they were being ripped off. But was it “bad” or Carpenter giving us a wink? When we flashback to the legends of the three mothers being told by Udo Kier in a priest outfit, we flashback in the form of Marvel comic-style illustrations; they’re not even in color! Was Argento too cheap or lazy to “want” color? At least he had them inked. Is it how he wanted it? Again there is only the enigmatic sphinx reply.

So what is up with these late-inning weird bunts from these once major hitters? These aren’t films so much as home-made backyard fun zones wherein the directors dump all the excess satanic symbiology, reveals the spells and shady deals they’ve been casting and making all along, when you weren’t looking, to get ahead in the business of filmmaking, like John “Castavet” Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby. Maybe they’re just enjoying filmmaking itself, and Satan and murder are just the way to go — the universal badass insignia, the midlife-crisis director equivalent of a devil tattoo and motorcycle.

Having Asia Argento in the film is a major key to unraveling the mystery of how to make it an enjoyable viewing experience. She’s a mess in this movie, looking weary and bemusedly resigned, like the cool older sister you drag through the haunted house you’ve made in the basement rec room, — the sort with candles and blindfolds, where you make them stick their hands in cold spaghetti and tell them it’s brains. We did that a lot in the 1970s, and Argento’s family probably did too. When you end this film on Asia getting hit by tons of gloppy goo for no apparent reason, you know you are at some all-in-the-family horror show ground zero, the cold noodles in the bowl supposed to be brains writ large upon the screen. Exhibitionism, which must run deep in all artistically successful families, becomes its own obsessive double in the Argento world, especially once dad directs both mom, Daria Niccoldi, and daughter, Asia, together as he does here (and also did in the traumatizingly strange Stendahl Syndrome). The end of this film, which is basically watching gallons upon gallons of yucky ooze get poured onto Asia as she climbs to freedom, is something that, taken at an incestuous Elektra-complex meta-textual level, would be at home in Eraserhead.

The sad thing, of course, is that these Ed Wood Freudian funtype deconstructions ultimately have to please too many people— presuming they are shot on film, and Mother was. The budget gets too high and the producers start their meddling. In this case you can see where all Argento’s money went — to some good indoor cinematography, buckets of gore FX, and extra work for a bunch of crazy artsy friends. When Asia is attacked in her car by zombies or chased around the train station by the possessed witches, it seems like a bunch of Rome’s artist elite — friends of the Argento familia — having fun, running around the airport with too much Goth makeup on, brandishing fake knives and their steadicams. It never seems scary, or interesting except in a loopy way, like the scenes in A Hard Day’s Night where the Beatles run from their fans, that point-and-shoot vibe of people walking through a landscape making up shots as they go to suit the found settings. All the murders and cops who look guilty and weird museum guys are here, but they’re all postmodern about it, in that passive-aggressive Godard way where you subvert the producer’s words: “You want a car chase, you shall have it” and then rendering it in stills with just a voiceover reading Proust, or something.

Argento also shows you how to render “mass panic and murder” on a small budget. Instead of legions of extras running around in crazy costumes, you just show a guy beating up on a car and crosscut it with a chick throwing her baby off a bridge. Put two and two together, and you are supposed to come up with a mental image of all of Rome going to shit. Even the screaming headlines look like they were printed out and taped over a normal newspaper! It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, but the question still nags, is it art or is it lazy?

When this cinematic sleight of hand is revealed, as it is here, one wonders how often one’s been duped watching other films, particularly Italian ones. All those massive Roman battles we see across the Cinecitta wasteland are really just a couple of guys chasing each other around in circles. I used to make 8mm films in my backyard with my school friends, and I know all the tricks. Nowadays, Final Cut and youtube are making low-budget auteurs of us all, and the first thing you learn is that editing is the ultimate in magic; reality’s millions of awkward pauses and “um … uh …” moments can be removed with cutaways or, failing that, jump cuts. Argento seems to be reacting to this recent trend by keeping all the “ums” and awkward pauses while the actors try to remember their English dialogue. Is this a comment on the state of things or just slovenliness? The answer is the same one we use with Godard: Yes!

One place the film never skimps is in the gore and makeup. It seems like the grisly deaths were thought out first, and a story constructed around them second. There’s a few that stay with you, but it seems like pandering to waste time out-shocking the Saw franchise crowd. Nowadays a full-length impalement from vagina to skull is commonplace, still worthy of an R-rating but not more than a tsk tsk from mom. But this is what Mother of Tears offers; medieval cruelties as an apologia for his lack of the Argento stuff we know and love: red and green gel lights and Goblin. Watching the film we realize how much of Argento’s success depends on his music. Suspiria and Deep Red would be “just good giallo” without Goblin’s Euro-trash rock scores, or Ennio Morricone’s brilliant sing-song motifs in the film that started it all, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. For Mother, we get what sounds like three different Gregorian chant albums played simultaneously, in abrupt stop-start cues ala Godard’s La Femme es un Femme. And the effectiveness of chant was lost in overexposure with too many Exorcist rip-offs. Now it’s just a sad reminder of how relatively fast symbolic associative references can lose their punch.

Another element that robs Mother of Tears of its dignity is the loss of that old Art Noveau architecture that Argento used to love to get lost in. The film never finds a good house to haunt, and as a result is too disjointed to make any scene feel really connected to the next in a linear way. Instead, however, we get something perhaps more interesting, an invite into the Argento family home for holiday brunch!

The film’s family-gathering feel is what ultimately saves it, if it does, which is open to speculation. Everything has an “uncle Udo in a priest smock” vibe, with all the old Halloween costumes brought down from the attic and half the party out in the yard attacking a car in whiteface with the assistant director. It seems like everyone had just that much preparation; just brunch and maybe a few glasses of wine and then there’s dad with his camera and a few pages of hastily scrawled script, wanting us to pose for Halloween pictures. The family affair vibe! Ed Wood and Criswell!

The best example of this I’ve saved for last: the deux ex machina ancient magic tunic that the Mother of Tears must don to conquer the world is a sleeveless 1980s-style girly shirt that looks like Asia must have left behind when she went off to college— the magic word of the day is painted on the shirt in gold glitter! That’s right, they were big into glitter in the Middle Ages. But should we feel betrayed by all this inconsistency and incongruence? Or should we feel a sense of metatextual connection to la familia Argento? Can’t you see them now, gluing out the unholy words and sprinkling on the glitter while Dad tends the camera and the fire? And just like being with your own family, the question still lingers: Am I home … or in hell?