It used to be that Dario Argento films were jam-packed with expressive details. Beginning in the early 1970s, alongside a penchant for intense, deliberate, graphic orgasms of violence, his reputation as a cult auteur grew out of a steady filmography throughout which design, costuming, scoring, lighting, performance, casting, color, and camera set-up and movement choices titillated film and gore buffs by clearly originating from a single directorial hand, even though the motivations behind the choices were themselves rarely clear. The fun of Argento films was often the unexpected and unexplained way in which an element of formal excess would be squandered upon an otherwise simple visual detail. A Form-for-Form’s-sake mentality worked well for the cinematic universe of Argento’s early scripts which appropriately often addressed a sensation of individual identity’s increasing meaninglessness within our modern, technologically evolving existence.
Argento’s newest, The Mother of Tears (2007), suffers a dearth of atmosphere compared to many of Argento’s earlier films (I would use 1977’s Suspiria—the first in a 30-year-long trilogy that Mother bookends—as the cut-off point for his earlier works). This fact might lead viewers to wonder if Argento is getting a tad generic in his old age. Luckily, the nebulous Italian Horror category (I won’t trip down the pitfall of calling it a proper genre though I would defend that the system produced films with a strong vein of recognizable similarities) is a uniquely odd bedrock foundation from which to atrophy into the generic while still maintaining interesting passages. Despite a variety of show-stopping horror set-pieces, technique alone fails to provide an audience a dazzling good time if the filmmaker appears to lack the budget necessary to create a rich atmosphere. With each film since Suspiria, at least to my eye, Argento’s budgets dwindled as did his interest in this type of distinct atmosphere.
The Mother of Tears’ cheapness is immediately apparent from its opening credits which roll over not-quite-hi-res-enough images from classical Christian art—images depicting demonic possession and other monstrous horrors. The same visual cheapness pervades the rest of the tale. Chaos and civic violence engulf Rome in conjunction with the rise of a powerful clan of witches led by the (bodaciously) titular Mother of Tears. As our heroine Sarah Mandy (portrayed by the director’s daughter Asia) sleuths her way into the middle of the coven, the quality of acting remains low-rent while on the props front, color inkjet pages, still drying from the printer, pop up in large leather-bound books that are supposed to pass as old tomes filled with eldritch and arcane secrets. Last but not least, an entire scene of expository flashing-back to the 19th century is conveyed to the audience through black and white illustrated comic-like panels. There seems no more convincing motivation for this shift in storytelling media than budgetary restrictions, so it reads as if the scene could not get green-lit beyond the storyboarding stage, yet would not permit itself to be dropped by Argento.
However, without the budget necessary to mesmerize his audiences in quite the same way he used to, another career-spanning element of Argento’s style becomes perhaps more noticeable: high camp. Taken in terms of an oddball dark comedy about people with extremely bad luck who get themselves into very bad situations, The Mother of Tears satisfies. The film benefits when approached with less lofty viewer expectations. This reorienting of its context also makes the film’s gory scene’s and shots all the more shocking, and Argento still manages to nail extreme imagery of excruciating pain. The human body is riddled with embarrassingly weak entry points for its own mortification, and these are exposed usually in close-ups erupting with blood. When an aged priest (genre favorite Udo Kier who delightfully chews up the scenery during his fifteen minutes) is caught by one of film’s many whackos and punished for assisting Sarah in her quest, his assailant slices into his ankles with a meat cleaver in a close-up shot that fetishizes the new-found freedom of tendon separated from heel. The moment has every bit of the wince-inducing directorial vision felt in Deep Red (1975) when one character’s open mouth is rammed repeatedly in close-ups into the sharp corner of a wooden desk. For a piercing and unforgettable moment, the pain might as well be real. There occurs an actual upset in our trust of a concrete safety from the ephemeral image onscreen. It is a painful shock, yet it remains inescapable in the face of such obsessive cataloging of discomfort, and Argento demonstrates that he is still adept at administering such shocks.
There has always been a faction of genre fanatics who claimed Argento was a hack, the film-producer’s kid who got luckily grandfathered into the Italian studio system and got credit for visual ideas ripped off from his Gialli-directing peers and/or superiors. If so, is The Mother of Tears a litmus test for how poor and uninspired the current state of horror is? Is there just nothing good to rip off any more? Perhaps what it is doing is just more subtle. Take for example a very standard shock cut of a demon jumping up next to Sarah’s bed as she tranquilly awakes midway through the movie. It is perhaps the classic cheap gimmick used by horror hacks everywhere, but not too seriously here since Argento proves he still has other skills to demonstrate. What immediately follows that standard shock-cut moment is less gimmicky. The demon, merely an illusion, disappears. Then, down a moonlit hallway in the apartment, in the distant background beyond a wooden archway, the end of a rope descends. Quite unexpectedly, a sinister-looking monkey climbs down to the floor. Even more unnervingly, defiantly flying in the face of all logic, the monkey, as if possessed by an uncanny intelligence, seems to know just where to look for its prey. That’s par for the course: in Argento’s universe, evil enters irrationally, randomly, and without welcome. Now that’s scary. There are some spoken ideas that actually prove as unsettling as the film’s gore. “There’s nothing wrong with your mind, Sarah,” one cohort for the powers of Good tells her towards the film’s end, “It’s the world that’s going crazy.”
The crux of the matter might be that Argento is less a horror director than he is a phantasmagoria director who happens to be intrigued by worldly, corporeal horrors, as well as film’s relation to dream and nightmare states in which we are not equipped to effectively evaluate if we are in real danger. Argento deserves a reputation as a surrealist. For such supposedly cheap films, he is probing fascinating questions of representation itself. How does the mind’s ability to splice together temporally and spatially unrelated shots create a sense of continuity—a whole, seamless cinematically believable world? For that matter, how does the brain create as complex, demanding, and varied a matrix of sensation and reaction as what we’ve come to call “Reality”? Argento’s films toy with such questions. Coming out of a tradition such as Giallo that was already shameless in its disregard for narrative logic to the point that the deductive process of sleuthing frequently obfuscates mysteries rather than clarifies them, Argento still managed to amp up the weirdness, scramble his narrative structures even further, and eventually introduce elements of the supernatural and fantastic into his personal mix. For example, the climactic solution to Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) is only reached when the pivotal clue to a murderer’s identity is extrapolated out of a victim’s eyeball using ultra-modern, experimental laser technology that can capture and reproduce the final image witnessed before dying. Realistically, this makes no sense whatsoever (even though some viewers will recognize this as reference to an actual antiquated photographic forensic technique whose efficacy was promptly disprove). For almost any other director, this turn of events would serve as a narrative cop-out. For Argento, it’s an opportunity to show off an incredibly cool set piece and, by interrupting the character-driven scene in progress, show further disregard towards expected norms of storytelling and dramaturgical development. An extreme close-up shot of the laser device laterally tracks languidly across the several yards separating the bright beam of energy generated at one end to the removed eyeball at the other end of the contraption. Hopefully, the audience is too busy admiring how far-out the shot is to bother criticizing its underlying narrative nonsense. It’s illusionist’s business, a director distracting the viewer’s attention away from what he does not want them to notice. We buy it on the grounds that it’s a fun example of Argento’s idiosyncrasy, and the story is improbably propelled forward almost without right via untraditional means.
The supernatural elements and willful narrative awkwardness come through in The Mother of Tears, whether or not the formal expressive details or opulent atmosphere do. Contrary to a lot of other Argento films that are more widely well-respected despite devolving into terrible endings, The Mother of Tears begins weakly due to long stretches of exposition but improves by its finale which strikes an unsettling balance between sequences of mundane dread and stomach-churning torture and violence, and I think his ability to juggle multiple emotional tones like this is a testament to his expertise with the medium, especially in our current horror market of one-note torture-pornographies bloated to fill feature-length runtimes. Three quarters of the way through the film is a stunningly graceful 4-minute steadycam shot that searches through three floors of the unnervingly empty, deceptively benign witch-house that Sarah has finally tracked down. By the end of this spatial exploration, Argento has gotten his audience seated squarely where he wants them. While we stare fixedly at the luminescent screen cutting through the dark theater, the gentle bobbing of the camera transforms the image into a glowing bauble floating in front of us. We become complacently unaware that it is Argento’s work, and are lulled instead into the sense of a dream. We are also lulled into a false sense of safety, overlooking that the dangling lure may lead us towards the gaping jaws of a beastly owner swimming behind it. Argento has immobilized us using beauty, and now he can prey upon us however he sees fit. Correctly, after the reprieve of this sequence, both Sarah and the audience are immersed for the remainder of the film into a world of grotesque, profane torture, sodomy, severed limbs, and rivers of shit that underlay and belie the perfectly smooth façade the steadycam provides. It’s too late to turn back, exit the house. Maybe there was never any hope for escape to begin with, so occluded are we from the true hostility of the universe. As the message over the entrance to the coven’s lair reads, “All you see does not exist. All you cannot see is true.” That’s a fine and accurate description of the experience of both film-viewing and dreaming, and despite flaws in The Mother of Tears, we are lucky to still bear witness to a maestro of horror who unmistakably thinks about perception of the world cinematically.