Horror movies invariably punish the stupidity of characters. No matter how loudly the audience yells, "Don't go in there!" inevitably the victim-to-be does, indeed, Go In There. Seldom do you see as much overkill as the first murder in Mother of Tears from Italian gore-maestro Dario Argento.
A Rome art museum receives a spooky urn late at night, as well as a note addressed to the museum director (Adam James). In an apparent bid to qualify for the Darwin Awards, a comely young helper (Coralina Cataldi Tassoni) decides 1) to open the urn in his absence, 2) at night, 3) even after cutting her finger and dripping blood on top of it. Plus, when she finds three creepy statuettes inside, 4) she recites aloud the arcane words carved on them. Before she can start breaking mirrors or walking under ladders, three ghoulish figures appear from nowhere, and don't just stab her, they strangle her with her own innards.
When the heroine, Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento), approaches a few minutes later, she keeps her wits. Glimpsing the butchery, she removes her high heels and runs like hell. There, was that so complicated?
Unfortunately, Mother of Tears maintains an IQ level closer to the doomed dum-dum than the smart survivor. The film finishes off Argento's loose trilogy that began in 1977 with Suspiria, considered his masterpiece and one of the most visually bold horror films ever made. The TV commercials alone terrified me during my childhood. The trilogy's unifying thread concerns three deadly witches: "The Mother of Sighs" in Suspiria, "The Mother of Pain" in 1980's Inferno and now "The Mother of Tears" in the eponymous film (subtitled The Third Mother). But the trilogy's capper proves a poor introduction to Argento's legendary craft, and fulfills the adage that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
The urn's opening restores the powers of an ageless witch, thanks to a talisman that looks exactly like a fuzzy red sweater. The Mother of Tears' sweater-wearing powers inspire mass outbreaks of suicide and manslaughter throughout Rome, like The Signal meets The Happening. But it's hard to tell if the furiously blaring car horns indicate supernatural unrest, or just Rome's usual traffic congestion. The city also becomes the global meeting place for obnoxious young witches who resemble drunk Siouxsie and the Banshees impersonators.
Amid the chaos, Sarah tries not only to figure out how to stop the witch, but also how the occult events connect to her deceased mother (played by Asia's real mother, Daria Nicolodi of Inferno). It turns out that Sarah has a Harry Potter-like heritage, complete with magic talents, but Argento never follows through on the notion. Sarah remains on the go so she can meet new characters, who provide the latest piece of exposition before suffering flamboyant acts of butchery. (The female roles also take their shirts off. A lot.)
The plot plays in such a silly, overheated key that the copious bloodshed and smushy sound effects elicit ridicule rather than the dread and catharsis of the most potent, violent horror films. Argento's most artful moments involve no creative dismemberment, and include the close-up of the urn's wax seal being broken as well as a daylight chase scene through a crowded train station. Near the end, an engrossing tracking shot follows Sarah as she searches a decayed, seemingly empty mansion for the witch's lair.
Alas, such an elegant build-up receives a laughable pay-off. Model-turned-actress Moran Atias shows little charisma and receives minimal screen time as the main witch. She's so easily undone that Mother of Tears' climax turns out to be one of the year's funniest scenes. If you're looking for a lurid hoot that pushes the boundaries of taste at a time of PG-13 Hollywood horror, by all means see Mother of Tears. But if you want to see Dario Argento live up to his reputation, don't go in there.
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