Monday, December 5, 2016

Argento's "Three Mothers" Trilogy

“Suspiria” (1977), “Inferno” (1980), “Mother of Tears” (2007)
by Goat Scrote

In director Dario Argento’s trilogy of horror films, the Three Mothers of Sorrow are powerful malefic witches who are greedy for wealth and power. They live in special homes designed for them many years ago by an alchemist, who didn’t realize their wicked natures until too late. Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs, lives in a dance academy in Freiburg, Germany. Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, lives in an apartment building in New York City. Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, lives in a mansion in Rome.

     The witches secretly rule the world from these hiding places but they are actually portrayed as quite petty and self-destructive. This begs the question, why haven't the witches used their long lives to amass material wealth and mundane political influence, instead of just going on occasional killing sprees?

  Argento’s film “Tenebre” (1982) is unrelated to the series despite the title. “Inferno” is the film which deals with Mater Tenebrarum. Exploitation director Luigi Cozzi made an unofficial sequel to the series in 1989 which has carried a number of titles, including “The Black Cat” and “Demons 6: De Profundis”. I’ve discussed it already elsewhere because it is also a fake sequel to the “Demons” series.

     If you're interested in where Argento got his inspiration for these movies, be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the article for a brief discussion of the book "Suspiria de Profundis".


Suspiria *****
     This horror film is legendary for very good reasons. The story is flawed but everything else more than makes up for it. It’s not hyperbole to call it fine art.

SIGHT *****
     One of the most visually stunning movies ever made. The composition and camera work are beautiful and inventive. The use of lush primary colors and geometric motifs makes for an incredible viewing experience. The movie has a look all its own which has been imitated many times but never duplicated (not even by Argento).

SOUND *****
     Also one of the great film soundtracks, composed by Claudio Simonetti and Goblin. The way sound and music are used in this movie is just as important as the visuals. The sound design has an otherworldy and menacing quality which builds unease throughout.
SCARES *****
     A tense nightmarish feeling, like a fever dream, pervades the whole movie. The death scenes, although there are only a few, are unpredictable and intense. They don’t always make sense — dreams are like that — but that doesn’t stop them from being scary.
     The plot is murky and at best adequate, although one could argue that this actually contributes to the dreamlike quality of the film. The story is set primarily at a prestigious dance academy full of sinister characters in the Black Forest of Germany. Horrible events are underway and the school is at the center. A hidden coven of witches lashes out at anyone who threatens their veil of secrecy, leading to a string of bizarre "accidents" and murders around the city. The coven is led by the evil Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs.


Inferno ***
     What sets “Inferno” apart from other Italian horror flicks is its visual flair. It’s not a very scary nor a particularly absorbing movie, unfortunately, but it's almost as gorgeous as its predecessor.

SIGHT *****
     “Inferno” is beautiful. Visually, it's a worthy successor to “Suspiria”. Striking colors, geometric patterns, and beautiful shot compositions create individual frames which could stand as artworks in their own right. It’s worth seeing it in the best quality you can manage because it’s all about the visuals.

     The score is written by Keith Emerson. There are times when his music fits seamlessly, and other times it seems to go in its own direction and belong in an “Omen” film or a 70’s TV show. The clashing music sabotages several of the scary scenes in the latter half. Some of the characters are musicology students which offers a logical way to bring some effectively-used classical music into the soundtrack. The sound design lacks the nightmarish intensity which helped propel the first movie. Hard to rate because it is so all-over-the-place sound-wise.


     It has a few very creepy scenes. The tense early scene of a woman swimming in a fancy apartment submerged underwater is particularly haunting and surreal. The few great moments like this are spaced too far apart. The scares are sometimes undermined by unintentional comedy, such as an attack by ill-tempered house cats, or a guy screaming “Rats are eating me!” as he dies. The disappointing special effects at the end seem to belong in a campy 60’s era Vincent Price film.

     The backstory of the Three Mothers is further fleshed out and continues to make hardly any sense. The two surviving witches both commit some murders in this film. The focus is on Mater Tenebrarum as she tries to preserve her New York hiding place. For all her supposed magical power she mostly uses knives to kill people. The unsatisfying ending hinges on the inability of the mighty witch to cope with a mundane household accident.


The Mother of Tears ***
     “Mother” tries for an epic high-fantasy scope, with many characters demonstrating magical knowledge and abilities. The attempt to top the previous two movies hinges pretty much entirely on upping the gore, body count, and sexual perversity. Argento discards the more restrained and stylized approach which made the other two films stand out. "Mother of Tears" falls far short of the grand climax to the series which it was meant to be.

     It just looks like a pretty ordinary modern horror movie sprinkled with some truly awful CGI. The palette is mostly earth tones, with lots of black. Stylistically it is jarringly different from (and inferior to) the look and design of the first two movies.

     Professional and competent, with some good work by Claudio Simonetti. Nothing too out of the ordinary here either, though. It just sounds like a typical scary movie. The loud nonstop shrill laughter of most of the witches sounds too much like a stereotypical caricature of witches cackling in a corny old cartoon. This makes it hard to keep a straight face during many moments which ought to have been full of tension.

     This movie is a little bit boring despite waves of gross-out gore and violence that sweep across the screen. It has the bloodiest and most sadistic kills of the series. That's super, but it doesn't make up for the lack of any real suspense or chills.

     Mater Lachrymarum retrieves an artifact which greatly amplifies her power. She summons lesser witches from all over the world to join her, and the entire city of Rome descends into madness under their evil influence. The plot is the most coherent of the three (which isn't saying much), but unlike the first two it’s mostly a chase movie. The way they show the people of the city slowly turning into homicidal maniacs in the background of the main action is a nice touch. Mater Lachrymarum's defeat is a bit of an anticlimax, unfortunately.


Argento's Source Material

      The characters of the Three Mothers of Sorrow originate from “Suspiria de Profundis” (“sighs from the depths”), a book of “prose poems” or imaginative essays written by Thomas de Quincey (favorite subject: drugs). It was first published in partial form in 1845 and remains very incomplete. Charles Baudelaire translated parts of the work into French and quoted it in his 1860 “Les paradis artificiels". (Translation “Artificial Paradises”. Topic: drugs.)

     The specific piece of de Quincey’s work which inspired Argento’s series of films is called “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow”. The Mothers were inspired by mythological triads such as the Fates and the Furies. For de Quincey, they were personifications of the trials and burdens which had shaped his life. Levana was a Roman goddess related to childbirth and is a fourth, distinct figure in the essay. It's quite a good piece of writing, considered a literary masterpiece in fact, and it’s only a handful of pages long. You could read it. It’s worth the time.

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