La Terza madre or The Mother of Tears is the third and final chapter in Dario Argento's Three Mothers witch cycle which began with Suspiria in 1977, and continued with Inferno, in 1980. You could say Terza madre was 27 years in the making, but the mounting idiocy within Argento's latest feature film, paired with the vaguely rendered story of Inferno once again makes one doubtful whenever any director proclaims it's all part of a grandly concocted trilogy.
Argento's Animal Trilogy – Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Cat o' Nine Tales (1971), and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) – is nothing but a clever branding scheme that ties disparate giallo tales into an ersatz trilogy, in spite of birds and bugs not really being animals per se.
The myth of the Three Mothers established the background for Suspiria's blood-hungry villainess, Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs), and the power struggle of Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness and Shadows) was at the core of Inferno, but Argento's second chapter in the trilogy felt contrived, and seemed to reflect the director's own frustration in trying to develop a project after the huge success of Suspiria.
It took 3 years for fans to see another Argento film, and while Inferno might have been intended as a natural sequel, it felt like strategic effort to produce something within a bankable franchise when other concepts simply fizzled or floundered. By hesitating to envision the Mater Lachrimarum's (Mother of Tears) own battle for the planet in a third film, Argento had a guaranteed jewel to dangle in front of investors if his subsequent endeavors failed to appear on theatre screens, and got increasingly less international distribution (which they ultimately did).
Home video has sustained Argento's career because it virtually brought uncut versions of almost every film into circulation, but it also became a curse, whereby established theatrical distributors may have felt there was no need to give his films any theatrical time when easy money could be made on VHS and DVD; besides screenings at film festivals and rare limited engagements, very few of his movies have graced theatre screens in Canada and the U.S.
Terza madre could and should've solved that dilemma, and to an extent it did; the film has appeared on European screens, and has been picked up by the Weinstein Company for theatrical distribution in the U.S., but one could argue this rare move is more savvy business practices than the company's respect for one of Argento's worst films: the Weinsteins are taking advantage of pent-up demand by fans for an international respected horror director and genre pioneer, and parlaying a theatrical run to publicize the eventual DVD release, which is what most theatrical runs tend to be anyways, besides giving audiences the chance to see a film on the real big screen.
The basic story within Terza madre is very simple – the coming of an apocalypse to re-establish a witch's supremacy of world events – but it's a premise that's often been a tough to pull off successfully.
Among apocalyptic films with a theological bent, The Prophecy (1995), for example, is ultimately a talky, clumsily directed theological thriller; to combat the convoluted theories within Revelation (2001), director Stuart Urban piled gory murders and psychotic editing and pacing to evoke a sense of a menacing onslaught when the real horror was the director's own impatience and confusion for his film's wonky, meandering story; and a compelling midsection of The Order (2003) is bookended by whiny melodrama that singes one's sensibilities.
If theology is kept local and simple, one can craft a dynamic thriller like The Exorcist (1973), and when theological intrigue is subjugated by a simple body-count plot, one gets The Omen (1976); but if one attempts to prop up a franchise and make the mortal danger global, the result, good gore and rude sex notwithstanding, is The Final Conflict /aka Omen 3 (1981), wherein evil nannies go after bouncing baby carriages and wreak all manor of silliness.
The alternative is to remove God from the equation, and establish a new mythology, which is what Argento did in Suspiria; tossing aside that film's muddy reanimation finale, the film is a straightforward body-count film with elaborate killings being the star attraction. There's no grand battle to save planet Earth, just a bumbling dancer named Suzy who gets increasingly annoyed when her pretty friends disappear and the class size dwindles, leaving her to do all the fancy footwork.
Terza madre also eschews formal religious icons, but its core story of an unlikely character discovering a grand evil plot sort of parallels Roman Polanski's wretched The Ninth Gate (1999), a film with its own intriguing premise about the coming of an evil force that unfortunately devolves into an incoherent muddle, and ends on a badly rendered orgy under the stars.
About halfway into Polanski's film, a character comes sailing down a railing like a dancing ghost, tra-la-la-ing like mental patient; it is precisely here where the film snaps in half, loses its mind, and becomes a laughable attempt at horror, missing ominous animals, nasty torture, and gore; Terza madre, however, loses its mind during the first 5 mins. when Argento introduces a monkey, and has a woman's mouth cracked open by a pearing device before she's sliced open and strangled by her own intestines.
The effects of Argento's daring gore are neutered by exceptionally daft dialogue delivered by non-characters suffering from Understatement Disease. When questioned by the film's banal detectives about her colleague's death, Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento, sleepwalking from beginning to end) tries to explain how she sensed something ‘very odd' about the hooded killers, but apparently oddness does not include death by intestinal garroting; and when the police examine the remains of a witch (Jun Ichikawa) whose head Sarah crunched and eye-popped in a train crapper, the lead detective/Sarah's undercooked love interest remarks to his colleague that “There's more to this than we think.”
The devices of torment used by the witches' assassin squad are ancient and obscene, so while it's thematically appropriate to see a pearing device expand and crack open a woman's reluctant jaw; a portable lance rammed through a woman's groin and pop out of her mouth; or a folding eye obliterator used on the woman's lesbian lover, the devices recall the gimmicky death toys of Trauma (the noose-o-matic) and Phenomena (the portable mini-lance); moreover, it's the women who get the worst of it, while the men either lose a limb, or get their throats cut.
Had the film's monkey been allowed to write the script, it may well have been a lean, primal tale of hunger (or a maybe a quest for tasty fruit and jungle floor ants), but one senses the plot points drafted by the film's five credited (human) writers were put into a fish bowl, and selected by lot.
Near the middle, Sarah meets a mysterious woman, Marta (The New Gladiators' Valeria Cavalli), and Padre Johannes/aka Basil Exposition (Udo Kier), and is told she's the daughter of a dancer who died, along with her father, battling Mater Suspiriorum at the Freiberg Dance Academy, which is an interesting revelation for fans because the women in the academy were single, largely stupid, and died after seeing the witch's eyes peering through the window, or were eventually maimed and killed after wandering down dark hallways like children craving cookies and milk.
They may have kicked and tossed in a punch before they were stabbed, eviscerated, hung, cranially bisected, tossed in a barbed wire room, or had their throats cut, but in most cases, cowering, crying, or reeling in terror at a knife poking through a door slit do not constitute actions of self-defense (although women cowering in terror is a regular motif in Argento's canon. Witness Suzy Kendall's cowering in Bird with the Crystal Plumage, when the film's gloved killer slices his way through her apartment's front door).
Fans may be thrilled by the outrageous gore in Terza madre, but those sequences are tied together by some incredibly inane moments of illogic:
After fleeing the monastery where Padre Johannes just had his throat cut and face mashed to a pulp by one of the many possessed women housed in the compound, Sarah throws her cellphone from a car to ensure she can't be tracked, but then she asks Marta to drop her off at her boyfriend's place, even though that's precisely where his son was abducted by the witch's goons, and where ancient symbols were smeared in blood in the child's bedroom.
Sarah confesses to Marta that she's been speaking to her mother's spirit (Daria Nicolodi, who appeared in and co-wrote Suspiria). Marta then shows her how to see other spirits and enjoy a more stable connection with her mum, and she tells Sarah they should contact “a great Belgian thinker' the next day, so he can ‘tell her something useful, if it's not too late.' If it you just witnessed a padre's face mashed into a schnitzel that night, maybe getting hold of the Belgian brainiac should be done post-haste?
And when Sarah bumps into her pale boyfriend, Michael (Adam James), she tells him “Let's go to my place. They won't look for you there.” Of course not, particularly after he tells her they've just killed his son.
Echoes of the Eighties
Terza madre also marks Argento's return to more overt supernatural elements which, during the eighties, led the director to make Phenomena (1985), a film that deeply divided fans because it essentially fused a giallo murder plot – a killer lancing or decapitating young girls – with extreme supernatural elements: the lead character, Jennifer, can talk to animals and insects, and her dreams provide impressionistic clues to the killer's identity.
In Terza madre, Sarah Mandy's newfound skills allow her to not only see and communicate with her mother's spirit (and presumably others), but she can also render herself invisible; whether it's an intentional effort to build her character into some natural savior or warrior against the witch, these traits feel like leftover elements from a more grand, mythical backstory that was deleted from the final shooting script.
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One also senses Sarah's boyfriend, Michael, was massively pared down; after appearing in several chunky early scenes, he disappears on some quest to find his son, reappears out of nowhere, mutters something about losing his son, and reveals he's now controlled by the witches. When Sarah sets him on fire, Argento resorts to impatient editing and fumbles what's clearly a novel terror sequence that has the human fireball slowly chasing Sarah to the basement stairwell, where he eventually breaks through the door, but is stopped by Sarah's ghostly mother before Michael drags her spirit into some pseudo-hellish vortex reminiscent of The Monster Squad (1987).
Michael is clearly established as Sarah's lover, and his character may well have been envisioned as a fellow warrior before he succumbs to the witch's influence, but the whole chain of events are done off-screen: he calls Sarah from the airport and tells her of his plans to rescue his son, stares like at idiot when two witches eye him from across the street, hangs up, and drops out of sight because whatever scenes may have been drafted would've slowed down the film, or expanded the budget beyond its tight parameters.
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There are also several major stylistic similarities between Terza madre and Argento's work from the eighties. The music score by Claudio Simonetti is more rock opera, and recalls his synth-heavy score for Demons / Demoni (1985), with slight tips into the heavy metal music Argento liked and wanted in both score and source cues for Opera (1987).
The witches who fly into Rome and converge at a deserted mansion are also costumed like eighties New Wave/punk rockers, and the film's look lacks the rich primary colour shading of Argento's more recent giallo, Sleepless / Non ho sonno (2001), let alone the deeply saturated tones of Inferno and Suspiria.
Architecture has always been a major ingredient in the look of Argento's films, as well as playing a key role: in Deep Red / Profondo rosso (1975), Marcus discovers a clue to the killer in a massive Art Nouveau mansion; the building in Inferno is custom-rigged as a giant audio-visual center through which the evil witch can follow and track her victims' comings and goings; and in Opera, the huge music palace contains ancient, labyrinthine rooms and stairwells through which the killer can hide, snatch, and torment victims.
It's therefore natural for Argento to have the great battle between Sarah and the Third Mother take place in the catacombs of a massive mansion that's been abandoned since WWII (and it's also consistent with the finales in both Suspiria and Inferno).
Unfortunately for us, the catacomb sets are phony (when Sarah runs, we hear her footsteps on wooden planks, not hard bedrock), the masses of witches from international destinations allegedly converging on Rome number about 15-20, the detective runs out of bullets before he can shoot the lead witch (which is what he should've done in the first place), and the grand battle consists of Sarah grabbing a staff, pulling off Mater Lachrimarum's red miniskirt, and tossing it into the fire, thereby neutering the enemy, and setting off the mansion's instantaneous collapse.
The witch battle is virtually done with at the snap of a finger, the detective manages to free himself off-screen and eventually reaches Sarah at street level - basically a small soundstage where Argento applies a badly-lit, poorly detailed backdrop of the street where the ruined house how rests because money for an actual set, interior or exterior, was perhaps eaten up by casting the monkey (who actually gives the most engrossing, natural performance in the film).
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The fact gore, giant boobs, fine Roman locations, and the fleeting appearance of the inimitable Udo Kier (who appeared as Dr. Frank Mandel in Suspiria) are upstaged by a scowling primate just makes Terza madre a really sad moment for Argento. It's a lazily constructed film, and a career embarrassment.
Several months after a restored print of Suspiria played in Cannes, Terza madre premiered at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, with much reported giggling in the audience; the Weinstein Company should've skipped this contrived final chapter and just theatrically re-released Suspiria, an original that keeps aging into an assaultive masterpiece whenever Argento resorts to such pale mimicry.
Sadly, Argento's next film, Giallo (2009), is only marginally better.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan