The advent of a Dario Argento film is an undoubted occasion, whether or not one to celebrate. Not since 1991, by my records, has one of his films circulated in American theaters, and only then because of the gimmicky marriage of him and fellow bloodletter George A. Romero, each director doing half of Two Evil Eyes, a pair of Poe adaptations. It has been just over thirty years, from the milestone of Suspiria, since he was a consistent presence. Consistent, to be precise, for a small sum of seven years. The coming of video had a major role to play in this, a cheap and easy way to reroute his films: Inferno, Unsane, Creepers, and onward. In addition to which, the coming of Leatherface, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason, and their ilk, to found a homegrown breed of slasher films, had a role to play as well. American gore in the Seventies, like American sex, had caught up with European and chased it out of the market. (Even if the American sense of style still lagged behind.) Argento has been luckier than some, in that his films have been regularly made available on video, and it has been possible to keep track of him that way. But if things like Trauma, Sleepless, and The Stendhal Syndrome, although not without traces of interest, seem less memorable than his early works, the question arises as to whether (a) films seen on the little screen tend inherently to be less memorable than those seen on the big, (b) my memory is not what it once was, or (c) they are in fact less memorable.
Mother of Tears, opening a week’s run Friday at the Ken Cinema, may shed light on the question. Ostensibly this completes the trilogy begun with Suspiria and Inferno, or in other words the trilogy suspended more than a quarter-century ago. My memory is positively not good enough to make clear connections across that span of time, especially since I saw the trilogy’s middle section in Avignon without aid of the English language. (Here, in any event, would be the place to state my preference for Argento’s nonsupernatural films, the rational mysteries solved not only by reason but by the roiling subconscious: Deep Red stands as my peak recommendation if you must have peak quantities of gore, or if you’ll settle for less, then his pattern-setting first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.) Daria Nicolodi, I can recollect, had a part in that middle film, though I couldn’t say for sure if it’s the same part as her small part in the new film, a guardian-angel ghost looking out for her psychically gifted daughter, played by her actual daughter, Asia Argento, with undoctored baby photos for documentation. (The director is of course the star’s father, a relationship that didn’t stand in the way of a nude shower scene.) The ghost’s passing-along of the gift of invisibility, enabling the heroine to disappear from her pursuers in a train-depot bookshop, provides the film’s creepiest effect: the squint-eyed policeman unable to see what is literally under his nose. Regardless of whether it’s the same role — and let it be noted that the snowy-haired Udo Kier can’t be repeating his role from Suspiria— it seems inexplicable, if the likes of Sylvia Browne and James Van Pragh are to be believed, that she has continued to age on the Other Side, a process undisguised by soft focus and medium long shots.
The central storyline, which can stand or fall on its own, concerns the unearthing of an antique urn in a church graveyard, the unleashing thereby of the most powerful witch in the world, the rallying of an army of lesser witches (more like a convention of saucy punk rockers), and the touching-off of random violence in the streets, heralding the Second Fall of Rome. The treatment is unabashedly schlocky, the dialogue ticklingly lame (“Hey, there’s something down here,” and “I just can’t get my head around it,” and “There’s more to this case than we think,” and, my best laugh, “I’m only a psychic. I can communicate with spirits, but that’s about it”), and the intervals between bloodbaths thankfully long. Yet the whole thing, like Romero’s Diary of the Dead earlier in the year, seems stunted, stuck, unadventurous — and aside from an extreme closeup of a scalpel slicing through the wax seal of the urn, it misses the fetishistic tactility that so grabbed the eye in the early days. In the final analysis, it comes across as not so much a blast from the past as a last gasp. Granted, not all filmmakers can grow like Clint Eastwood, but some of them do at least manage to get out of adolescence. And, while I admit I had been eagerly looking forward to the film, it’s a pretty screwy state of affairs when a sometime “art house” in the Landmark chain offers the only sanctuary to the spectacle of a woman getting disembowelled and then strangled in her own entrails, or another woman getting skewered from vagina through gaping mouth. (I can but hope, big screen notwithstanding, that this too will prove unmemorable. Time, I have every expectation, will soon tell.) With the vanishing of the downtown grindhouse and the suburban drive-in, there might simply no longer be a comfortable home for Argento. The coming of the shopping-mall multiplex has had its role to play, too.
The Happening, the ill-named new chiller by M. Night Shyamalan, not to be confused with the Swinging Sixties caper by Elliot Silverstein (title tune by the Supremes), also unleashes a wave of random violence in the streets, albeit most of it self-inflicted: a lunch-hour idler puncturing her carotid with a hair stick, a traffic cop turning his gun on himself, a steady rain of construction workers stepping off their girders into thin air. The cause of all this is nothing so clear-cut as an ascendant sorceress. Biological terrorism would be the natural first suspicion, but the proliferation of the phenomenon over several states in the Northeast points away from that theory. Could it be an airborne neurotoxin released by plants, a planet in revolt? Or perhaps something from another sort of plant, the nuclear-power type? Or something from a military experiment gone haywire? We know only enough to classify it as science fiction, doomsday division. And as in the filmmaker’s Signs, the arena of action shrinks to the small scale of a Fifties B-movie: an already uneasy married couple in flight from the center of Shyamalan’s universe, Philadelphia, by train, by car, by foot. In size, it’s not unlike last year’s underappreciated The Mist, except that the tangible monsters of the latter are more fun, if also more impersonal, than Shyamalan’s congenital angst. Liberated (after Lady in the Water) from the obligation of a Surprise Ending, though still a victim of exorbitant expectations, the director makes good use of Mark Wahlberg’s furrowed brow and Zooey Deschanel’s wide eyes; and the menace of ordinary trees, grasses, breezes is efficiently manufactured; and a couple of genuine chills are ultimately drummed up around the house of an inhospitable hermit. All in all, the film measures up well enough to the director’s overrated best work, The Sixth Sense, at any rate when measured independent of box-office receipts, another area affected by exorbitant expectations.