Further into the Inferno: The Follies of Deepening Suspiria’s Mythology

I love Dario Argento’s Suspira. It’s very high among my favorite titles from the Italian genre film legend, matched only by the likes of Opera & Tenebre. At the same time, I could not care less about the story Suspiria tells if I tried. Like the murder mystery gialli Argento cut his teeth directing, this is explicitly a style-over-substance endeavor, one that pays much more careful attention to the lighting of a kill & the menace of the soundtrack than the logic or structure of its mythology. Suspiria is a gorgeous, gore-coated object that overwhelms in its sensual pleasures, but does little to develop its central story beyond the elevator-pitch premise of “A ballet school run by witches.” Argento doesn’t even save the revelation of that premise for a mysterious reveal; one of the earliest scenes features a track from prog band Goblin where whispers of “Witch, witch-witch-witch” overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s such a weird impulse, then, for each of Suspiria’s later follow-ups to lean so heavily into the witchy dance school’s background mythology as if that was something the original film was missing. No Suspriria descendent follows this trivial pursuit as thoroughly as Luca Gaudagnino’s 2018 eponymous remake. Guadagningo’s Suspriria sprawls into almost a full extra hour of runtime to make room for exploring the political struggles of the coven who run the dammed dance academy, the childhood background of their latest victim Susie Banion, the cultural climate of the country outside the academy’s walls, and any number of other lore concerns that were not on Argento’s mind as much as staging witchy, ballet-themed kills. The truth is, though, that Argento himself was just as guilty of needlessly fleshing out Suspiria’s mythology; he just saved that indulgence for his own sequels to the original film. It’s also true that no mythology-minded Suspiria follow-up—whether from Guadagningo or Argento—has been especially bad, even though every single one is remarkably goofy.

Argento himself wasted zero time diving into Suspiria’s unexplored mythology in his own sequels to the film. The second title in what would eventually be know as The Three Mothers Trilogy, 1980’s Inferno, opens with characters reading large blocks of text out of a fictional book titled The Three Mothers that details lore only casually referenced in the previous film. While Suspiria briefly mentions that its German setting is just one of three connected, international covens – the others located in Rome & NYC – it doesn’t waste much time wondering what’s going on with the witches who run those other houses. Inferno, by contrast, explains in plain academic dialogue how the Mother of Sighs, the Mother of Tears, and the Mother of Darkness divvy up their geographically disparate power structure—connecting its tale of NYC witchcraft to the German events of the previous film. Still, the actual narrative of Inferno has little to do with this suddenly complex lore until the final showdown staged with the Mother of Darkness witch who resides in New York. Mostly, Argento slips back into the sensory indulgences of complexly constructed kills that guided the overall trajectory of the first film, even joking with the supposed seriousness of its mythology when a character mistakes “The Three Sisters” for an R&B vocal group. It wasn’t until the much-delayed conclusion to the trilogy, 2007’s Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, that he really committed to pretending Suspiria’s lore actually meant something, now having spent decades fleshing out its legacy. In the film, his real-life daughter Asia Argento reopens the same The Three Mothers book to kickstart her fated path to confront the titular third Mother in Rome; only this time the pursuit of that mystery & confrontation are made to be the main thrust of the text, so that the brutal gore (and shoddy CGI scares) that interrupt the mythology are more a distraction than they are the entire point. It’s no coincidence that the most mythology-obsessed entry in the Three Mothers Trilogy is also the weakest picture, artistically. Its Roman Catholic mysticism & ancient texts mysteries approximate a mid-00s horror version of The Da Vinci Code, except its guidance under the Dimension Extreme label makes it way cheaper & meaner than that may sound.

As Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake is a shameless indulgence in pure excess, it can’t help but eat up all of the lore stretched out across the entire Three Mothers Trilogy in a single sitting. Gaudagnino goes beyond the establishment of there being a coven of witches in three major cities to ask who these witches are, what political climates they have to deal with, how they delegate power, and how they select their victims. He also picks up the idea of their being a book explaining the mechanics of these covens and their respective houses by filling entire notebooks with handwritten, geometrically diagrammed explanations of how witchcraft works in this universe on a practical, if not mathematical level. This elaboration of core mythology may seem philosophically opposed to the barebones, imagery-distracted lore of the original Suspiria, but it does touch on the most core aspect of Dario Argento’s work: excess. The giallo legend may have poured more of his excessive, obsessive detail into the lighting & staging of a kill than establishing a sense of logic in the witchcraft behind it, but Guadagnino’s overly-detailed attention to the lore is still in the same sprit of unbridled, maybe even ill-advised excess. Oddly, that over-commitment to mythology ultimately has the same effect on the audience that the disregard for it achieved in Argento’s original version. There’s so much going on in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria that it’s difficult to pay attention to or emotionally invest in any one narrative thread, so that what mostly remains is the film’s sense of style. Suspiria (’77) & Inferno recognize this effect outright and fully commit to Argento’s witchcraft giallo aesthetic once they establish the basic tenants of the lore that drives their conflict. Mother of Tears & Suspiria (’18) are much more frantic in their relationship with mythology, chasing a sense of meaning so desperately in their embellishment of witchcraft lore that an overindulgence in backstory & narrative itself becomes part of the filmmaking style.

Whether keeping the mythology as thinly sketched out as it was in the original film or over-explaining superfluous new wrinkles to the lore, the overall strength of a Suspiria follow-up still lies in the pleasures of its sense of style. Inferno may be the most underrated in this regard– mixing the neon witchcraft aesthetic from its predecessor with the gloved-hand giallo kills of other Argento works & Fulci-level shameless gags singular to its own vision (there are a couple cat & rat-themed eco-horror kills I find especially pleasurable) to achieve something truly special. Suspiria (2018) is similarly pleasurable in its stylistic deviations (ultimately landing somewhere between Possession & Society, but nowhere near Argento), even if its attention to lore often feels like wasted energy. Mother of Tears is the clear weak link in the chain, but even the cheap & cheesy violence of its large-scale horror mystery has a kind of charm to it, like an especially gory episode of Masters of Horror or an expired box of Easy Mac. There are no bad Suspiria movies, but there are certainly ones that try way too hard to pretend the series’ core mythology means something; it very much doesn’t.

-Brandon Ledet

Mother of Tears (2007)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

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After nearly thirty years, Dario Argento returned to his “Three Mothers” trilogy, a sequence of films that began with Suspiria and continued with Inferno, and all of which centered around one of three ancient witches: Mater Suspiriorum of Suspiria, the Mother of Sighs, also known as Helena Markos; Mater Tenebrarum of Inferno, the Mother of Darkness; and Mater Lachrymarum, the titular Mother of Tears (and the titular third mother, per the original Italian title of La Terza madre). From the release of 1980’s Inferno until the premiere of Tears in 2007, there was much debate as to whether the trilogy would ever be concluded, and hope that it could be done so satisfactorily dwindled with each passing year. I went into this film expecting very little; perhaps that’s why, by the time the end credits rolled, I was shocked to discover that I had enjoyed it so damn much. Or maybe it’s because I’m sentimental.

Argento’s daughter with Daria Nicolodi, Asia Argento, has often discussed the contentious relationship between herself and her father. Hailed at birth as the “Princess of Horror,” Asia has revealed in interviews that she never felt as if she had Dario’s attention until she was old enough to begin appearing in front of the camera. His passion, she says, was for film over family. On the DVD of the film, released by Dimension Extreme (ugh), there is a half hour behind-the-scenes video that includes portions of a panel in which both Asia and her father participated; in it, Asia talks frankly (while Dario very subtly squirms next to her) about how working as a director made her a better actress, how she was effected by Argento and Nicolodi’s separation when she was nine, and how she convinced him to hire Nicolodi for Tears as a gesture of goodwill. “It was beautiful to see them working together on set,” she says. “Now the film’s finished and they’re back to not speaking to each other.” It’s an intensely personal nonfiction monologue, and that depth of intimacy extends into the film itself. When Asia’s character within the film weeps over photos of her long-dead mother with a baby–real photos of Daria and baby Asia–it’s intensely compelling in a way that may not be entirely earned by the film itself, but nonetheless produces a sympathetic emotional reaction that’s difficult to ignore.

The plot of Tears is much more straightforward than that of the previous two films in the trilogy. A priest uncovers a rune-covered centuries-old urn buried with a minor saint, and sends it to Roman museum curator Michael Pierce (Adam James), who he considers to be the foremost authority on occult paraphernalia. Vice-curator Giselle (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) and art restoration student Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) impatiently open the box while he is out of the office. Within, they find a knife, three statues, and a small tunic that is insistently referred to throughout the film as a talisman. Sarah leaves to retrieve a book and returns to find Giselle being brutally murdered–three monsters slice open her abdomen and then strangle her with her own intestines–and flees. She is pursued by Mater Lachrimarum’s familiar, a monkey, and is cornered for a moment before hearing a disembodied woman’s voice directing her and escaping through a door that was locked only moments before. The police are incredulous, including stunningly handsome Detective Enzo Marchi (stunningly handsome Cristian Solimeno). An evil veil then begins to fall over Rome, as interpersonal violence breaks out on an unprecedented scale and witches begin to arrive in droves. How evil and violent is the influence of Lachrymarum (Moran Atias)? A mother hacks her toddler to death with a meat cleaver before murdering a priest and then slashing her own throat (an image that is reminiscent of the end of Tenebrae). Another mother throws her baby over the side of a bridge (the horror of the latter is somewhat mitigated by the fake baby’s bathetic tumble, but it’s still a better infant prop than the “baby” in American Sniper). By the end of the film, we’ve seen assaults, murders, churches being burned to the ground by neophytes of Lachrymarum’s coven, eye-mutilating torture, a woman’s head smashed open by repeated door slams, and a seven year old being cannibalized.

Michael disappears at the hands of the witches, and Sarah escapes the city by train after defeating a hench witch (Jun Ichikawa) and learning to turn invisible from the disembodied voice (just go with it). She makes her way to see an exorcist (Udo Kier of Suspiria, although this is a different character), who provides the exposition about the urn and its owner. In his vicary, she also meets Marta (Valeria Cavalli), a self-described white witch who recognizes Sarah as the daughter of the extremely powerful but deceased good witch Elisa Mandy (Nicolodi). Elisa, the two tell Sarah, was a great force for good who fought the powerful witch Helena Markos many years before; the Three Mothers killed her in revenge, but Helena’s battle with Elisa is what weakened her to the point that she could be vanquished pretty easily by Suzy Bannion in 1977. The events of Inferno are dismissed fairly offhandedly, as they mention another sister died in New York some years prior. After more deaths, Sarah tracks down Guglielmo De Witt (Philippe Leroy), an alchemist who provides her with a copy of Varelli’s The Three Mothers, from which she learns about methods of vanquishing the witches. Lachrymarum’s power grows as new acolytes join her, and the talisman/tunic ends the prolonged weakened state she has been in since the deaths of her sisters. Marta lives long enough to show Sarah how to cause her mother’s spirit to manifest, then is murdered along with her lover. Violence continues to roil as Sarah tries to find and kill the Mother of Tears.

Does it strain credibility that someone with an academic background in art history would be surprised by the three faces of Hecate, or need to research that motif? Is the “spirit” effect used to make Nicolodi’s spectral aura hilarious in its horribly Charmed-esque failure? Does the attempt to weld together a fairly disparate canon err a little too much on the side of contrivance? Is it weird that there’s a lingering shower scene of Asia, given that the director is her father? Do the witches who show up in Rome look like the lovechildren of Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of Lost Boys and the distinctly unmenacing vampires of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie? Is there, perhaps, a little too much time spent training Sarah in her powers, given that she does very little in the way of magic and her ultimate triumph comes more from good hand-eye coordination than mysticism? Did I chuckle mirthlessly at the interview with Atias in which she talked about getting into the character of Lachrymarum, given that her entire “character” consists of being nude or nearly so while spouting ancient-sounding gibberish? The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” But did I thoroughly enjoy this movie? Also “yes.”

This movie is effectively creepy, pairing the psychological horror of a destabilizing and self-destructive society with the unhinged and violent imagery of a slasher, with some occult horror thrown in for good measure. Asia Argento turns in an absolutely dynamite performance, and looks gorgeous doing it, and her scenes with her mother are quietly beautiful despite the uncannily awful CGI–not the only bad CGI in the movie, but, to the movie’s credit, the effects are largely practical. The lighting and score are perfection, and the overall ambiance was reminiscent of Wes Craven’s work in the nineties like Scream and New Nightmare, with sumptuous visuals that play up earthtones in place of the vivid colors of Argento’s earlier work. Although the film seems to be rather widely reviled, it’s actually great–even perfect–in some places, and its weaker elements aren’t awful enough to weigh down the film as much as I expected.

This was a hard one to grade, but I’m going to have to give it four stars–with the Camp Stamp as caveat, the first time I’ve done so for an Argento movie. Partially, that’s in deference to the more silly elements (mostly the roving gangs of cackling witches and the eminently mockable sequences of Lachrymarum’s catacombs and catwalk sermons), but it’s also an admission that I can’t give this movie an exorbitant rating based on its straightforward merits alone. So much of my feelings about it are informed by the Argento-Nicolodi clan’s interpersonal relationships offscreen and my fondness for Suspiria that I couldn’t have found it within me to dislike this movie, even if it had truly been as awful as I was led to believe. Give Mother of Tears a chance; go in with an open mind, and you’ll enjoy yourself.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond