Sadly, Dario Argento has now been directing disappointing-to-disastrous movies for twice as long as he made remarkable-to-brilliant cinema; between Tenebrae and Phenomena, a switch flipped and each new film has been a tough watch for those who loved the ‘early, funny movies’ (picking up on that reference, there are many parallels between the careers and artistries of Woody Allen and Dario Argento – though Argento is stuck in the Cassandra’s Dream mire, with no Vicky Christina Barcelona uplift in sight). If La Terzia Madre/Mother of Tears was like watching the lasting achievements of Suspiria and Inferno torn to pieces by harpies, this isn’t quite as great an assault on Argento’s non-supernatural thriller mode – if only because a seam of humour is introduced, perhaps by Adrien Brody against the writer-director’s wishes, that at least makes the more ridiculous stretches laugh-out-loud absurd. Using this title implies an ambition to sum up a whole genre, the way Love Story or Ghost Story do: but this is just another giallo rather than a definitive essay. Mostly, it’s a dispiriting shambles, especially when echoing the old Argento – in early sequences, Japanese tourist Keiko (Valentina Izumi) and French model Celine (Elsa Pataky) take taxis in the rain and are driven through the streets of Rome away from their intended destinations. Suspiria and Inferno feature similar sequences which are riots of bravura effects, mixing sound and music to perfection, and inflating a red herring into a set-piece. Here, the taxi rides aren’t a red herring – the cabbie actually is the killer – but the effect is a flat reprise, which unwisely reminds you of lost glories.
The maniac (Brody, billed as ‘Byron Diedra’) has the puffy-faced, big-nosed, all-over make-up job look of Gregg Henry as the Indian in DePalma’s Body Double. Known as ‘giallo’ because jaundice gives his skin a yellowish tinge, he also sports a Rambo wig and headband, a jutting chin and a resentment of beautiful, foreign women. He cuts up girls’ faces while they’re chained to a table in his lair (a disused gasworks) and, like several other recent torture freaks (cf: Scar), likes to overlap victims, so he works on one while the next is in the room being softened up. Giallo also masturbates while looking at images of mutilated women on his PC, mumbles incoherently, has a flashback to his miserable origins as a hooker’s cast-off kid and needs to keep regular hospital appointments which eventually allow the hero to catch up. Inspector Enzo Avolfi (also Brody) is a lone, unconventional cop who works out of the basement and specialises in bizarro cases like this. The viewpoint character is Linda (Emmanuelle Seignier, looking rough), Celine’s worried sister, who latches on to Enzo and follows him around as he does his sleuth thing. If Giallo is an extreme version of the sort of misogynist loons who stalk in The Card Player or Sleepless, Enzo is a more original character, even if he overlaps with Dexter. After witnessing his mother’s murder as a child, Enzo happened across the killer (a butcher) while in his mid-teens and brutally slaughtered the bastard, which brought him to the attention of his cop patron (Robert Miano) – who found him red-handed, but accepted his explanation and set him on the path to being useful in society (it’s suggested he’s been killing killers off the books ever since, though he’s not a full-blown serial murderer). Brody and Seignier have hilarious scenes as Enzo gives a hardboiled precis of his origins and m.o. and, after a finale in which the killer is done away with but the sister isn’t rescued, the relationship sours as Enzo walks away miserably while the heroine shrieks that he’s a useless asshole. It’s just possible there’s irony here, stressed in a silly coda as a random cop finds the leftover victim tied up in a car boot.
Argento has complained that this was taken away from him and re-edited, so it might not be all his fault – then again, it’s marginally less terrible than Mother of Tears, which he was happy to sign, so perhaps it was once even worse. By now, it’s beside the point to complain about the repeated abuse-of-pretty-women theme, since there isn’t even a sado-erotic charge to the overfamiliar torture scenes; it’s maybe more offensive that this harks back to the Rondo Hatton theory that disfiguring diseases produce serial killers, but Giallo isn’t even as yellow as the Yellow Bastard in Sin City.