Interview: Dario Argento Sheds the Mother of All Tears
It took Dario Argento – Italy’s horror icon – thirty years to complete the “Three Mothers” trilogy he began with 1977’s SUSPIRIA, his biggest international hit. A mere three years later, he gave us the first sequel, INFERNO, but since then fans have had to wait while he pursued other interests: thrillers like TENEBRE, attempts to break into the American market (TWO EVIL EYES, TRAUMA), an eccentric interpretation of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (starring Julian Sands sans makeup), even a couple episodes of MASTERS OF HORROR series. His work has had its ups and downs, and older fans have sometimes wondered whether he had lost the spark of originality that lit up his work in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
The news that he would finally direct THE THIRD MOTHER (a.k.a. MOTHER OF TEARS) struck a note of both fascination and fear: fascination that he would at long last return to realm of supernatural (instead of psychological) horror; fear that the result could not possibly live up to nearly three decades of anticipation. Fortunately, the new film (which reaches U.S. theatres in exclusive engagements this June) is a hyper-active horror show of stunning proportions that is completely unlike what came before and yet a fully satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Critical and fan reaction has been mixed, but that is because Argento’s take-no-prisoners approach is not calculated to avoid risks; at times, it seems not calculated at all. It’s more like an eruption of horrifying nightmares that have been kept locked up for thirty years, waiting for their chance to explode on the screen.
I recently conducted a telephone interview with Argento, who is busy working on his next film GIALLO. We spoke about returning to the world of the Three Mothers, the changes in filmmaking over the years, and his career in general. Although English is not his native language, he expresses himself well; still, there are a few places where I have made the occasional grammatical correction, to ensure that the written words represent the meaning he conveyed as he spoke.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: It has been a long time since INFERNO. Did you have concerns about returning to the trilogy after all those years?
DARIO ARGENTO: The story is very long – over 25 years. At the time, I come from SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. I spent more than five years, on both films, and studied magic and painting and religion and history – many things. I was tired. I wanted new adventures. For this reason, after INFERNO I wanted to do some thrillers like TENEBRE or other types of things like OPERA. I also produced many films for my friends like Michele Soavi and Lamberto Bava. My life went in different directions. After many years, I said, ‘Yes, I will. The story is incomplete; I want to finish.’ I take a long time, for three or four years, during the shooting of a film, and I think about the story. And then suddenly a small suggestion comes in my mind. Then I start to write the story. Then collaborate with the two American writers, Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson. [Walter Fasano and Simona Simonetti also contributed to the script.] It was good. I was again enthusiastic to speak about these themes – themes of magic, themes of the occult, so many themes I know very well. The imaginary, the spectacular. Paintings, too, old paintings about the devil and the Sabbath.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: MOTHER OF TEARS seems deliberately different from the previous films.
DARIO ARGENTO: INFERNO was very different from SUSPIRIA. SUSPIRIA is a story of witches; INFERNO is about alchemy. This is different from SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. Every film of this trilogy is different from each other.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: It’s not just the subject matter. Each of the previous films revolved around a dwelling place of one of the Three Mothers; the focus was very narrow. This film covers more territory; it seems bigger, broader, more external.
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, it’s different. It’s another inspiration. I was very delighted to do this film. It was very strong in the aspect of the sex and the violence – very strong violence. I enjoy to do violence and horror things to the audience.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Is that because you need to show more even violence to scare audiences than you did with SUSPIRIA and INFERNO (both of which were pretty extreme).
DARIO ARGENTO: No, the film is this [way]. This time, I want to do something much stronger.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: In a way, your approach here reminded me of what Roger Corman did with TOMB OF LIGEIA. He had made several horror films based on Poe, and they were all pretty much set inside a single house, and most of the movies were interiors, and they were all very artificial and insulated; even the exteriors were filmed on soundstages. Then for LIGEIA he suddenly went outside and filmed on real locations and took the horror out of the shadows – put it in the real world. MOTHER OF TEARS is like that: the horror is not just in the house; it’s in the streets.
DARIO ARGENTO: It’s in the streets; it’s in the airports; it’s in the museum; it’s in the train station. It’s everywhere. In the church.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: One curious element is the monkey that helps the witches. You expect witches to be surrounded by cats (like the the one the Mother of Tears was holding in INFERNO).
DARIO ARGENTO: The monkey is not a slave of the witch; the monkey is a witch himself. Because a witch is not necessarily a woman. Sometimes a witch is a monkey or a dog.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: SUSPIRIA took its title from “Suspiria De Profundis,” a book by Thomas De Quincy (author of CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM EATER), which included the essay “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” describing “three sisters” named Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum. Most audiences did not make the connection at the time; what was going on behind the scenes in the German Dance Academy was a mystery, except that it involved an old witch. INFERNO filled in the back story: that the architect-alchemist Varelli had built three dwelling places, one each for the Mother of Sighs (SUSPIRIA), the Mother of Darkness (INFERNO), and now the Mother of Tears. Now that the audience knows all this, it must have been very hard to come up with something new that would surprise them.
DARIO ARGENTO: It’s not my purpose to surprise people. I want to just tell stories. Stories which come from my mind, my imagination. This is my purpose really. To [make] real my imagination, my fantasies.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: One surprise for me was the home of Mater Lachrymarum. I thought INFERNO hinted that the Mother of Tears lived in the Biblioteca Filosofica in Rome, but her dwelling seems completely different in the new film?
DARIO ARGENTO: She lives there sometime, yes. Everybody lives in a house different. She lives in the catacombs, because catacombs are full of souls, people who died – many, many thousands die and are in the catacombs. She is very happy to live with these lost souls in the catacombs.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: On the DVD for INFERNO you called it one of your most difficult films to make. How does MOTHER OF TEARS compare?
DARIO ARGENTO: Very difficult, very difficult. To imagine it, also to shoot it. First time I use the digital effects – not first time, but first time so strong, so many. This was difficult for me, because I like much more for it to be real, to look real. But sometimes the digital helps.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: You write and direct. When you’re shooting a film, do you ever feel that you wrote something too difficult to achieve?
DARIO ARGENTO: No, no, not too hard, never too hard. I hope to [make] something hard – and more hard than the film [I just finished]. I prefer to do another film that is much harder. Because life is not so easy. The imagination of people is unbelievable. I know the imagination of many people, normal people, but the imagination sometimes is horrible, terrible, disgusting. This is a part of our soul – the dark soul.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: In America, horror films often get toned down, to make them less dark. Is it different in Italy?
DARIO ARGENTO: No, no – the same problem. Because the financers want to distribute the film for television. Television doesn’t want too strong. Always the same problem. But I don’t care. Television doesn’t want because is too strong; okay – to me, is better. The DVD is free; the DVD is the new world – the new, free world. Okay – I have the DVD. I don’t have the TV; it’s okay, too – better.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: This film is a bit of a family reunion. You’re working with your daughter Asia, who appeared in TRAUMA, THE STENDAHL SYNDROME, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. And with Daria Nicolodi, who co-wrote SUSPIRIA with you.
DARIO ARGENTO: Because this is the third episode – the ending also – I wanted many people to participate who worked with me on the other episodes. Like the German actor Udo Kier; he was with me in SUSPIRIA. Asia was my muse. Daria worked with me many years ago. Many people were involved with this [trilogy].
STEVE BIODROWSKI: I liked that you have Udo Kier, who was in SUSPIRIA, play a character who delivers the exposition about what happened in SUSPIRIA. Also, MOTHER OF TEARS has an alchemist in a wheel chair who connects the new film to INFERNO, which had an alchemist in a wheel chair.
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, everybody tied together.
I would also like, not now, but maybe in the next ten years, maybe to do another episode about where these strange things were born. In MOTHER OF TEARS I say all the magic sorcerers were born in the Black Sea. Because many famous spiritualists come from the Black Sea. Then maybe one time – I don’t know when – I do a film about the birth of the magic, of the people.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Where did you find actress Moran Atias, who plays the title role?
DARIO ARGENTO: In Israel. She is an actress in Israel. Pretty famous. Before her, I see -because I want some face very strange, exotic – I see many actresses from Ukraine. From Belgium. From Poland. From Mongolia, too. I see many, many beautiful girls, women, from everywhere. Then, when I see her, I was, ‘Okay, she is my Mother of Tears.’
In INFERNO, we told about the Mother of Tears: the Mother of Tears is a beauty. For this reason, I wanted to have her completely naked. Because when you have a beautiful witch you don’t want to cover her magnificent body. Then you are naked, because Truth is naked, no?
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Have you seen the film with an audience?
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, many times. One time recently, five days ago in London, in a big theatre, beautiful. People screaming. Somebody said, ‘We see the most horrible film in my life.’ Like the mother killed the child on the river. People are frantic! Plus I see the film in festivals in two places, in Toronto and in Rome, and it was good! I was happy, because now after many years people start to understand my work, my style, what I want to do, to tell to the audience.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Are you ever surprised by the experience of watching one of your films in a theatre?
DARIO ARGENTO: No, I am very disturbed! I don’t like to see my films with the audience. No really, I don’t like it, because they put too many emotions in my mind. After the film, I am without breath [he sighs heavily] – ‘Oh my god!’
STEVE BIODROWSKI: What are you most proud of achieving with MOTHER OF TEARS?
DARIO ARGENTO: This time the story is put in the real world. Not closed in a house or in a museum. This is everywhere: in the airports, in the train station, on the streets – everywhere. There is something real. To show how life is under bad powers. We don’t understand, but it’s real. Bad powers – maybe it’s with the mask of politics, but these are bad powers, too. People are crazy, and the city explodes!
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Has making movies changed much since SUSPIRIA?
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, of course. It’s changed a lot. Everything has changed from SUSPIRIA to today. Every five years, our life changes a lot. Me, too: I’m changed – my style. Movie film has changed because now we have digital special effects – very good, very bright, with wonderful technicians.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Today’s movies often seem to borrow from your films, like the taxi ride in THE GRUDGE (which director Takashi Shimizu calls an homage to a similar scene in SUSPIRIA). Do you often go to movies and notice bits taken from your films?
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, in art history we have people who take something from another, like Quentin Tarantino. In GRINDHOUSE he takes the music from BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. But there is also another shot in GRINDHOUSE from my film SLEEPLESS – one long shot around the table without cuts. It was the same, but it was good. I was happy, because when he does these things, it shows he appreciates; he loves my work!
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Speaking of THE GRUDGE, Takashi Shimizu’s films seem very influenced by INFERNO. You have a loose collection of characters who are pursued by this irrational supernatural force that seems to have no clear rhyme or reason. Are you familiar with J-Horror?
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, I know the Japanese very well, because I am very friendly with Japanese movie people and the designers of Manga. They are big friends of mine. When I go to Japan, people are enthusiastic. One of the big successes of my life was SUSPIRIA in Japan. It was enormously successful. Also it’s number three of the hit parade in China. You imagine in China! Three hundred million copies! Not the real number, but it’s something enormous.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: In TENEBRE, your first film after INFERNO, you killed off the actress, Ania Pieroni, who was briefly glimpsed as Mater Lachrymarum, and some critics thought it was your way of killing off any hope for the third MOTHER film. I wondered if the death of the Jun Ichikawa character was a jab at Japanese horror films: they feature these evil female characters who are relentless and unstoppable, yet you kill one off very easily.
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes, of course! And very fast!
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Because you make thrillers and horror films, people compare you to Hitchcock or Mario Bava or Brian DePalma. Are there other influences that people do not see, other filmmakers whom you admire, like Antonioni?
DARIO ARGENTO: Yes. Ingmar Bergman, of course. Also American movies we call ‘black movies’ [film noir] of the ‘40s like CAT PEOPLE, the films of Jacques Tourneur [who also directed NIGHT OF THE DEMON].
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Do you think your films are misunderstood? For instance, critics say you are not interested in story, only in visuals?
DARIO ARGENTO: No, people understand, but the critics don’t understand very well. But critics are not important – absolutely not important. Because now audiences don’t believe anymore in critics. Many years ago critics wrote long articles about films. Now in seven lines they are finished: ‘The story is this. The actor is this. The color is good.’ Finished. This is a critic! Nothing!
STEVE BIODROWSKI: On the audio commentary for TENEBRE, Loris Curci tries to get you to explain the film, but you resist. Do you prefer not to explain your work? Would you rather have viewers figure it out for themselves?
DARIO ARGENTO: I like people to understand the movies without my lesson from the teacher. When you watch a movie, you understand your truth. It’s not my truth maybe, but your truth is okay.