Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Mother of a Day

I'm out of the loop when people describe Charles Kaufman's Mother's Day ('80) as "great cheese". It's a patronizing, back-handed compliment that demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the film's brilliance.

I think it's one of the greatest horror films ever made, and a truly worthy successor to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that isn't satisfied duplicating its inspiration's assets. Instead, it adds a consumerist subtext while adhering to and bending genre conventions at unexpected moments.

Written by Charles Kaufman (Lloyd's much more talented brother) and Warren Leight, who went on to write and produce Law and Order - Criminal Intent, it is an extremely well made, tightly scripted film that moves like a rocket, presents a trio of female characters who feel very real, nails its black humor every time, and lathes on the violence and gore.

Its contemporaries can't hold a candle to it.

Yet it was sold and reviewed like it was throw-away batshit.

Its writing is its strength. The first fifteen minutes, in which the three heroines are introduced, is a textbook example of economic scripting.

With deft, broad, intelligent strokes, Kaufman and Leight introduce us to three friends whose lives could not be more dissimilar.

Each year, however, their differences equalize when they come together for a weekend getaway that is like a female version of the Deliverance set-up.

The horror begins when the women are attacked in their sleeping bags...

... by two playful, semi-retarded, permanent adolescents (played with frightening realism by Frederick Coffin and Michael McCleery).

The boys, who are dominated by a neurotic, psychotic, paranoid Mother (Rose Ross), drag the girls to their house in the woods. Encouraged by Mother...

... they torture and sexually assault the girls until they get bored. They work that off by punching each other out in the yard and stabbing human effigies. One of the girls takes this opportunity to escape and seek help.


Are you fucking kidding! Mother's Day is kind of like the party prankster who goes too far.

Instead of blowing up a condom and stretching it over his head, he throws gasoline over the shy girl and sets her on fire.

The difference is, this prankster manages to put the fire out just in time. This balance of the real with the outrageous is what makes Mother's Day such a fine piece of exploitation.

The clutter of of the set design is inspired by Texas Chainsaw, but the substance is pure pop culture.

The two sons have been raised as unthinking, lustful thugs in a house that resembles a garish museum of late 20thy century consumerism. They are woken each morning by a Big Bird clock, brush their teeth with Cheez Whiz, and argue over the merits of disco and punk.

The writers, in a rare feat, get to have it their cake and eat it, too. They deliver very dark, disturbing "comedy", while lathering on the Grand Guignol.

Technically, especially for a low budget film, Mother's Day is a revelation. Joseph Mangine, who shot Squirm ('76), the X-rated Captain Lust ('77), Alone in the Dark ('82), and Charles Band's brilliant X-rated Cinderella ('77), does a knock-up job with the film's lighting and swift camera work.

The scenes of the house in the woods bloom with a searing brightness that one-ups James Lemmo's impressive nighttime photography of Joe Giannone's Madman ('82). The interiors are extra-bright like toy commercials, and the hand-held camera work is perfectly measured and never vomit-inducing. The original music, mostly synth, by Phil Gallo and Clem Vicari Jr., perfectly compliments the film's many tonal shifts.

The only questionable step is the final shot of the earless "Queenie" springing out from behind a bush to claim the lives of the survivors.

It's not terrible, but it feels like an afterthought in a film that felt so intelligently structured.

The infamous "Shirley Temple" sequence, in which the two brain-damaged sons play a disturbing rape game with one of the girls, is very strong stuff.

Kaufman plays it smartly because he knows exactly when to push a scene and when to pull it back. His direction is consistently inventive and clear-headed throughout.

Mother's Day is great horror in my book. The only "cheese" I saw was the Cheez Whiz that was being used as toothpaste by the film's village idiots.

This is also one of the very few horror films in which the female characters are sensitively portrayed and feel authentic in context.

The death of one of the women has a seriously tragic edge.

If any film needs a serious re-consideration, this is it.


  1. Great images. Very cool. I love this movie. I saw it when we first got our VCR back in the mid-80's. I always thought it was a lot of fun.

  2. I like the film, but I check out at the point when the self-proclaimed 'Rat-Pack' are gloating about how awesome they are at pranking people. I didnt find the girls nearly as relateable, but at the same time I didnt find the performances to be overly lacking. I hadnt considered the materialistic undertones previously, so on my next watchthrough I will definitely have your review in mind!

  3. Forgot to add, would the term campy be better suited over cheesy? I typically use the terms interchangeably, but I know they have much different contexts.

  4. Bravo! An homage as excellent as the work it serves to praise!

    Terrific stuff!

  5. Mother's Day is fucking fantastic! And mean! Plus, it combines my love of backwards sadistic hicks with my love of developmentally arrested mama's boys.

    I have recently watched The Moonlight Sonata, a Finnish film sometimes known rather aptly as Mother's Day 2. I daresay you would like this tense and sleazy little gem.

  6. Keith -- it's definitely a lot of fun.


    dragonmanes -- point well made. It's different strokes where these matters are concerned.

    I think "campy" is a little kinder. I still don't quite understand how it applies to Mother's Day, though.

    I remember John Woo's The KIller being described as "camp" in the US trailer. I didn't get it.

    "Camp" may be an umbrella term describing films with elements that are usually at odds with each other in terms of genre. Just a thought.


    d -- I hear you! I love backwards hicks and the developmentally arrested.

    I must track down Moonlight Sonata. Thanks for the rec.

  7. I think the defintion of 'camp' is an excellent topic for discussion, although I suspect it has been done on other sites.

    It would be difficult to explore the defenition of 'camp' without factoring in some level of 'gay-ness', but that might be a somewhat anachronistic way of thinking. John Waters springs to mind as an excellent defnition of 'camp', but this might also be because it is obvious, convenient, and hence not always correct; although I think to some extent he cultivates this characteristic.

    Browsing through his list of favourite films, anything Waters likes would seem to fall under the 'camp' umbrella, from Douglas Sirk to certain Russ Meyer pictures, (primarily 'Faster Pussycat', which I think would have to apply).

    Come to think of it, most films are exemplified as camp by their dialogue. 'My Son John' starring Robert Walker as a young lad 'coming out' about his communism merely swaps pink for red. And the dialogue, although played straight is overwrought, and at times overly hysterical. It plays just as well as a story about a young man coming out about his homosexuality as it does his communist tendencies, and the definition of 'camp' might well lie in this substitution, as well as some of the other elements.

    I think true 'camp' often best describes many pictures made before the word came into popular usage. Invariably, when a film tries to be camp, it usually fails; I have to say that when the characteristic is achieved by default, it succeeds the best.

    Film makers rarely suceed in being 'camp' when they try to be, any more than they can make a 'cult' film when they try.

    And I do not necessarily regard 'camp' to be a bad thing. More often than not, it is a positive thing, and for me makes for an enjoyable viewing experience.

    But cheesy? This would be 'bad', to my way of thinking, but nothing springs to mind as a good example.

    Perhaps for good reason.

  8. GREAT article & pics---I first saw this on a 1982 or '83 double bill with Scavolini's NIGHTMARE.

  9. Nick -- excellent double feature. I'm itching to see NIGHTMARE (uncut) on dvd some time. Been delayed for a while.