Sunday 9 May 2021

Mother’s Day (1980)

Director: Charles Kaufman
Writers: Charles Kaufman and Warren Leight
Stars: Holden McGuire, Billy Ray McQuade, Rose Ross, Nancy Henderickson, Deborah Luce and Tiana Pierce

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

At no moment in this film does anyone actually confirm that its events are taking place on Mother’s Day, making it something of a cheat for this project, but I have my reasons. For one, at no moment in this film does anyone say that its events aren’t taking place on Mother’s Day. For two, the subtext of the movie, which digs deep into consumerism and blindly rewarding mothers, regardless of whether they’re worthy or not, is perfect for a modern consumerist holiday like Mother’s Day. And, for three, while that bastion of low budget independent filmmaking, Troma Studios, produced this picture themselves, they also distributed a later homage in Father’s Day, which absolutely has ties to its titular holiday. In other words, if this film isn’t set on Mother’s Day, it ought to be, and, quite frankly, every consumerist holiday on the calendar should be commemorated in a film made by Troma. I’ll start a petition to have them tackle Valentine’s Day and Grandparents’ Day, Black Friday and Prime Day, and especially Singles Day.

If you don’t know Troma, I should introduce you. Troma Entertainment was founded in 1974 by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz and they specialise in making and distributing low budget movies. No, that’s not enough, because lots of companies do that; Troma do it in a very particular way. By low budget, I mean really low budget, to the degree that sometimes there’s no budget. Traditional attributes like the ability of actors to act or scripts to make sense are far from priorities, but the abilities to shock, scare and ick out are. Many of the most disgusting, most outrageous and most offensive movies ever shot were either made or distributed by Troma and the company would take those descriptions as compliments; they might even throw them onto their DVD covers as quotes, in luminous lime green over a splatter of diarrhoea. And, with that unwelcome image stuck in your brain, I’ll point out that this film, as disgusting, outrageous and offensive as it is, is surprisingly well made and worthy of much critical comment.

It was, I believe, only the second movie Troma made themselves, following a sex comedy called Squeeze Play!, and the director and co-writer was Kaufman’s brother, Charles, who demonstrates a lot of imagination here. It looks like a slasher movie and, to a large degree it is, but it’s neither just a slasher movie nor one that follows the rules of its genre, partly because they hadn’t all been put down on celluloid yet. It’s also a rape-revenge flick and a backwoods hillbilly horror, though it doesn’t follow the rules of either of those genres either. It’s torture porn, long before anyone named that genre. And, at heart, it’s not really horror at all, because it’s fundamentally a satire. In some ways, it’s notably ahead of its time, one reason why contemporary reviewers despised it, but it also plays as a video nasty era throwback to the Grand Guignol. It goes wildly over the top to make social comment, so far that we laugh aloud or squeeze our eyes shut and miss what Kaufman and co-his writer and later Pulitzer-nominee, Warren Leight, just pulled.

They start by playing with expectations, setting us up for one thing but then giving us another. For instance, we begin by panning across a room of passive seventies faces, with mildly ominous synth music floating behind them. Then Kaufman springs on us that they’re a graduating class of Ernie’s Growth Opportunity, or EGO, a self help group that’s a parody of Erhard Seminars Training, or EST, which was popular at the time, though some critics labelled it a cult. Ernie has everyone kiss their neighbour and say, “Thank you for sharing with me. I love you.” We follow three graduates: a pair of young hippies, who need a ride to the bus station, and an old lady in a neckbrace, who’s happy to oblige. As she drives into the countryside, Charlie plays with his garotte and we know that they’re going to kill their benefactor. But, the car breaks down, two grotesque men spring out of nowhere to decapitate Charlie and we realise that the old lady’s in charge. “Thank you for sharing with me,” she tells the girl. “I love you.” And strangles her to death.

Yes indeed, Mother, who has no other name in this film, lives in the woods with a pair of murderous sons, who kill, rape and maim for the entertainment and approval of their beloved mother. Enter a trio of young ladies on a reunion trip and it doesn’t take a heck of a lot of imagination to see where we’re going. You’ve seen this sort of movie before, right? Well, what’s surprising is the amount of serious effort given to building the characters of these young ladies, because that never happens in this sort of movie. That starts during the opening credits, with the trio providing a running commentary to a literal slideshow highlighting all the fun they had together as roommates a decade earlier at Wolfbreath University. These actresses, none of whom had acted in film before and none of whom did much again, bounce off each other perfectly and we honestly believe in the Rat Pack being so tight a group that they’ll drop everything for their annual weekend reunion, always planned by one of them without the others knowing any details at all.

This time around, it’s Jackie’s turn to organise and her mystery weekend is a camping trip to Deep Barons, somewhere in the woods of New Jersey. We can easily see the appeal of escape to these three. Trina might live in Beverly Hills, organising pool parties for the rich and famous, but they’re clearly a drag and she craves real companionship. Abbey takes care of her abusive mother in Chicago, who would drive a saint nuts. “I’m a sick woman!” she screams, like a mantra, and Abbey’s eager to get out of there, even if only for a weekend. Jackie lives in New York and has terrible choice in men. “I’d work 9 to 5 if I could,” her current one says, snorting coke and stealing money out of her purse. “I love you,” she says tentatively, before opening the door, and he fails to notice. At this point, the Drexburg Bus Terminal is a step up for each of them and the countryside that follows is gorgeous, even if Trina and Abbey can’t see it as Jackie makes them put bags over their heads to maintain the surprise. That makes for fun times at the backwoods grocery.

Even though I’ve seen this film more than once, there are points here where I completely forget I’m watching a horror movie. The Rat Pack are so natural together that I’m caught up in the reminiscences. Who could forget Brad “Call Me Dobber” Dobson, Jackie’s crush who, of course, only wants one thing from her? She set up a date on the pitcher’s mound but wandered off to get the body oil while he strips off to I Think We’re Alone Now by Tommy James & The Shondells. He’s doing press ups in the nude when the Rat Pack switch on the stadium lights and Trina starts a running commentary as he escapes into the night. I believe Kaufman knew full well that we’d get caught up in this stuff too, because he throws in reminders, such as Jackie going off to pee but coming back with a fake knife in her back, like she’s been stabbed by a backwoods maniac. It serves not just to build the bond between these girls in our minds but to remind us that we’re still watching a horror movie. Eventually, of course, we realise someone is watching them.

For some reason, Ike and Addley, Mother’s two boys, let the girls be that evening and the whole of the next day and I can’t help but wonder if that was a connection to the title in the original draught of the script, even though nobody mentions it in the final movie. There’s no obvious reason why these two homicidal nitwits should show such restraint, unless the girls arrive on a Friday evening and Ike and Addley kidnap them on Saturday night to deliver as a Mother’s Day gift. Almost all countries celebrate Mother’s Day on a Sunday, perhaps because the modern incarnation evolved out of Christian celebrations like Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, though that’s supposed to be a celebration of the Mother Church. Many countries celebrate Mother’s Day as at least partly a religious celebration, often tied to the Virgin Mary, especially in Roman Catholic nations. Others lose the focus on mothers, tying it instead to International Women’s Day in early March. So maybe the last hour of this really is set on Mother’s Day.

Of course, nowadays, what most of us know as Mother’s Day is a secular holiday, celebrated on the second Sunday of May, and that grew out of a memorial held in Grafton, WV in 1908 for Ann Reeves Jarvis. She had been a nurse who helped soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War and, along with a fellow suffragette, Julia Ward Howe, had pushed for a Mother’s Day dedicated to peace. In fact, in 1870, she issued a Mother’s Day Proclamation, calling for mothers of all nations to collectively work to promote peace. It never happened so, after her death in 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, took up that flag and campaigned for a Mother’s Day in her mother’s honour. The 1908 memorial became the first such celebration and St. Andrew’s Methodist Church, where it took place, is home today to the International Mother’s Day Shrine. Anna’s campaign was rejected by Congress in 1908, joking that it would lead to a Mother-in-Law’s Day, but, by 1911, every U.S. state had adopted the holiday and Woodrow Wilson made it official in 1914.

Ironically, it promptly turned into a holiday that Anna Jarvis hated, a philosophical clash that surrounds every commercial holiday today. She had meant for it to be about sentiment rather than profit, given that a mother is “the person who has done more for you than anyone else in the world,” but instead of writing personal letters to their mums, people started buying cards from companies like Hallmark instead and Jarvis saw that commercialisation as exploitation. She had actually trademarked Mother’s Day, with that exact spelling because it was for everyone to recognise their own mother rather than every mother everywhere, and threatened a series of lawsuits against companies who abused her creation. She organised boycotts of her own day and protested at a meeting of American War Mothers, who were selling carnations, her own Mother’s Day symbol, to raise funds. She would absolutely despise what Mother’s Day has become and, while she’d despise this movie too, I think she might just get some perverse pleasure out of it.

I wonder how much perverse pleasure some of these actors had making this movie, because quite a few of them did so under fake names. Ike and Addley, who leap out of the darkness, tie the girls up in their own sleeping bags and drag them through the woods to mum, are played by Holden McGuire and Billy Ray McQuade. Those might seem like good ol’ boy names and that’s because they made them up. The former is really Frederick Coffin, already an experienced actor and now even more so, with a hundred credits on mainstream films and TV shows like Wayne’s World and Dallas. The latter is really Michael McCleery, who has less of a career but still a career, with roles in eleven films including L.A. Confidential and Joy Ride. Perhaps most surprising to find here is Beatrice Pons, who took the name of Rose Ross to play Mother. She’d been retired for over a decade at this point and was best known for sitcoms, having played Joe E. Ross’s wife on both The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You?

It’s fair to say that none of them acted in anything like this again. Coffin and McCleery both play dumb as the boys. Ike has a set of scary false teeth and mumbles through them, like he’s a retarded Lee Marvin. Addley is like a hyperactive hillbilly version of Bruce Springsteen. They rape Jackie first, but while her Rat Pack sisters experience the pain by proxy in another room, the act itself is bizarre. It’s vicious, of course, but it’s also staged, as a sort of skit for Mother. Addley puts on a French accent and a variety routine with an invisible dog. The boys even break off the rape when Mother criticises their performance and so they switch to “the Shirley Temple”. A rape scene should never feel comfortable, but this one feels disturbing in unusual ways and it’s here that we remember what Mother told the two hippies at the beginning: she keeps in touch with the world through TV. And as we kick off the next day, perhaps Mother’s Day, everything’s pop culture. Which side are you on? Punk or disco? And did you have a Fonz pinball table?

The boys are even woken up by a Sesame Street alarm clock, which isn’t just a reflection of their mental age but a striking reminder of how surreal their world is. “Come on now,” says Big Bird, “one foot out of bed, now the other.” We can’t miss that when this icon of American childhood wants them to “have a nice day”, this particular nice day will involve them raping two women that they abducted from a campsite. That’s not immediately on their mind, either. First, it’s breakfast time and a wide array of brand names that we know Mother must have bought because she saw their ads on TV. Every time we see the television, it’s playing an ad. Now this film was made on a skimpy $115,000 budget, so I’m not buying into Troma paying any of the companies whose brands appear here for their inclusion. I doubt any of them would have approved that anyway, even if they’d been approached. Then it’s exercise time and nap time and horsing around time, all with Mother looking proudly on and smiling at how well her boys have turned out.

Of course, rape-revenge movies come in two sections and the second is pretty tense. The girls get loose, find Jackie and get her out of there, though she dies before they get out of the woods. There’s a scene where Abbey lowers Trina out of the window, just as she did for a date in college, but it tears her hands up; she keeps quiet and internalises the pain because Addley is right below them. It’s powerful stuff, especially for Nancy Hendrickson as Abbey, who has quite the character arc here. I’ve lost track of how many films I’ve seen with women being pursued in the woods but there’s real tension in this one because Kaufman just keeps on setting us up for one thing and then showing us something else entirely. Nothing here goes as we expect and, quite frankly, we expect films like this to go exactly how we expect. Kaufman even flips Mother’s happy, albeit crazy, family on its head, throwing in back story and injecting sympathy where most filmmakers would avoid it, right up to the last death scene, which is an honest Mother’s Day gift.

Don’t get me wrong, this is what it is and it’s not high art. However, it seems almost revolutionary today if we compare it to pretty much any other eighties slasher movie, a genre well known for its inevitably transparent plots, non-entity characters and lack of surprises. Rape-revenge movies are inherently empowering to women, because they introduce them as literal sex objects and then transform them into powerful agents of karma, but I could argue that every single strong character in this picture is female and all the male characters, not that there are many, are dominated by women. It’s telling that our three campers have believable, capably drawn back stories but the two men who kidnap, rape and torment them are absolutely nothing but the sons of their mother. This could be the definition of the movie ready for reevaluation, because everyone and their dog, from Roger Ebert on down, hated this film with a passion in 1980 but, forty years on, we surely can’t fail to see more than they did. And hey, happy Mother’s Day!

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