Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Mother's Day (1980, Charles Kaufman)

"Mother's Day" (1980, directed by Charles Kaufman)

Version reviewed: "Uncut Director's Cut" on Troma Team Video DVD (Region 1).

Let me state straight away that now in 2009, it is very hard for me to believe that this great movie is being remade by the director of some of the Saw films and Brett Ratner. This is a pretty repulsive movie and it's unlikely the remake will be at all related.

At cursory glance Mother's Day, filmed in 1979 and released in 1980, looks like a fairly standard slasher outing. It was filmed at the same New Jersey location at Friday the 13th, on an overlapping schedule, but on the other side of the lake. But aside from the obvious gimmick title, that's pretty much all this has to do with the slasher boom. Tonally, the film is kind of like a warped Troma take on a "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" or "Last House on the Left" type of gritty seventies horror rather than the (considerably) more clinical "Halloween" knock-offs of the 1980s. The heroines' characters are in their late 20s rather than late teens and some of the film is incredibly mean spirited.

Apart from a rather effective twist opener, establishing the title character not as a sweet, traditionally caring mother but as a demented and over-protective sadist who delights as her sons Addley and Ike torture, rape and murder...well, anyone...the movie's first half hour is quite lighthearted and sweet. We meet the three heroines and are successfully introduced to their backstory and arrangement to meet up even as they grower and more disparate. Eventually the heroines leave their lives behind and go out into the Deep Barrons where the psycho family resides. In a particularly effective scene, the girls are attacked mid-sentence by the two brothers - this could have failed miserably, but because I was actually listening to what the characters said, it worked.

From then on the plot goes SOMETHING like this....girls are kidnapped, tortured, degraded, one is killed, the other two escape and plot a revenge. End on TWIST.

What do you talk about with a film like this? It's likely to always be gathered up among slashers and that's not really fair to what the film wants to accomplish.

Stylistically, this is an above average horror film. The blood at times is a bit too bright a shade of red (think of the original "Dawn of the Dead"), but on the whole the gore was pretty well done and the sheer amount of violence is striking - but it is definetely not a case of a film solely comprising of torture (like "Hostel", "Bloodsucking Freaks" or the last half of the original "Texas Chain Saw Massacre"). The villains more than anything resemble the Hitchhiker in the original Tobe Hooper "Chain Saw", being overly-talkative but not verbose. Their arguments, perversions and constant disagreements about music (one loves punk, the other disco) serve as part of the satirical black-comedy that runs through the film. Make no mistake, this is a fairly bleak and unremitting film; the comedy is pitch black and warped to shit, and serves to make the film more disturbing than it would have been with just the violence.

(For the record - just including a self-help seminar at the beginning of the story doesn't immediately make the film a satire of the 1970s self-help movement, as other reviews have claimed.)

Released independantly in 1980, the film is today distributed and maintained by Troma Inc. It was directed by Charles Kaufman, who is the brother of Troma President Lloyd Kaufman. Despite not truly being a Troma production, there is a similar feel here to the early 1980s films of the other Kaufman. The first half, with it's silly and racy jokes but pro-women feel, is very similar to Troma's pre-Toxic Avenger sex comedies, like "Squeeze Play!" and "Waitress!". The warped sense of humour is definetely in keeping with in-house Troma projects. But unlike other Troma films, the violence definetely feels malicious and nasty (I'm of the opinion that since violence is malicious and nasty, it's ok for a film to portray violence the same way). It's up to you whether you think it's a good thing that women are established as credible characters before they are tortured, though. You kind of get both sides of a coin in one movie - women are established as the main characters, tortured and hurt, then take charge again in third act. I didn't think it was especially gratuitous.

It's impossible not to compare this film to Friday the 13th. While both films were in production at the same time, I do wonder if this film was at all inspired by the buzz around Friday the 13th - there are lots of similarities. Here are some I noticed:

- Both films feature a sweet old lady as a sinister mother figure.
- In both films, a long lost relative is presumed dead by everyone, but isn't. The sinister mother still speaks highly of them.
- Said lost relative appears in the twist ending.

Might seem like small fish - but how many slasher films were there when this was made? "Halloween" and "Black Christmas" are all that spring to mind.

In any case, I stand by this film as a classic horror film, deserving of it's cult status. It's engrossing, appropriately eighties and fairly nasty. It's more in the "Texas Chain Saw" mode than the "true" slasher canon, but in my opinion that's definetely a good thing. Take a look at the scene where "Mother" trains Addley and Ike in the morining ("our exercise!") after the girls are first captured. The music, definetely of it's time, is a time-delayed synth score masterpiece, following the "heroics" of the villains as they stab, torture and abuse items standing in for victims. An excellent scene in and of itself, but also vaguely prophetic of the eventual "heroic" centre stage role of villains in the later "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th" films. Which reminds me, in 2005, Roger Ebert (who hated, hated, hated this film as per his original review) defended his high rating of Rob Zombie's "Devil's Rejects" with the point that the killers were "people with personalities not just motives". In addition to illustrating how wildly inconsistant Roger Ebert can be, it begs the question why he hated this film so much. Every character is drawn in quite a lot of detail - victims and killers alike, both have their moments in this film. He gave a better review to "Friday the 13th", which was definetely less ambiguous about who it's heroes and villains were (like we need to be told these things), but did not draw any of it's characters in significant detail. It's probably a better film than "Friday the 13th", but it wasn't quite as expensive and the DVD presentation isn't quite as show-off. Troma give a good, strong full-screen transfer that looks great. The soundtrack (stereo) is presented well, along with a commentery from director Charles Kaufman and some interviews too.

Highly recommended for horror fans and Troma fans alike.

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