Mother’s Day (1980)

3 out of 5

Directed by: Charles Kaufman

A queasy mashup of backwoods horror with the rape-revenge formula, then shot with a candy-red blood Troma filter, Charles Kaufman’s Mother’s Day is surprisingly brutal at points – given that it has those Troma beats to it – and then equally surprisingly balanced at others. It doesn’t escape the tedium of cat-and-mouse in its latter half, which also encompasses the weird-character-decisions section of the movie, but there’s enough weirdness and positive qualities throughout to make it worth a watch.

The biggest boon to this thing, though, is the trio of lead actresses – Nancy Hendrickson, Tiana Pierce, and Deborah Luce, playing Abbey, Trina, and Jackie, respectively – who act as college friends, reuniting their “Rat Pack” yearly at a randomly chosen destination. Kaufman starts us off with the three reviewing pictures from their school years together, and the banter feels incredibly natural in its mixture of commentary on the photos, and poking fun at each other. Similarly, when we flash forward to the present, and see the three as successful, or trapped in poor relationships, or stifled by a sick parent, the trio give their roles a lived-in believability, especially with how they blend their grown personalities with the familiarity of being with their “Pack” when they join up for this year’s jaunt – into Deep Barrens, New Jersey, for camping and fashing. To Kaufman’s credit, all of this stuff is shot very straight, and he gives the actors a lot of room to bring their roles to life. While we might fault horror flicks for taking their time to get to the grisly stuff, in this case, because they come off as real people, it’s not noxious; they aren’t just characters written to be killed. It’s notable that even when we venture into fluff territory – skinnydipping! – Kaufman’s actually pretty tasteful about it, with the nudity brief and not ogle-y, and the scene shot more with the sense of fun the girls are having than of sexualizing it.

Of course, I’ve jumped ahead a bit: lest we mistake what kind of flick this is, we get a pretty sleazy opening introducing us to “mother” – a perpetually neck-brace wearing Beatrice Pons – and her two sons, Ike (Fredrick Coffin) and Addley (Michael McCleery), who she cheers on as they kill and assault a couple Ma has escorted into the woods. Fair enough: said couple was getting read to kill the old lady themselves, and we’ve got fish eye lenses and lots of bad teeth prosthetics to give this a good ol’ backwoods feel. This scene is the kind of dreck you might be expecting, though even that is proceeded by a humorous gag on self-help seminars, at which Mother meets the soon-to-be-dead couple. So a bit of humor, then a bit of offense, and then about 30 solid minutes of us actually starting to like some of the characters, and respect the flick.

…Which does make the girls’ kidnapping (by Ike and Addley, natch) further horrifying, beyond the sincerely frighteningly sudden way it’s enacted. We don’t jump right into rape, though – Mother’s Day has to get weird first, and this stuff is really good, because it’s unhinged in a way that’s unclear if it’s meant to be darkly comedic or disturbing, and it’s not at all explained: Mother and her sons have some odd rituals they go through, with just enough context to guess at the intentions… all of which are pretty dejectable. The production design on their house is also perfect – like the TCM house, except replace all the bones with rotting food.

That final line is eventually crossed – not that what the girls haven’t already been put through / seen wouldn’t be enough to unsettle – but I’d again say there’s actually some restraint here in the way it’s handled: Kaufman cuts quickly, and sets the camera away from things, so that it’s not sexualized. Is it “tasteful?” No, but it’s not tasteless.

For a while, Mother’s Day holds on to some smarter instincts, as the girls instinctually plot their escape, but with about a half hour left, we get into the tedium: extended woods chases, weird logic. And the “revenge” section of the flick is marred by cheap effects, unfortunately, though the final kill has a callback I wasn’t expecting that once more suggests the film has a bit more under the hood than your average flick of this genre.

But we do, ultimately, have to conclude on a WTF Troma note, even if it was being telegraphed the whole while.