Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Census Bloodbath: A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother

If you're new to Census Bloodbath, click here.

Year: 1980
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Tiana Pierce, Nancy Hendrickson, Deborah Luce
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: UR

First a caveat: This film has nothing to do with the actual holiday Mother's Day. I no longer feel guilty for watching it in September.

This movie marks the first (and far from last) entry into the slasher genre from the cult beloved production company Troma. Always at the forefront of sleaze cinema, it is no surprise that Lloyd Kaufman's craptastic brood jumped on the slasher bandwagon long before most copycat killers. Troma is a company that revels in making terrible films (the most prominent of which is the campy The Toxic Avenger) and, for better or for worse, they have been going strong since their inception in (dear God) 1974.

Always toeing the line between bad-good and bad-bad, Troma approaches each and every film with an undeniable sense of humor which is already evident in the poster for Mother's Day. Though I appreciate the effort, something about movies that are intentionally bad will eternally be less funny than films that are bad by accident, but the manic glee with which Troma throws together films almost makes up for their shrieking insincerity. We will revisit this execrably delightful company time and time again during this series for Graduation Day, The Last Horror Film, Frightmare, Blood Hook, and the inimitable Splatter University.

But for the moment, we are here. 

And thankfully not here.

A brief word about the DVD. Although skeletal and bare, completely devoid of extras, the film was lovingly rendered and supremely easy on the eyes. The bar has been set very low as of late with the fuzzy and oversaturated Funeral Home and the ghastly dark Silent Scream and Humongous, so compared to those guys, Mother's Day is practically The Godfather.

The film opens with the closing moments of the inspirational seminar known as Ernie's Growth Opportunity (EGO, in the first of many Troma mandated background gags) as a young hippie couple (Kevin Lowe and Marsella Davidson) hitch a ride home with a kindly old woman (Beatrice Pons). The couple sours quicker than milk in the Sahara and it's clear they plan on robbing and killing the old lady.

Unfortunately for them, Mother is one step ahead of them. After she stops on the side of the road to fix the engine, the man is brutally decapitated and his girlfriend is swiftly dispatched via rope. This is the scene where Troma finally tips its hand, with editing possibly perpetrated by blind squirrels. The decapitation itself is pretty swell even if the head is pretty clearly prosthetic, but the clincher is that the hippie's girlfriend turns, screams, gets sprayed with blood, and then he gets decapitated. I had to rewind this scene twice to let it fully sink in.

Oh, Troma. What are we going to do with you?

Kill it with fire.

The opening credits are almost overwhelmingly the best sequence in the entire movie as we see a slideshow of pictures from Wolfsbreath College in 1970 accompanied by the commentary of three best friends known as the Rat Pack. The girls' banter is unforced and natural (two words which have no business being in a review of this film) and do a great job of setting up character relationships, establishing a shared background, and placing the movie in time.

Cut to ten years later and the Rat Pack has reunited for their yearly girls weekend away. There's Trina (Tiana Pierce), the blonde and stuck-up socialite who'd obviously much rather being chewing out a poolboy at a coke-fueled Hollywood pool party than meeting with her college roommates in dumpy little Drexford, New Jersey. There's Abbey (Nancy Hendrickson), a shy girl with an overbearing and sickly mother. And finally there's Jackie (Deborah Luce), a bubbly and optimistic girl who keeps getting dealt bad hands in life, not the least of which are her divorce and her boyfriend who is the living embodiment of of every negative masculine stereotype ever invented (he thinks strangling her is funny, steals money from her wallet, and is just super gross).

That paragraph was about as long as most of my Meet the Meat summaries even though there are far fewer people in the core cast than usual, which is actually a good sign - the characters have a lot of room to breathe and develop their own distinct personalities.

The girls have decided to retreat to the woods to get away from it all and after a quick, rousing topless water fight, the girls are abducted from the campgrounds by a pair of brothers, Ike (Holden McGuire) and Addley (Billy Rae McQuade), who bring them home to Mother.

This is her day after all.

Mother, it seems, hasn't taken her medication in about two decades and has been teaching the boys how to kill. She grins in delight as they tie up their prey and runs a series of exercises with them to practice properly attacking defenseless women. The relationship between Mother and her sons is also thoroughly explored (overbearing Mother refuses to be left alone, insisting that if both her boys leave her side, her evil sister Queenie will attack - a tale which smacks of old wivery and the boys start to catch on) excpt for, you know, the reason they kill people, which you think would be important.


Jackie is taken first and the movie takes a sharp turn south as she is raped repeatedly (and it is implied this continues all night) and left for dead in a dresser drawer. It is at this point that the mildly pleasant Troma badness (numerous weird elements waft about in the background like an opera singing hobo and a coat stuck in a car door) devolves into something much more exploitative and sinister.

It quickly swings up again as Jackie's friends seek revenge in beautifully colorful ways (that color is red, through and through. Ike gets Drano in the throat, a TV in the kisser, and an electric carving knife everywhere else while Addley is taken down by the twin powers of an antenna in the neck and a claw hammer to the groin), but that moment of unnecessary misogyny poisons the picture and prevents it from rising through the mire of the Troma swamp.

The acting is pretty atrocious across the board (Pierce is by far the worst - hacking her way through a script that is far from dense), but Mother's Day is unique for subverting genre tropes before they were even set in stone.

Most notably, the three girls are all still alive with only 25 minutes left to go.

It by no means stays that way as the one girl I had pegged as the Final Girl croaks.

And I'm not even gonna talk about the twist ending where Queenie turns out to be real and attacks the other two girls after they dispatch the entire family. That's just great filmmaking right there.

This is all I ever wanted.

I know what I've been describing doesn't sound like a slasher movie at all, and really it's not. Mother's Day is a backwoods torture grindhouse revenge movie that was unceremoniously shoved into a slasher format the second that coins started to ring in the bottom of Sean S. Cunningham's coffer.

Coming four months on the heels of Friday the 13th, it's no accident that Mother's Day is set in the New Jersey woods. That and the deaths opening ten minutes were crudely grifted on to a movie that was probably already far into production by the time Jason saw the light of day. But say what you will about Troma, but they know a cash cow when they see one and they jumped on the slasher bandwagon before it was even completely built.

You gotta admire that kind of anti-integrity.

So all in all, Mother's Day isn't a total travesty, not by a long shot. It has some shockingly good characterizations for the time period, a wildly off-kilter and genre-bending script, and is really pretty OK.

I just wish they'd stop raping people.

Killer: Ike (Holden McGuire) and Addley (Billy Rae McQuade)
Final Girl: Trina (Tiana Pierce) and Abbey (Nancy Hendrickson)
Best Kill: Mother is smothered with a pair of blow-up breasts with pink nipples.

Sign of the Times: Mother wears a shimmery silver cardigan with fluffy green cuffs.
Scariest Moment: Abbey's hands are split open by a rope as she tries to lower Trina down to safety.
Weirdest Moment: The family practices killing by dressing Jackie as Shirley Temple.
Champion Dialogue: "What are you afraid of? Being jumped by a gang of wild Puerto Rican chickens?"
Body Count: 6; including the killers and their mother.
  1. A boy is decapitated.
  2. A girl is strangled to death with a rope.
  3. Jackie is raped and left to die.
  4. Ike has his throat burned, a TV in the face, and is stabbed with an electric knife.
  5. Addley gets an antenna in the neck and a claw hammer to the groin.
  6. Mother is smothered with inflatable breasts. 
TL;DR: Mother's Day is too exploitative to recommend but the good parts are nothing to scoff at.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1542

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