Darren Lynn Bousman is best known for taking over the “SAW” franchise and directing its first three sequels, by the end of which the series had exhausted pretty much any last vestige of the tolerance most people had once been willing to extend it in the wake of the originality of the James Wan and Leigh Whannell 2004 original. 2008’s “Repo! The Genetic Opera” got mixed reviews (I must confess, it’s still a film I’ve not got around to, due to having somewhat of an in-built aversion to musicals) and so the outlook for Bousman’s next protect -- a fairly low budget (the list of producers attached to it is as long as your arm), retread of a 1980s ‘cult’ backwoods exploitationer called “Mother’s Day” from that inextinguishable indie irritant Troma Films, which was originally directed by Charles ‘brother of Lloyd’ Kaufman -- can rightly be said to have been comprised of somewhat low expectations. The original concerned a foul old lady who lived in a run-down shack in some uninhabited woods and had her two inbred sons -- raised in isolation on a diet of TV advertising and violent movies -- kidnap and torture, rape and bloodily murder a bunch of backpackers and holidaymakers for the entertainment of their evil ol’ mom. Two of the survivors later come back and take their drearily predictable revenge on the family in a manner that involves castration with a hatchet.
Banned in the UK (well what did you expect?), this little deformed monstrosity naturally became the Holy Grail of shock cinema, and could be found at the top of any pile in the sub-genre of drive-in films turned VHS fodder that wallowed in a prurient haze of transgressive video nastiness for their lack of any other discernible positive qualities, like acting skills or directing nous. Like its famous partners “The Last House on the Left” and “I Spit on Your Grave”, the film was long overdue for a 21st Century whitewash of respectability to be applied in the light of the modern day commercial viability of the horror movie, and the success of remakes of all the once-reviled classics of the genre, such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Dawn of the Dead”. The general pattern has since been to fashion these remakes with tighter plots, better acting, more gore and violence, but, at the same time, make them more rounded and easily digestible for a multiplex audience; make them more – as Kim Newman put it in his recent jumbo-sized genre overview “Nightmare Movies” – like ‘proper’ movies.
Bousman’s “Mother’s Day” is a ’proper’ movie; it’s also quite a good movie. Scott Milam’s screenplay junks almost all but the most basic premise of the original and turns the absurdity of that basic premise into quite a psychologically probing exposé of the trap of overbearing familial relationships. With a small number of locations and a stage play-like structure, the film is a bit like Jean-Paul Sartre’s dictum ‘Hell is Other People’ writ large across the generic home invasion narrative, as almost everybody involved in the scenario is eventually revealed as deeply flawed and fatally compromised by circumstances.
After a somewhat unnecessary prologue (which rather unhelpfully telegraphs directions for the last ten minutes of the movie, making its outcome all too obvious when it eventually comes around), we are first introduced to a bunch of smugly well-off thirtysomethings who’re having a party in a well-heeled house situated in a pleasant part of suburbia. The only one apparently not having so great a time is Beth (Jaime King of “My Bloody Valentine” ) -- one half of the couple who own the place -- who appears agitated and distressed over an issue she’s trying to keep a lid on for the sake of their partying guests.
It’s not dwelt upon overtly in the script, but the fortress-like nature of the house seals everyone in it off from the surrounding neighbourhood and suggests a bubble-like existence in which no-one connects or interacts with those who live around them. Certainly, we never see any neighbours, and rarely any other people at all throughout the film, unless they should accidently stumble into the orbit of the protagonists and antagonists as their tense drama unfolds. There’s also the issue of gentrification – because, it turns out, Beth and her husband Daniel (Frank Grillo) have only recently moved in to this house after it was latterly repossessed and the former occupants forced to leave; and those former occupants turn out to be not quite the usual inhabitants of such tasteful upmarket environs. Three of them, sibling bank robbers who have just bungled their latest raid and are on their way back ‘home’ to their mother’s place, looking for sanctuary after the youngest, Johnny (Matt O'Leary), was badly injured by a gunshot wound sustained during the ensuing escape, come crashing through this cultural bubble (after Daniel, for all his cultivated isolation, forgetfully leaves the door unlocked), being completely unaware that their Mother and sister no longer live there. They’re at first bemused by the posh, upscale furnishings (with trendy vinyl edition records playing on a retro ‘80s-style record player), but then realise that strangers are living in what is now their ‘former’ family home – and well-off middle-class folk, at that! Cue home invasion terror tactics as the guests are threatened, humiliated, abused and divided in their own home.
Luckily, one of Beth and Daniel’s guests, George Barnum (Sawn Ashmore), is a doctor: and he finds himself charged with saving Johnny’s life or risking the entire household getting slaughtered at the hands of the two remaining, now unstable and very angry, brothers. The eldest, Ike (Patrick Flueger), and the more father-like and grounded of the two wastrels , calls ‘Mom’ on the special ‘emergency phone’ she’s apparently given him for when the kids get into trouble; but violently unstable and childlike Addley (Warren Kole) is a law unto himself, and his upset and stress at such an unhappy turn of events, caused by the injury of his brother and the discovery of strangers inhabiting ‘their’ home, leads to his taking out his frustrations on the terrified guests. The end result is that one of the female prisoners tries to escape and ends up getting shot in the face.
When Mother finally drives the family’s Winnebago into her former drive with her sullen, straggle-haired daughter Lydia (“True Blood’s” Deborah Ann Woll) in tow, things look like they might be about to settle down, even if the cardigan-wearing matriarch is clearly slightly unhinged. But after Mrs Koffin (a career resurrecting performance from Rebecca De Mornay) has reassured the house guests and its new owners, politely apologised to them for the ‘inconvenience’ they’ve been caused and promised she and her precious sons will be out of their hair in no time at all, it comes to light that ‘her boys’ have been sending money back home for months, still believing she was living at this same address. When both Daniel and Beth insist that they have not seen any of this money and that none of it ever arrived (even while Daniel is having his knuckles smashed-in in retribution by Addley, with pool balls swung in a sock), Mother’s psychosis reveals itself in all its awful glory. She forces everyone to reveal their ATM pin numbers and Beth is required to go with Ike, both to dispose of the body of the failed, face-blasted escapee and to pick up the missing money Mother feels has been stolen from her. Beth’s journey turns out to be a fraught and dangerous one as she is first forced to stuff her former friend’s limp body behind an outdoor skip and then finds herself a witness to Ike’s demented kill-or-be-killed version of diplomacy when two giggly teen girls annoy him outside the ATM machine they’ve stopped off at to empty the guests’ accounts of cash.
The screenplay, under Bousman’s taut direction, manages to expertly juggle two story strands as Beth’s ordeal in the city with Ike goes from bad to worse over the course of a single evening,while these events play simultaneous with the escalating drama back at the house, where George is still struggling to keep the rapidly dwindling Johnny holding on if only for his friends’ sake, and the others by turns plot to draw their plight to the attention of the outside world or make some sort of an escape attempt -- before finding themselves forced to face off against each other due to a series of tough choices presented to them by their captors. The director, with the help of cinematographer Joseph White, certainly manages to present all this in the sharp and snappy hyper-modern style you’d expect: the film is a million miles away in presentation from the sloppy grindhouse squalor of the Charles Kaufman original. But what makes it stand out in particular is not the gore or the torture (and against what one might expect given Bousman’s pedigree, there is precious little of either overtly essayed here) but the film’s concentration on presenting a series of interesting, well-rounded character portraits in the midst of a tense thriller dynamic, which helps to make everyone’s motives always at least partially understandable, yet no-one’s one hundred per cent in the right.
Heading the cast of characters is, of course, De Mornay’s ‘Mother’: a well-written role in that it allows the actress to play a larger-than-life grotesque character in an unusually understated way, often with a large measure of humour still present -- at least until the climax of the film, when there’s the inevitable crash-bang-wallop face-off between two rival mothers, using kitchen implements as weapons amid the flames of a now burning house.
Up until then we get Mother’s understated approach to madness. She loves her boys and likes to look after her house, and goes about fussily trying to clean blood stains off the walls with a tut once things start getting brutal. ‘Don’t bark … wait, then bite!’ is her stealthy advice to her rapidly unravelling wayward son Addley, whose unthinking violence has already resulted in his punching out one of the female prisoners. ‘Never hit a woman’ is one of Mother’s dictums (even though it later goes completely out of the window!), and this previously unhinged brute is reduced to a mewling baby begging forgiveness after being admonished by her for it. De Mornay brings a quiet, slightly prissy, well-spoken schoolmarm’s dignity spiked with menace to the role and it quickly becomes apparent that Mother’s crazy, violent, amoral sons are nothing but an extension of her own madness: they’ve been made almost entirely dependent on her in every way since childhood, and their warped sense of family loyalty reflects her own implied violent past, apparently at the hands of an absent abusive husband.
Meanwhile, the character of the daughter Lydia brings to light just how far Mother is prepared to go in order to dominate her brood. Face swathed in unwashed greasy hair, shabbily dressed and required (as George soon uncovers) to take non-active sugar pills to control an equally non-existent skin condition, Lydia has been raised on scare stories designed by her mother to keep intrusions from the outside world of masculinity at bay, and an implied strain of incestuousness between Addley and herself is never far below the surface of her relationship with this unstable brother of hers, existing unspoken about on the outskirts of a troubled collection of sibling relationships, until it becomes evident they’re not really related by blood at all, but were probably each unknowingly kidnapped as babies by their infertile proxy parent.
If the Koffin family have their ‘issues’ then things aren’t quite so black and white among the couples who have become their prisoners, either: Beth and Daniel are failing to cope with the road accident that killed their only son, and Daniel is secretly finding solace by having an affair with one of the other guests at the party. The web of tensions, rivalries and competition in the relationships between the other partners soon also makes itself more than discernible: among them there’s the young, attractive Goth chick Annette, partnered with the aging but rich Dave (Tony Nappo), who wears an obvious glued-on toupee to try and make himself appear younger (which, of course, is painfully ripped from his crown by Addley) and is forced to turn against the group’s would-be leader Treshawn (Lyriq Bent) when Mother decides her dying youngest son upstairs might be pepped up a bit if he got to lose his virginity to either one of their wives, helpfully leaving the choice of which one to be settled between themselves. Mother’s nose for sniffing out the troubles that exist below the surface of the apparently happy relationships of her captives results in what is perhaps a far more effective scene of torture than anything that’s been delivered recently in the torture porn genre, when she finds an old photograph of Beth and Daniel’s dead son hidden in a drawer … and burns it in front of the helpless father while taunting him for not looking after his child properly. The power of this scene comes from the strength of the acting and De Mornay's performance, rather than in anatomically accurate representations of physical torture. While the film isn’t anywhere near as graphic or offensive as its namesake, Bousman does stage a few effective cringe-making torture sequences though, which manage to be unpleasant while not revelling in abattoir imagery: one character is bound while he has boiling hot water from the kettle poured into his ears and another, the woman Daniel has been seeing behind his wife’s back, has her hair set alight by the flaming photograph of Daniel’s son.
The final act delivers plenty more over-the-top action, by which stage we’ve reached the sort of full-on finale that’s not too concerned about plausibility or restraint: nail guns are used like pump-action machine guns, bodies are stabbed, pummelled, shot at and butchered, and fight scenes staged with an almost cartoon Tom & Jerry-like glee (although, still, a lot of this is more implied than dwelt on) but, all in all, Bousman has delivered a smart, tense provocative thriller that eschews the grindhouse origins of its namesake for something altogether more original and subtly disturbing.
The Blu-ray edition from Studio Canal features a strong HD transfer, pounding surround audio and over an hour of extras in the form of interviews with the main cast members and two of the film’s many executive producers, Charles and Lloyd ‘Troma’ Kaufman. The interviewed actors, which include Rebecca De Mornay among them, talk about their characters, what attracted them to their roles and what they think about the horror genre in general; while the Kaufman brothers give a rambling, mostly comic interview in which they talk mainly about the original film. Stunt man Bobby King is interviewed about the difficulties of arranging stunts for actors who are doing their own stunt work, while someone pokes their hand through the velvet curtain backdrop as he’s being interviewed, and starts making hand signals behind his head! Finally a brief selection of ‘B Roll’ footage without commentary is supplied, in which we see something of Bousman’s directing style, followed finally by a theatrical trailer.
“Mother’s Day” delivers much in the way of thought-provoking psychological horror and tough suspense and is better than the past record of such remakes might suggest. It’s worth giving it a chance.
Read more from Black Gloves at his new blog Nothing But the Night!