As we count down to Halloween here at The Back Row, my next few columns of “Robin’s Underrated Gems” are going to be focusing on some of my personal favourite underrated horror films. However, I must warn you that I may wind up blurring the line between the terms “underrated” and “guilty pleasures”. Some of my selections may be of great interest to my fellow horror and exploitation fans, but no matter what I write, I doubt that any non-horror fans reading this will have the slightest interest in watching them. The 1980 slasher film, Mother’s Day, is a prime example of an “underrated guilty pleasure”. When measured up against most normal films in the world, it would be hard to legitimately classify this as a “good” movie, but it is a very good exploitation movie that knows how to please its target audience and is made with a lot more effort and intelligence than you’d expect. Mother’s Day is obviously not going to appeal to everyone, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this received the dreaded zero-star review from Roger Ebert when it originally came out. However, the movie does have a pretty devoted cult following and it also shouldn’t surprise anyone that a remake is scheduled for release next year, which has been directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who made several of the Saw sequels. Mother’s Day might just very well be another example of a “passing the cactus” movie for me, as I still manage to love it even though there’s no rational reason I should.
Mother’s Day is one of the earlier productions of Troma Entertainment and, quality-wise, may be just the greatest Troma movie ever made. Yes, I’m aware that a compliment like that is equivalent to being called the nicest guy in prison. Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman was one of the producers and the film was directed by his brother, Charles Kaufman (no relation to Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman). Of course, this was made during the period when every other slasher film was named after a holiday and it was even filmed right across the lake from where Friday the 13th was being shot. The storyline for Mother’s Day is pretty simple. Three former college friends, Abby (Nancy Hendrickson), Jackie (Deborah Pierce) and Trina (Tiana Pierce) have an annual tradition of getting together every year for a reunion, and this particular time, they make the ill-fated decision to go camping in the woods. It’s not long before they are captured by two backwoods hillbillies, Ike (Frederick Coffin) and Addley (Michael McCleery), who drag them back to their cabin. Ike and Addley are both acting under the orders of their insane, sadistic old Mother (Beatrice Pons), who is always forcing her sons to kidnap, rape and murder innocent victims at every opportunity. She actually has a perfectly logical reason for it: her deranged homicidal sister, Queenie, lives out in the woods, and Mother wants her sons to have plenty of practice at subduing and killing people in case Queenie ever comes back to kill her. Makes perfect sense. Ike and Addley even get their own training montages!
Now, this sounds like a pretty standard set-up for a slasher film, but what’s surprising is how satirical Mother’s Day really is. You get a sense that something’s a little different about this film when you learn that the villains are named Ike and Addley, the nicknames of Presidential candidates Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, who ran against each other in the fifties. The movie begins on a satirical note by having Mother attend a self-help seminar that promotes love and peace. She uses this as an opportunity to offer a pair of hippies a ride home, only to take them out into the woods to be murdered. Mother and her two sons are actually pretty well-drawn characters for slasher movie villains. Even though they’re established as backwoods hillbillies who hate the big city, it’s clear the family is just obsessed with consumerism and pop culture. In one particularly demented scene, they rape one of their victims while re-enacting a scene from a Shirley Temple movie! The family’s cabin is a masterpiece of wacky set design as it’s decorated from top to bottom with consumer goods and pop culture memorablilia, like John Travolta posters, Batman toys and a Big Bird alarm clock! I’ve always loved the goofy little character moments in this film, like this scene, where Ike is combing his hair with a switchblade, Addley is brushing his teeth with beer, and the two of them engage in a childish argument about punk and disco music!
I don’t want to give the impression that Mother’s Day is one of the most brilliant pieces of satire ever made. This is an sleazy exploitation film first and a satire second. However, I give the filmmakers loads of credit for going above and beyond the call of duty here, and making Mother’s Day a far more intelligent and creative exploitation flick than it had any right to be. And while the whole thing is very cheap, crudely made and has some pretty nasty moments, it is a pretty effective horror film when it wants to be. One standout sequence involves Abby lowering Trina out of a window in a sleeping bag on a rope. In order to avoid being discovered, Abby is forced to hold onto the sleeping bag for a very long period of time while the rope cuts into her hands and even the most hardcore horror fan is bound to cringe when they see this! For a cheap exploitation film, Beatrice Pons’ performance in the role of Mother is pretty damn good as she does marvellous job at presenting a woman who looks like a sweet old lady on the outside, but is completely deraged on the inside. What’s funny is that all three of the actors who played the demented family probably weren’t too proud about being in this film since they are all credited under pseudonyms! This decision might have paid off well for Frederick Coffin, however, since he would go on to work as a character actor in numerous Hollywood films, and is probably best known for playing Officer Koharski in Wayne’s World. The best sequence of Mother’s Day is definitely the climax, where the surviving females return to the cabin to get revenge on the family. In a great ironic twist, they wind up killing the family with the same consumerist goods they love so much, using such items as a TV set, a can Drano, and an inflatable pillow shaped like breasts! Of course, I’d recommend watching the whole film first, but if you want to see the climax, the following clip is pure exploitation goodness. So, what else can I say? Mother’s Day is a weird hybrid of sleaze and satire that is definitely not for all tastes, but when it concludes with a sequence like this, I am more than happy to pass the cactus!