Movie Review – Mother’s Day (1980)

The late 1970s saw the beginning of a trend, beginning with 1974’s Black Christmas and being cemented with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), of creating horror films – mainly slashers – centered around holidays or similar annual occasions. 1980, in particular, saw a slew of them, including Prom Night, both Christmas Evil and New Years Evil, and of course the classic Friday the 13th. Curiously, across the lake from where they were filming the opening cuts of the Vorhees clan another slasher was being made, Charles Kaufman’s Mother’s Day. Kaufman is brother to Lloyd Kaufman, co-founder of Troma Entertainment, who ended up distributing the film.

True to Troma’s brand, Mother’s Day is a black comedy exploitation film which was panned upon its release but has since gained a cult following. However, it takes itself a bit more seriously, though not much so, than Troma’s later gross-out offerings. The film centers around three women who went to college together and gather each year to camp in a new location. Unfortunately for them, they choose to make their site near a secluded house inhabited by a sadistic, overbearing mother (Beatrice Pons, credited as Rose Ross) and her two simple-minded, equally sadistic sons, Ike (Frederick Coffin, credited as Holden McGuire) and Addley (Billy Ray McQuade), and soon become their bruised and abused playthings.

Mother’s Day doesn’t so much walk the line between the realms of horror and comedy as it does clumsily stumble one way and then the other. The turns between farcical, almost cartoon-like humor and misogynistic violence can be jarring, and it’s not always clear as a viewer what you’re supposed to be taking from the scene. That being said, some of the scenes are actually funny and some are effectively upsetting, but their overlap would have taken a more nuanced hand to have been pulled off tastefully. Of course, Troma did not build its reputation on nuance.

The end product is not a good film, but it is one that tries to be a bit more than pure exploitation. The three female protagonists are given distinct personalities, meant to be well-rounded individuals, though their depths are still relatively shallow. Also, there is a satirical bent to much of the humor, particularly in the way that the sons process the world. The twisted clan appears to gain most of their knowledge of the outside world based upon what pop culture they can gleam from advertising and poor television receptions (what Mother considers “good” from the city), and when not raping and murdering generally derive their entertainment from copying what they’ve seen on screen, sometimes only superficially. At one point we see Ike and Addley echoing the musical debate of the time, going back and forth with “punk sucks” and “disco’s stupid,” yet it’s not clear if these two characters have any real feelings toward the subject or even any knowledge of the music they’re talking about, or if they’re mindlessly reiterating something they’ve heard on television.

Mother’s Day is far from being a classic, but it is understandable why it has garnered a cult following. It has exploitative violence and inventive kills, and the performances are broad yet solid for this type of film. Beatrice Pons and Frederick Coffin, in particular, embody their cartoonish roles with an admirable gusto. It’s not the kind of movie to share with your mother, but for exploitation and schlock fans it’s certainly a film that will entertain.

Grade: C-