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Dustin Putman

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Mother's Day  (1980)
3 Stars
Directed by Charles Kaufman.
Cast: Nancy Hendrickson, Tiana Pierce, Deborah Luce, Beatrice Pons, Frederick Coffin, Michael McCleery, Robert Collins, Peter Fox, Marsella Davidson, Kevin Lowe.
1980 – 98 minutes
Not Rated: (equivalent of an NC-17 for pervasive graphic violence and sexual content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

Thank you for sharing with me, I love you.

If "Mother's Day" isn't the most adept and accomplished motion picture ever released by Lloyd Kaufman's exploitative Troma Entertainment, then I haven't seen the one that's better. Its low-budget may shine through now and again—in one scene, a speckled-with-blood character reacts and screams at a beheading that is still seconds away from taking place—but these little production flaws only serve to add a bit of charm to the anything-goes, guerilla-style filmmaking process. So much more than a common slasher film from the early '80s, "Mother's Day" blends unthinkably nasty horror elements with perverse comedy, intimate drama, and outrageously on-target satire without missing a beat.

In the ten years since graduating from Wolfbreath College, best friends Abbey (Nancy Hendrickson), Jackie (Deborah Luce) and Trina (Tiana Pierce) have gone their separate ways but vowed to meet for an annual surprise getaway vacation. With Abbey tending to her overbearing mother, Jackie constantly used by a coke-sniffing boyfriend who doesn't appreciate her, and Trina off in Hollywood meshing with the rich and famous, the trio are happy to get away from it all for a week of relaxation and catching up. This year, Jackie's choice in location—New Jersey's isolated Deep Barons—turns out to be their undoing. Attacked and kidnapped in the middle of the night, Abbey, Jackie and Trina find themselves at the mercy of Mother (Beatrice Pons) and her beloved grown sons Ike (Frederick Coffin) and Addley (Michael McCleery), backwoods yokels who delight in systematic torture and killing.

Frequently mean-spirited but with alternately comical and earnest slants, "Mother's Day" works on multiple levels. As a satirical comment on gross consumerism, domesticity, and the unintended effects of self-help groups, the film is overflowing with underlying thematic intent. Opening at a motivational seminar called E.G.O. ("Ernie's Growth Opportunity") that Mother attends in Manhattan, the picture then segues to her giving a lift to two other group members about to meet their maker. "You live really far out," one of them comments. Mother's response: "I take what's good from the city, and the rest you can keep." The intentional ludicrousness of this statement is wickedly funny, for the "good" that Mother has apparently taken from the city is the ability to rape, kidnap and murder innocent people. Meanwhile, she lives in a house where the walls are spray-painted with sexual references, televisions are turned on 24/7, name-brand junk foods are consumed as if they were vegetables—"Eat your cheese spread, Ike, it's good for the liver," Mother says at one point—and a "Sesame Street" Big Bird alarm clock sits inches away from a rotting corpse hanging in the closet. Suffice it to say, "Mother's Day" is full of the kind of winking bite either lost upon most of today's cinema, or not pulled off nearly as well.

On another level—as a deviously violent and unsparing horror effort—the film is morose and poignant, detailing a threesome of old friends whose happy-go-lucky vacation leads to one of them dead and the other two fighting back for vengeance and survival. Surprisingly feminist in nature, director Charles Kaufman sets up protagonists who are no shrinking violets. Forced into a valid transformation from whimpering victims to no-holds-barred fighters, they signify the model of a modern woman who can take care of herself and doesn't need to just be eye candy or a trophy wife. Before this can occur, however, the movie must get through its most uncomfortable segment—the brutal raping and physical abuse of one of the gals. That this goes down within a role-playing sex game that Mother affectionately labels "the Shirley Temple," the victim forced into the part of a schoolbooks-carrying little girl accosted by a stranger hiding behind a park bench set up in their yard, signals that director Kaufman's tongue is at least planted firmly in cheek.

When the film wants to get down and dirty, it knows how. Violence and bloodshed are plentiful; when a rope Abbey is pulling cuts deeply into the palm of her hand, the viewer feels it. Special effects used to pull off the innumerable bodily injuries inflicted are mostly professional if occasionally coarse. And the climax, in which three well-deserved comeuppances take precedence, is involving and appropriately ruthless in its savagery. The sight of Mother being suffocated by plastic blow-up breasts speaks loud and clear of the sadism she has chosen to surround herself with.

Speaking of Mother, Beatrice Pons (a veteran actress of television and the stage who chose to be credited under the alias "Rose Ross") is unforgettable in a one-of-a-kind performance that is sick, funny and touching all at once. Her love for her sons and the normalcy-cum-squalor that she has raised them in actually gives her a flawed human touch. She's a monster, for sure, but she still cares for her family. As heroines Abbey, Jackie and Trina, Nancy Hendrickson, Deborah Luce and Tiana Pierce are uniformly strong. None of them went on to big acting careers, and that's unfortunate; the relationship between the three of them is endearingly developed—there's even a sweet flashback to their college days scored to Tommy James and the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now"—and each one slides into a character specifically individual from the other two.

"Mother's Day" is gritty and grimy—a bath may be in order after watching it—but it is not without merit. Whether viewed as a stark horror pic, a wildly offbeat comedy, a female-empowerment saga, or a cutting depiction of consumerist society gone woefully wrong, the film has something to offer all but those with weak stomachs. The socko surprise ending—let's just say it involves Mother's deranged, forest-prowling sister Queenie—is the perfect capper on a relic of the 1980s slasher craze that still, oddly enough, feels awfully relevant.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman