Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mother's Day (1980, Charles Kaufman)


Mother's Day is a 1980 horror film directed and co-written by Charles Kaufman, brother of Troma Films president and auteur Lloyd Kaufman. It is a shocking and violent story of murder and rape centered around a psychotic family unit much like that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacretold with heaping doses
of pitch black gallows humor.


Mother's Day is also a sophisticated satire of the effect of television upon American life, and of women's despair in dealing with boy-men raised by television.


Mother's Day opens with a parody of EST. EST would not be possible without the age of television's permissiveness, the age of phony intimacy, the age of the permanent present which is the broader satirical target of the film. Ernie of "Ernie's Growth Opportunity" authoritatively instructs the room to kiss their neighbor and say "Thank you for sharing with me. I love you."
The very first shot of Mother's Day is this room's blank, emotionless faces, just waiting to be filled by something and told how to feel, rather like an audience at the start of a film, apathetic.


Mother gives a lift to an E.G.O. couple planning to rob and kill her. Mother didn't mind giving them a ride. They are phony hippies. Hippies were the first generation raised by television. "Ain't like we're strangers, after all we've been through" says mother. Television encourages and thrives on instant illusory intimacy. Mother heard about E.G.O. on the TV. She takes what's good from the city, and the rest you can keep! People think she's out of touch living so far out, but she keeps in touch - TV and all. TV alerts everyone to sophisticated things like EST.


Phil Gallo and Clem Vicari Jr's synthesizer, piano and string score warps and warbles menacingly over Mother's ride to the country. It creates unease over the blank, credulous faces of E.G.O. attendees. The score is as hokey, creepy and clever as the rest of the film.


The phony hippie guy's decapitation is hokey. The phony head
stays onscreen just long enough that we know something is about to happen to it. Someone swipes off the phony hippie guy's head in slow motion. It's so unreal it's kind of funny.


One of two assailants throws the woman on the roof of the car and pulls down his pants. Rape rarely happens in horror and is scarier for it. Slashers kill. Their psychosexuality is the sexuality of violence. The nascent genre's close cousins are the backwoods brutality genre - legitimate in Deliverance and illegitimate in The Texas Chainsaw Massacreand the rape-revenge picture - illegitimate in I Spit On Your Grave two years earlier but years away from mainstream legitimacy on women's television. The main victims of both these genres are women and city folk.


The stakes of this film are the highest of all genres:
anyone can die at any time and any woman may be raped,
especially city wimminfolk.


Mothers have been a big part of horror ever since the slasher film's kindly gay grandfather Norman Bates. Motherhood is the shaggy dog at the end of Friday the 13th, which was filmed simultaneously to Mother's Day on the other side of the river in Stillwater, New Jersey. We do not know the killer in Friday the 13th is a mother until the very end. Mother kills just one person in Mother's Day, just before the title. The screen fades to a sickly yellow. Friday faded to white before its main title. Mother's Day fades to mustard. Friday is a generic canvas for dread, terror and horror, but
Mother's Day has flavor.


The movie started funny and suddenly turned shocking. Of course, we came for the shocks. The humor makes the shocking elements even more so. What a scream and a laugh have in common is that you're not supposed to see them coming. In the next ten and twenty years from Mother's Day, horror movies will become funnier on purpose and almost always less scary.


The attention span of television is geared toward that of a child who is both sadistic and emotionally vacant. Preferably male, since even though women remain the primary purchasers and viewers of TV advertising, men were for a long time the benefactors of its violent fantasies within the pampering comfort of commercial breaks. Violence is a normal element of life on Earth but on television it is as necessary as oxygen. Violence is so frequent it ceases to be
shocking. It becomes funny to jaded eyes.


In 1980 TV still meant the same thing to almost everyone. No cable. No home video. Johnny Carson. Saturday Night Live. Television, full name proper. Respect. Thirty years of uninterrupted one-way influence. They get TV out in the sticks too, of course. That's the whole point. TV wouldn't have power without reaching the littlest people. They take what's good from the city and the rest you can keep.


Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to college together. They smoked dope and fooled around and got to play as children. When they grew up they went to live in three different cities, but promised each other that they would still play together and be children once a year, away from the grown up concerns of their grown up lives in the city.


Trina lives in Beverly Hills, near the place movies get made for television. She is having a party for grown ups who snort cocaine, the drug for grown ups who need grown up authority. Meanwhile, an old man talks Kubrick to a little girl who
he wants to go to bed with.


Abbey lives in Chicago, which is a grown up city without a history of being fun for children. Once there was another Abbie in Chicago who got in a lot of trouble for acting like a child during adult situations and who represented himself the idea of childish response to adult problems as compassionate wisdom. Our Abbey takes care of her unseen mother, who screeches "I'm a sick woman"
from the confines of her bedroom.


Jackie lives in New York. Her boyfriend lives off her. He's a man who acts like a child, stealing from her wallet. The black doorman of her building is kind of an unfriendly sidekick like the ones on sitcoms about independent young women making it on their own in the city. In fact, he has blatant contempt for her carefree attitude and Jackie's completely unaware. While they're both members of marginalized groups, he's bitter and more than a little self-pitying that whatever new independence Jackie's achieved as a young white woman hasn't yet happened for him, a young black doorman. His hilariously indignant response to her advice that he go out and enjoy New York City if he's "free for the weekend" can be taken at face value as a jab at the complacency of a dominant ethnic group, but it's also the self-righteous suicide of identifying oneself as a victim - just like the boyfriend upstairs, who whines that he could work a steady job like Jackie if only he weren't such a sensitive artist. Meanwhile, there are more sensitive artists on the sidewalk outside the building: older grownups in the throes of public alcoholism and dementia, singing and shouting for attention
like children.


Cities are supposed to be places for adults, but our three young women seem to be the only fully functioning adults around - without even realizing it.

We're Gonna Make It After All


Once upon a time three women from the city went to play in the woods like children and found some horrible child-men who wanted to play, too.


"Lez-beans" the country store owner calls the girls. He knows something about the place they're going, and that they shouldn't go there, but being this being a horror movie they don't listen to his warning. They're city gals. Liberated types. They buy beer at this country store, the manliest of grown up beverages. "The Rat Pack" is what the girls called themselves at school. A boy's club. The chairman adda board and all that. At the lake, they spontaneously emulate Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot's Dance of the Nymphs.


Jackie, Abbey and Trina are being watched. Rustles in the leaves, glimpses of the two rapists from the beginning watching their water nymph dance. These boys like to watch and we like to watch them watch and wait and anticipate the awful deeds to come. A couple of cheesy fake scares along the way are forgiven when the real attack comes utterly without warning.


The film begins - really begins - when the girls are tied in their own sleeping bags and dragged to mother's house in the woods. The thugs are named Ike and Addley: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, geddit? We can assume mother named them in about 1952 since they both look about 30. Her ambivalence towards political affiliation is a slyer version of patriotic naivete: both men were presidential candidates and therefore worthy of honor. They were moreover the first TV candidates: Nixon and Kennedy may be famed for their televised debate but Eisenhower and Adlai were the first to be brought into people's homes. Now Abbey, Jackie and Trina have been brought into theirs.

Bless This Mess


Home, insofar as Men, Women and Chain Saws author
Carol J. Clover's definition, is the "Terrible Place" of the killer's lair. Mother's Day is a cheap film but wisely lavishes mother's house with triumphant production design by Kaufman's sister Susan. Its only precedent is the dirt poor necrophile cracker decor of Robert A. Burns' design for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Mother's Day is one of very few efforts worthy of comparison to that unforgettable Terrible House, in maintaining the rural squalor
while replacing the Ed Gein country-boy details with a
sickly imitation of the suburban, the new mass culture.
"We're citified" growls Ike when Trina spits the "backwoods" epithet. "You look around!" The age of mass media is one of homogenized tastes and one of the great black jokes of Mother's Day is the civilizing effect presumed on all our pop junk - as if blue jeans and McDonalds bear an inherent taming effect on taming primitive savages. Junk culture is made to be disposable and istherefore worthless. Garbage in, garbage out, right down to the Travolta poster in mother's living room. The walls are a panoply of graffiti; a child's vandalism. Amusingly the language is never more  than "Addley Eats Snails." 


The key is so naturally embedded in our first look inside this terrible home-place of the crazy family: the TV is on. The screen is warped. Yet the sounds of cowboys and indians warring drone on. The medium is the message.


When mother makes Ike and Addley wipe their feet after dragging the captured cowboys - er, girls inside, then makes them kiss her on the cheeks, I like them. There is something endearing about ghoulish families, be it the ornateness of Charles Addams' Addams Family or the bickering stupidity of Leatherface's brood. Real families are scary and dysfunctional, too. Ike and Addley love their mom and the actors have a chemistry together which, again, I can only relate back to Texas Chainsaw for crazed believability.


Jack LaLanne died today. The AP headline said he "brought fitness to the masses." Back in 1951, his was the first TV show to demonstrate all the exercises you could do at home, long before yoga and aerobics fads. Ike and Addley believe very much in home fitness. They collect "Muscle Mags" and the girls are tied to weight lifting machines in their upstairs exercise room, complete with muscleman posters. As feminists have pointed out for years, mass media thrives on images of perfect and perfectible bodies, leaving us forever chasing an unrealistic ideal. This is why over roughly two generations all actors have come to resemble underwear models, but more pertinently to Mother's Day, this is also why two psychos raised on TV have adapted a TV society's ever-growing obsession with personal fitness as a will to power over others.

The "Wait" Room


Poor Jackie is chosen as "the first one" by mother and brought to the backyard, where mother watches her boys establish a context for what will happen to her.


Hilariously, horribly, the rapists must put on a show for mother and themselves. The rape is apparently not worth doing without it. Jackie must be made to sit on a phony park bench while Ike and Addley simulate a rape scenario - they have many, but it is always mother's choice what channel to watch. Television drama is in essence the constant carding and discarding of roles, of cops pretending to be crooks pretending to be lawyers pretending to be lovers pretending to be virgins. Mother picks "The Shirley Temple" for Jackie and poor Jackie has a makeshift little girl's dress pulled over her.

Gender Roles


Games are for learning and ever since television we have learned all of our play-acting games from television. Mother wants her boys to be THE BEST. The best at what? Rape and murder. Why? Well, for her amusement / our amusement / our horror at her amusement / our amusement. By creating their own fantasy context for rape and murder, the psycho family asserts their dominance over us, the spectators - they have set the terms of fantasy within our understanding of them as fantasy monsters, and this reality of fantasy within fantasy makes their actions more real. We are what we pretend to be and the sight of rapists making a game of rape subverts the pleasure out of our voyeurism: to underscore this point, Ike takes pictures as Addley does the deed upon Jackie for ours
and mother's voyeurism.


The rape of Jackie is craftily stripped of any voyeuristic thrill because it is the moral center of Mother's Day; the crime which for all the wicked humor on display throughout the film is carefully emphasized as truly horrific and deplorable. The phony hippie victims of the film's prologue were killers playing innocent. Jackie is an innocent forced by killers to play even more innocentshe is not even given the dignity of being raped as herself. She has become a sick child's toy.

Wake up! It's me, Big Bird, and it's time to get up! Open your little eyes now. Don't roll over and go back to sleep. C'mon now! One foot out of bed. Now the other one. Okay, have a nice day, and don't forget to wind your clock!


Sesame Street, like Peanuts or Mr Rogers, gets frequently vandalized by witless dullards who fancy themselves irreverent. Charlie Brown smoking crack or what have you. The brilliance of Ike and Addley waking up to a Big Bird alarm clock the next morning is its cohesion to the film's satirical aims. Here again is the piss take on the alleged socially redeeming value of mass TV culture. For what other television show has so often been
defensively cited as evidence that TV can also be good for you?


Brushing teeth with beer, Lysol as hairspray and deodorant, cheese spread and a bucket of Trix for breakfast. All the while debating the merits of punk v. disco.

Part Of This Balanced Breakfast


As the former chairman of United Biscuits Hector Liang said, "Machines wear out. Cars rust. People die. But what lives on
are the brands."


The sole narrative parody is a musical one: Phil Gallo and Clem Vicari Jr's training montage music is a variation on their original themes in the style of Rocky as the boys go about a backyard regiment of absurd exercises. This was a contemporary parody with the added unseen benefit of enduring as an chapter in the context of no-context's chronicling of itself. Vis-a-vis exercise, Rocky was an important chapter in the transference of personal fitness as national ideal rather than personal pursuit.


Particularly astute or second time viewers of Mother's Day may notice foreshadowing in the opening credits of Abbie's plan to lower Trina down the side of their captive house in
sleeping bag by rope.


A slide show in darkness of the girls' college days, over which the girls yak. The girls yakking in the opening credits contained foreshadowing for a scene nearly 40 minutes later. Did you know Warren Leight, co-writer of Mother's Day, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won a Tony as a playwright nearly
20 years later?


In the film's most intense moment of viscera, the rope holding Trina's sleeping bag starts to tighten through the flesh of Abbie's hands. In college this was all a big game to get out of their dorm and see boys. Now "the boys" are whom they're hiding from.


Creeping through the house to unlock Abbie from upstairs, Trina mistakes a dog food commercial in another room for the voice of her captors. Sublime.


A typical feature of Feminist-Marxist media critique is the view of toys for young boys that promote war, which is strongly implied in Abbie's shocked POV close-up glances inside Ike and Addley's and accompanying piano dischord.


Jackie has been discarded like a toy in Ike and Addley's drawers.


A perfect example of Carol J. Clover's reading horror as fairytales: Trina finds her way back to the car thanks to their trail of discarded beer cans.


Abbie waits in the woods tending to Trina in her feeble best attempt at motherly care: a bed of leaves for her catatonic, brutalized friend as darkness falls.


Trina sees the lights of a cop car. Could this be the woodsman?


The "cop" is Ike. Trina embraces him and just before realizing the truth, he almost inaudibly sings under his breath the end of a children's rhyme that was once taught years ago for
emergency situations:


Remember your name and address /
and your phone number too
then if some day you lose your way /
you'll know just what to do
Walk up to that kind policeman /
the very first one you meet
and simply say I've lost my way /
I cannot find my street


Television is the assumption and discarding of roles. Ike pretending  to be a cop nicely dovetails the most traditionally male with traditionally adult role, to Trina's horror.


Being taken by a policeman is a role playing rape fantasy for some girls, but I digress.


After Trina's further evasion of Ike through the woods, she finds Abbie and Jackie, who has passed away in the night. Horrified with grief, Abbie consoles her fellow rat packer:
"We'll get those bastards."


Back at the homestead mother and Addley play Backgammon. Addley stews over not being out with his brother getting girls. Mother scorns him that one of them must stay with her to protect from her crazier sister Queenie who lives in the woods. Addley grumbles it's just a story she tells him and Ike to keep
them at home. Hinted before, the fully story of a witch in the
woods adds another fairytale dimension to the nightmare. Parents and probably mothers in particular are the source of fairy tales.


Mother's Day finally eclipses into hardcore feminist revenge fantasy in the wake of I Spit On Your Grave. While that film was never once humorous - even The Last House On The Left, an antecedent of the rape revenge genre exploitation film had humor, amazingly - this black comedy horror posits its climax as a clash of genders but also a duel of female wills: the independent young women versus the crazed matriarch-as-enabler of man-boys. The most grisly irony of the film may be that compared to every other male in this film, including Jackie's pigheaded ex-college boyfriend in flashback, Ike and Addley are the only effective men at
what they do.


Gallo and Vicari Jr's score takes a surprisingly effective emotional bombast as Abbie and Trina carry their fallen comrade to the perimeter of the house and prepare for combat. If at this point one has written off any investment in the characters, this may come off as a joke, yet Abbie's postmortem kiss to Jackie is a sweetly outre moment unto itself. The shot is even included in rapid montage of other arresting, more horrific visuals at the end of the film's
trailer. Carol J. Clover's pointed recognition of cross-gender identification in horror makes the strongest connections where sexual assaults upon friends are concerned; Camille Keaton's avenging her own rape in I Spit On Your Grave is not as easy for men to cheer as vengeance on behalf of a friend as in Mother's Day. Likewise, the mainstream all male rape-revenge film Deliverance was also very popular with women.


Addley's death enters fittingly through the neck via TV antenna.
He's then fittingly attacked in the genitals. While he had to be tricked into a state of vulnerability this was not achieved, as Alex Jackson of Viddied Reviews notes, with the use of feminine wiles as Keaton used in I SpitRather, they engage their opponents as fellow warriors the way the city men and country rapists of Deliverance attempt to outwit each other as hunters.


Ike attacks the girls as they attempt to hide Addley's body outside. He rages that they killed his brother and attacks Trina as Abbie runs back into the house.


Abbie runs back outside with a can Draino she somehow noticed before, and forces it down Ike's throat. People die. What lives on are the brands.


Mouth foaming, Ike chases Trina and Jackie back inside
the mouth. Advancing on Trina as he chokes, he does not see Abbie fitting a TV set on his head. As unlikely as the physics may be, first television president Ike's death by television is helped sold by Gallo and Vicari's synth sound effects. The final blows are dealt by Trina via electric carving knife. Fitting, not only as a symbolic tool of postwar domesticity, but providing the film's Freudian impalement retribution for Jackie's literal death by penetration.


Mother is bested by a play acting trick foreshadowed when the
girls were still goofing around in the woods. Her years of watching and facilitating murders apparently left her unable to see through a ruse. Abbie, pretending to have been stabbed, allows Trina to subdue her. Pleading for her life, mother intones: "I'm sick! I'M A SICK WOMAN!" True, but the wrong words for Abbie, whom we heard screeching the same line to her in Chicago. While one questions how Abbie seems to know there is an inflatable pair of oversized novelty breasts within arm's reach, her smothering of mother while ranting about "taking care" of her is too fitting to nitpick. What's more, Abbie's immediate crying breakdown restores an emotional integrity endangered when she responded to Ike's death with a one-liner a little too glib for this author to believe.


The final scene is this: Trina and Abbie stand at the burial of Jackie in the woods later that night. Trina consoles Abbie not to feel guilty for surviving: they were strong, and meant to survive this ordeal. Suddenly, who else but Queenie springs out to attack and the frame freezes. The girls' screams echo as the frame fades to mustard. The only thing tougher than young sisterhood is the wrath of an old, feral childless spinster.

Shock Ending, Last Laugh


To satirize television effectively is to satirize America itself. We live in the context of no context as the result of its institution and there is not a single aspect of daily life unaffected by how it has altered human consciousness. This has been happening for so long that pointing out such effects on the psyche has long become unfashionable cliche. Charles Kaufman and Warren Leight's story retains thematic resonance today by having addressed what few in 1980 recognized and only slightly more people have caught onto today: chief amongst the aims of television is the retardation not only of intellect but maturity. Ike and Addley are momma's boys but so are Jackie's good for nothing men and the men on the periphery of Trina and Abbie. Mother fostered her boys' arrested
development and their psychopathic hobbies are the worst case scenario of every variation on the old statistic - people don't even cite it anymore, so long has it been a fact of life - that before a child turns X, they've witnessed X violent acts at home on TV. This crazy family's disassociation from reality, their need to frame their actions within invented drama inherited from TV, belongs to us all. Jackie, Abbie and Trina - intelligent, capable and each in some measure independent - face the modern nightmare of
momma's boys rendered dumb by the state of perpetual childhood co-parented by the media. From what I understand talking to my female friends, finding a man and not an overgrown adolescent to be with has only gotten damned harder these days.

The horror of the evil child seen in films like
The Exorcist, Halloween, and The Omen, or in stories like Jerome Bixby's It's a Good Life and Ray Bradbury's The Veldt, is the horror of the child rendered alien to his parents by television. Mother's Day wallows in the omniscience of televisions in every room of every American house and infantilizing, unfeeling pop culture.
TV is the third parent, and in this film the unspoken father
of mother's boys.

Mother's Day could not be easier to dismiss at face value. The holiday title implies a derivative Halloween or Friday the 13th style slasher. The killbilly family on the poster suggests a potentially inferior variant of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a great film too easy to imitate poorly. The presence of rape in the story invites all sort of problems in the hands of lesser writing talents than who the film was blessed. You can't expect
half-decent writing from a horror film called Mother's Day released by the  shlockmasters at Troma, whom were known even before The Toxic Avenger as makers of raunchy sex comedies in-house and the occasional distribution of horror films like the infamous Blood Sucking Freaks,  a film whose subtext free gran guignol torture of women would be a huge favorite of Ike and Addley's.

So this is Mother's Day, a multi-layered satirical horror comedy
that is witty and disturbing. No one involved ever did horror again. Charles Kaufman directed another film for Troma, the straightforward wacky comedy When Nature Calls. A few short years after Mother's Day, Charles' brother Lloyd would make his own comedy-horror with The Toxic Avengera bizarre, uncategorizable and anarchic film which made Troma's
reputation to millions of people to this day.

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