Judge Patrick Bromley is no momma's boy.
The last few years haven't been easy for Darren Lynn Bousman. After quickly making a name for himself in horror by directing three installments of the incredibly successful Saw movies (Saw II—Saw IV, to be exact) and then making Repo! The Genetic Opera, one of the strangest midnight movies ever to develop a rabid cult fanbase, Bousman spent several years working on two movies that ultimately wouldn't see the light of day theatrically: 11-11-11, an original horror film from his own script, and Mother's Day, a remake of the 1980 Troma movie directed by Charlie Kaufman (brother of Troma's president, Lloyd Kaufman). Both movies show growth from Bousman as both a horror filmmaker and a storyteller, and deserved better fates. The fact that they'll be seen by roughly 1/100th of the audience that came out for Saw II is more than a little depressing, and further evidence of the problems within the horror genre right now. Junk like The Devil Inside makes tens of millions of dollars, while Mother's Day goes straight to DVD.
But enough complaining. Let's talk about Mother's Day, which stars Jamie King (My Bloody Valentine 3D) and Frank Grillo (Warrior) as married couple Beth and Daniel Sohapi, who are hosting a birthday party with several of their closest friends. It's interrupted by the arrival of three brothers returning to what they think is their house after a botched robbery has left the youngest, Johnny (Matt O'Leary, Sorority Row) dying of a gunshot wound. The Koffin brothers take Beth, Frank and their friends hostage while they wait for the arrival of their mother (Rebecca De Mornay, Flipped), who will know exactly what to do.
As you can expect, things only get worse from there.
Let's talk about the best thing Mother's Day has going for it: the performance of Rebecca De Mornay. Like a lot of aging Hollywood starlets, De Mornay doesn't get many starring roles anymore, and it's obvious that she's relishing the opportunity to take center stage again—she digs into the part and never lets go. The movie spends nearly a half hour building up to her first appearance, and it's a testament to both the character and the performance that when she actually arrives, it doesn't disappoint. It's rare that a horror movie villain be given so many different colors to play; Mama is crazy, but not in the typical horror movie way. De Mornay isn't just doing a variation on Misery's Annie Wilkes, either, where she's sweet and soft to mask the controlling psycho underneath. Mama is all those things, but she turns it on and off on a dime—it's more about reacting to new situations than it is about "playing crazy." When De Mornay explains to the hostages that she wants things to resolve and to leave them be, we believe her. When she cries at the sight of her gunshot son, we believe her. She's a great villain, and it's a great performance.
But Mother's Day has more than just De Mornay going for it. The acting is a little uneven all around, but some of the performances—mostly by King (who is becoming something of a modern-day Scream Queen), Grillo and Patrick Flueger (Brothers) as oldest brother Ike—are solid. The movie affords all of its characters the ability to think their way out of their situation and at least the attempt to act upon it; unlike the majority of horror movies, in which characters make stupid choice after stupid choice, Mother's Day shows its characters (and its audience) some respect. Bousman appears to have matured as a filmmaker as well. I'm no fan of what he brought to the Saw franchise and I guess I just wasn't the audience for Repo!, but there's a restraint to his work on Mother's Day that suggests he's only getting better. Sure, there is brutality to some of the gore, but nothing compared to the fetishizing that took place in his Saw films. Maybe it helps that, unlike a lot of current horror films being released to DVD and Blu-ray, this one is only offered in its original R-rated cut. There are no "unrated" marketing gimmicks going on.
I don't want to oversell Mother's Day, either, as it has its share of problems that extend beyond the uneven acting. Some of the issues result from the movie being good enough that I wish it were better. Having the characters think and be proactive helps build tension; actually developing those characters beyond identifying where they work or who they date would go even further towards helping the audience invest in their plight. There are a few sequences in which the narrative twists itself in knots so that Bousman can indulge in some of his old Saw tricks (characters are forced to make moral choices or act violently to insure the survival of someone else). Worst of all, though, is that the movie unravels quickly as it heads towards its climax and starts making many of the mistakes that it cleverly avoided for much of its running time. Its ending is a disaster, and while I won't spoil it here I have to ask why, in 2012 (or in 2010 when the movie was actually made) do horror filmmakers still feel it necessary to end every movie this way? Are they interested in telling stories, or just setting up franchises?
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray of Mother's Day is solid on a technical level, but falls short in the special features department. The 2.40:1 widescreen image is presented in full 1080p HD and looks great, with deep, solid blacks, sharp detail, naturalistic color representation and no digital tinkering to speak of. Ditto the lossless TrueHD 5.1 audio track, which, like a lot of modern horror movies, makes the most of the loud "scare" effects without doing a disservice to the more quiet moments. The only bonus feature is a commentary with Bousman and co-star Shawn Ashmore (Frozen), in which they discuss production details and give an overview of the movie. It's not bad, but it's pretty generic stuff.
The goods news is that Mother's Day is seeing the light of day at all, since it's better than a lot of the horror films that actually do receive theatrical distribution these days. It's not reinventing the genre, but it gave me new faith in a director I had previously dismissed. It's a solid remake that offers enough good to warrant a recommendation—particularly the performance by Rebecca De Mornay, who does her best work in years. Quite possibly ever.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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