Judge Gordon Sullivan hasn't accepted a lift from a little old lady since watching this movie.
"I'm so proud of my boys—they never forget their mama."
In one of his last published interviews, Ray Bradbury discussed one of the greatest difficulties with writing anything tragic: "If you're not careful in tragedy, one extra rape, one extra incest, one extra murder and it's hoo-haw time all of a sudden." You could substitute "horror" for "tragedy" without too much difficulty. Anyone working in the realm of the horror film has to be aware that going too far can lead to laughs instead of screams. However, before the advent of more realistic gore effects, the marriage of comedy and horror went in comedy's favor. When Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein, there was no question that it was going to be funny. However, something started to really change in the 1970s, as directors started to use comedic elements to increase the horror. By mixing over-the-top gore with jokes and horror elements, filmmakers kept audiences unsettled, unsure whether to laugh or scream. One of the films at the forefront of what would become its own genre (the horror-comedy) is Charles Kaufman's Mother's Day, a gritty and goofy horror flick that's been given a solid Blu-ray release that will preserve its importance for another generation.
Facts of the Case
Three college girlfriends get together for a reunion every year to bond and reminisce. This year they're going to do it while camping and so they head off into the woods. The only problem is that this time they chose the stomping grounds of a couple of crazy guys who rape and murder under the direction of Mother. The women must survive against the onslaught of this terrible family.
I don't buy the argument that lower-budget films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Mother's Day are scarier because they're more authentic. Maybe they seemed that way in the 1970s, but today they don't feel as immediate. Today, these films draw their power to still scare us from the simple fact that we don't really know what's going to happen. Because films like Mother's Day operate outside the bounds of conventional genre (as it was understood in 1980 anyway), they can be or do anything.
For instance, Mother's Day opens with a scene at a self-help seminar (that subtly pokes fun at gurus). Afterwards, a pair of hippie-looking young people get a ride with an older, grandmotherly type. With the Manson murders in the not-too-distant past, viewers are naturally sympathetic with the elderly woman as these two youths seem primed to rob or kill her. When she gets them out into the country, however, the tables are turned. It's the young people who are in danger from Mother and her boys. There are other moments like this sprinkled throughout the film, but all of them lend the film a feeling of "anything goes" that emphasizes the horror and the comedy.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that even after thirty years, Mother's Day still has the power to be affecting. Many horror films from that era—especially low-budget ones—have aged poorly. Their politics seem misplaced, and their gore and horror laughably outdated. Because Mother's Day plays around with our expectations and incorporates a certain amount of comedy in its storyline, it doesn't suffer from those problems. The anarchic storyline presents numerous opportunities for viewer surprise even decades later.
Other than a restored print, Mother's Day (Blu-ray) is the only way to see it. The 1.78:1 AVC-encoded image is beautifully filmlike. The print used for the transfer has a bit of damage (mostly in the form of specks), but otherwise this is an amazing visual treat. Detail is strong, especially in the structure of the grain, and colors are well-saturated throughout. There's a bit of noise here and there, and there might be a bit less shadow detail than the print offers, but this is an amazing way to see a low-budget classic. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is a little less appealing. I doubt it would be worth a serious re-master, but what's here is okay. Dialogue is clearly audible throughout, and well balanced with the film's use of music. However, it's a relatively lifeless track, giving little indication of space or placement of aural information. It does the job, but it's not great.
Extras start with a commentary by director Charles Kaufman (assisted by crew member Rex Pian). The pair are chatty, offering a number of insights into the film's history, it's reception, and how it was made. We also get 10 minutes of Super 8 footage that includes various behind-the-scenes tests for effects and makeup, with commentary by Kaufman. Moving into the present day, we get a short piece of Kaufman's appearance at the 2010 Comic-Con, as well as a short featurette that finds Eli Roth waxing rhapsodic about his love for the film and its politic message. Finally, the film's original trailer is played.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like many horror films of its era, Mother's Day requires a bit of indulgence on the part of the viewer. While I still think it maintains its power to disturb and shock audiences, Mother's Day also feels very much like a product of 1980. Those not aware of the context of the film or not willing to put up with some of the low-budget aspects of the production should steer clear. Also, anyone with objections to low-budget violence and gore should likewise stay far away from this flick.
Lloyd Kaufman was still making so-so sex comedies in 1979 when his brother Charles directed Mother's Day, and I can't help but think that its success helped push Lloyd (and Troma) away from the sex comedy and towards the gore comedy or "splatstick" film. Taken in that light, this is an important and interesting film, and one that still maintains its power to be unsettling decades later. Fans of the film will want to upgrade to Mother's Day (Blu-ray) for the improved video transfer, and this is the way to experience the film for those new to Kaufman's masterpiece.
I'm not going to argue with Mother: not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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