The 13th Floor

Never Forget Your Mama: Looking Back at the Still-Controversial MOTHER’S DAY

Sure, there’s a dedicated day for it on your calendar, but you really shouldn’t need a reminder to do right by your mom… even if you’re a homicidal inbred psycho who collects human heads and eats cereal and cat food from a bucket.

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That’s the gist of Charles Kaufman’s controversial backwoods horror and rape/revenge flick MOTHER’S DAY — a film which completely freaked out audiences, scandalized critics and raised the ire of censors back in 1980, and even today feels just as grimy, seedy and unsettling as ever.

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The story behind MOTHER’S DAY is just as fascinating as the film itself: writer-director Kaufman co-produced the film with Michael Herz and Charles’ brother Lloyd Kaufman — whom you probably know as the co-founders of Troma, birthplace of THE TOXIC AVENGER, CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH and dozens more landmarks in cinematic sleaze.

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The film represents one of Troma’s first ventures into the horror genre, developed while the studio was still mostly churning out quickie sex comedies with exclamation points in their titles (SQUEEZE PLAY! STUCK ON YOU! WAITRESS!). While it didn’t begin as an original Troma production, Kaufman & Herz’s studio acquired the release rights to the film after the original distributor went bankrupt.

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According to the director, the film was shot in the woods near Newton, in northern New Jersey — which is within the northern Appalachian Valley, but here is presumably passing for the vast wilderness often known as the Pine Barrens (renamed the “Deep Barons” in the film).

The Pine Barrens are quite familiar to cryptozoology buffs as the alleged haunt of a demonic creature known to local folklore as the “Jersey Devil” — a half-human monstrosity believed by some to be the spawn of Satan, or the product of a horrible family curse.

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Newton is also coincidentally just a stone’s throw from the area where FRIDAY THE 13TH was being filmed… and almost at the same time, it would seem. In fact, the general store where the protagonists stock up on groceries is the same location in F13 where the ill-fated Annie (Robbi Morgan) hitches a ride with the truck driver on her way to certain doom.

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Adding an even darker undertone to the proceedings is the rumor that the clapped-out farmhouse where the majority of the story takes place was the site of a real-life murder, and the victim’s body was reportedly discovered there just weeks before it was selected as a film location. So far, my research was unable to corroborate any of this, but one look at this place and it’s easy to imagine it might be true.

Now that you’re starting to feel a little uncomfortable, it’s time to take another look at the film, itself. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer to bring you more or less up to speed:

Our story follows three college friends whose life paths have diverged greatly since graduation: Trina (Tiana Pierce) has found relative fame and fortune in Hollywood; Jackie (Deborah Luce) is coping with the latest in a string of failed relationships in New York; and Abbey (Nancy Hendrickson) is the virtual slave of her domineering invalid mother in their Chicago brownstone.

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Each year, the trio randomly selects a location for a reunion getaway, and this year’s selection drops them in the woods of rural New Jersey, which is definitely secluded and peaceful… except for the fact that it’s also the hideout for a family of deranged psychopaths.

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The wild-eyed, jolly neck-braced matriarch (Rose Ross) of this otherwise loosely-defined family is fiercely protected by her sons Ike (Holden McGuire) and Addley (Billy Ray McQuade). Two grown men whose mental development is apparently frozen at age twelve, the “boys” regularly kidnap unwitting campers and other city folk to take part in surreal, nightmarish role-playing scenarios — often directed by Mama herself, and revolving around humiliation, rape and extreme physical abuse.

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As you can probably figure out, our three heroines are next to be cast in the family’s latest backyard production… but after one of their number dies from her injuries, the survivors find an opportunity to exact violent revenge, proving themselves just as ferocious as their powerful but moronic tormentors.

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While drawing obvious influences from DELIVERANCE, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, the film adds a very uncomfortable through-line of surreal humor, which sets it apart from the gritty realism of rape-revenge cult classic I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, and in some ways, the semi-comic portrayal of its villains makes MOTHER’S DAY even more disturbing.

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Most of these eccentric touches revolve around the brothers’ musical obsessions (Addley loves disco, while Ike is into punk), their horrendous hygiene habits, obsession with TV and questionable home-decorating sensibilities — and speaking of the latter, the prop and set design crew clearly had a blast transforming this location into a graffiti-tagged, mold-encrusted hillbilly pop art nightmare: each room in the house is plastered with road signs, wrestling and disco posters, malfunctioning TV sets and novelty sex toys.

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Another unique wrinkle on the standard “psycho-yokels-vs-city-folk” exploitation plot is Kaufman’s quirky exploration of the family dynamic: while all three family members take sociopathic delight in torture, rape and murder, they are also intensely dedicated to one another, to the point where neither son is able to leave his mother alone for long periods of time.

This is partly due to mama’s constant nagging about her twin sister “Queenie,” a Jersey Devil-inspired subhuman creature she claims is still waiting in the woods to kill her…

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I’m not going to work too hard to defend the merits of this film, as it’s one of those weirdly displaced genre entries that tends to alienate most audiences: the brutal misogynist streak is pretty hard to stomach, and attempts to offset the sexual violence with dark humor actually make the proceedings even more uncomfortable. Then again, that was probably the point, and on that level, MOTHER’S DAY succeeds.

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Fortunately, our heroines are not depicted as helpless victims, and the first act allows ample time to explore their individual personalities: while Trina initially comes off a complete snob, her elitism is revealed as a defense mechanism after she meets up with the others; Jackie generates immediate sympathy as a long-time loser who can’t catch a break; and Abbey, as the bookish Velma of the group (I had quite the crush on her back in the day), unleashes her own inner demons when forced to confront their captors head-on.

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Ultimately, the friends’ loyalty to one another proves far stronger than that of their addle-brained adversaries, fortifying the survivors for a final fight to the death… but the still-shocking final shot suggests even that won’t be enough.

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One thing’s for sure: they certainly don’t make ‘em like this anymore… but I’m 99% certain Rob Zombie was paying very close attention to this film while penning HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS: the Firefly clan is merely an extended, more criminally inventive version of the family depicted in Kaufman’s film.

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Director Darren Lynn Bousman also took a shot at remaking MOTHER’S DAY in 2010, but despite retaining the dynamics and character names of the central psycho family (including a bucket o’ crazy performance by Rebecca De Mornay, pictured above), it’s essentially a violent, torture-filled home invasion thriller. While the 2010 version is crazy fun and worth a look, I’m still partial to the original.

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Speaking of which… if you’ve missed this one, the 2012 Blu-ray release from Troma via Anchor Bay is a great place to catch up, and features not only commentary from the director (whose career went an entirely different direction from his more famous brother), but also a curious socio-political analysis from Eli Roth (who considers MOTHER’S DAY one of his favorite films), rare behind-the-scenes Super-8 footage, and a 2010 Comic-Con segment in which Bousman and Kaufman compare notes.

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