The horror genre is no stranger to stories involving the possession of family members: from My Mom’s a Werewolf to Rabid Grannies, this sub-genre has been done and re-done over and over again. From my vantage point, these films typically lean heavily on tongue-in-cheek humor – a kind of dark comedy that seems to relieve the filmmakers from having to really commit to either the horror or comedy genre. As a result I tend to find films of this ilk rather boring (either because the humor falls far from the mark or because there aren’t enough scares to offset the comedic moments). These films more often than not end up feeling like caricatures of themselves.
In the case of a film like Rabid Grannies – the near-legendary film from Troma’s catalog – the barometer is accelerated in the other direction (away from slapstick humor toward gore-fest) so much so that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the creators of Dead Alive were heavily influenced by it. In the end, films like Rabid Grannies and Dead Alive keep me entertained for only a very short time and I find my patience dwindling for the over-the-top gore and slapstick gags. My indifference begins to morph into daydreaming about other (though admittedly no less-strange) things.
And then there’s Mom – a little horror film that seemingly came and went without causing much of a stir (good or bad) back in the early 1990s. I fondly remember seeing the strange though humorous VHS cover art in my local Pawtucket video store as a kid (Video Hut – the place I first discovered such gems as Troll 2 and Albert Pyun’s garbage take on the Captain America story). In fact, now that I’m thinking about Video Hut, I also used to rent many Nintendo and Super Nintendo games from there as well. Odds are I helped pay that place’s rent many months over simply from my countless rentals of the NES version of Paperboy…
…And I digress. What the hell was I talking about? Oh, right. Mom. Okay, so:
Synopsis from the VHS: “Most moms are wonderful cooks, this one…likes it raw. Something’s been eating Clay Dwyer – his mom. Once a sweet, lovable old lady she has been bitten by and transformed into a flesh eater, turning her into a hungry creature with a knack for good ol’ homestyle cooking. Due to Mom’s insatiable appetite, Clay is reluctant to introduce her to his pregnant girlfriend. But family friction is far from Clay’s major concern. Mom is on the loose, terrorizing the town and sinking her teeth in groceries not found at the corner market. What is Clay to do? To everyone else she’s a monster that must be destroyed. But to him…she’s still MOM.”
While it doesn’t possess awe-inspiring cast performances or air tight writing, Mom DOES pack some eery visuals, “WTF did they just say?” dialogue, and a trove of enjoyably wacky moments from then-veteran actress, Jeanne Bates. Mom juggles the oddball humor and effective – albeit brief – gore in a harmlessly fun way. One moment Bates’ character is baking cookies, while a moment later is stalking homeless people for dinner. It’s truly a casserole of insanity from start to finish – and I love it.
After a recent viewing of Mom I felt as though it was from a different era, though not one I could place whatsoever. In its occasional fantastical atmosphere, it’s almost as if Mom was set inside the twisted dreamlike state of a young child. And even though I enjoyed most of the script (which awkwardly balances the humor with the horror), it was really the performance from Bates that brings it all home for me. Bates’ career began in the 1940s, and up to her death in 2007 she really did it all. Radio, television, film, you name it.
And while her role as a bloodthirsty flesh hound may have sounded unusual to Bates at the time, one must remember that she had already starred in David Lynch’s Eraserhead, playing the part of Mrs. X., so surely she was up for anything – as you’ll read below during my interview with Mom director Pat Rand.
John Campopiano: What sorts of films did you admire growing up? Are they the same kinds of films you’ve been making during your career thus far?
Pat Rand: Growing up I wasn’t really that interested in films. However, the first film that really compelled me was 2001: A Space Odyssey – and I became obsessed with The Poseidon Adventure. There was something about the familiar becoming foreign and frightening… I also loved old monster movies that showed on Saturday TV, especially “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” In college, film editing completely grabbed me and never let go. I knew it’s what I had to do, and so I headed to California after graduation. I had no real plan, no particular goal except to edit. I ended up at Roger Corman’s studio where, at that time, he was making low budget horror films, so that’s what I worked on – both before and after Mom.
JC: Where did the idea for Mom originally come from? Would you say that your initial vision for the film is what ended up getting made?
PR: The idea came up just sitting around with friends, throwing out ideas, and the idea of a sweet little blue-haired lady becoming a flesh-eating ghoul struck us all as fun and funny. After working in the low-budget world for a while, I felt I could write a script that was at least as good as what I saw being produced in that world. I had made enough contacts that I thought it could get funding. Kevin Watson and I fleshed out the story (he had a wicked sense of humor), and I wrote the script fairly quickly. The man who found the funding, Cassian Elwes, pushed to make the script more graphic. I didn’t know until after the fact that that he was going to release this as a sequel to a film called Monster Dog that he had produced.
I wouldn’t say that my initial vision for the film ended up on screen, although the humor and poignancy remained intact. The original vision did leave much more to the imagination. Originally, Emily (aka Mom, played by Jeanne Bates) never physically transformed into a monster, she just became a flesh eater. The only transformation was in her eyes. Also, once we got into production we quickly fell behind schedule and each day started with me having to cut scenes from the script. For the longest time I couldn’t watch the film because it felt like such a compromise from the original vision, but I’ve moved past that. It was all a great learning experience.
Mom was shot on 35mm and went straight to video. It was filmed on the edge of South Central Los Angeles and we had to make a deal with the local gang so we wouldn’t have problems. I only heard about that after the fact. (Lots of things a director finds out about after the fact). Apparently that had been the intention from the beginning, although cast and crew (myself included) were unaware of that.
JC: I’ve always felt that the balance of comedic and horror elements in Mom worked well. Was it your goal from the start to have this film be a mixture of dark humor and horror?
PR: Absolutely. That was the appeal of it for me. I’m glad you appreciate it. We only had one real screening of the film, and to hear the audience respond the way we hoped – very rewarding. Jeanne Bates came out of the screening and admitted that she hadn’t seen the humor in the script. I don’t think she would have played it right if she had.
JC: In the story, were the bestial transformations of Brion James’ and Jeanne Bates’ characters intended to be those of vampires, werewolves, or something else?
PR: The conceit is that there is only one species of creature through all ages and cultures. Each culture and time period created its own myth around the creature, eventually becoming stories of vampires, werewolves, etc.
JC: Could you tell us a bit about the special effects makeup used in the film? There were certainly some nice moments – particularly moments involving Jeanne.
PR: Kevin and Sandra McCarthy of Players Special Effects were really the team behind the special effects makeup. We had three stages of monster transformation beyond the yellow contacts. First was just a makeup effect, which is what you see the most in the film. Second was the “transformation” makeup where there were balloons under latex which inflated the cheeks and forehead. This stage was challenging and rarely worked very well. I think you see it best on the rooftop scene, but even then it’s hard to see. Finally was the full-on monster prosthetic head. It was not articulate at all, we just shot it very close up as it “lunged”. That’s what you see in the advertising.
Jeanne was a total trooper. She did tell me that in Eraserhead David Lynch had glued a real pubic hair on her face, so everything we did to her was much easier. The contact lenses were difficult for her to get in and out; yet, for some reason it was easy for me, so more often than not I would put them in for her.
JC: In addition to Mom you’ve got some other horror/thriller and even sci-fi titles to your credit including Twice Dead, The Rain Killer, The Unborn, and Scanner Cop 2. What do you enjoy about working in these genres?
PR: Like I said, I ultimately wanted to work and these were the films that came my way. I was never great at action films. I found myself to be much better at creating tension, suspense, and creating empathy for characters – probably because those things were more interesting to me. I really like less graphic horror films that leave more to the viewer’s imagination (although I rarely had my way with that on these films).
JC: What are some of your most vivid memories from the shoot?
PR: The most vivid memory was shutting down just a few days before we were supposed to start shooting. Everything was in place and then Cassian Elwes called me in to say he hadn’t found funding for the film. I had to go to the set and tell everyone the bad news. We were filming in a trashed house (in the Los Angeles area) that we had cleaned up and painted to make it Emily’s house. That was very hard – telling everyone that had worked so hard to get ready for the production that it wasn’t going to happen. But the core group kept meeting in our production office and sent out packages to every production company in town saying we had this great little film ready to go – we just needed money.
About three weeks later Cassian came back with the funding and we were back on. Crazy! We had lost a couple of crew members but still had our original cast. We were on a very tight budget, and many strange decisions were made to save money. We hired Maray Ayres as Clay’s sister because she promised to train our bulldog who appeared in the movie. However, there was only one time that the dog did what it was told to – and I’m pretty sure it was a coincidence. Her shouting at the dog to come, or to stay, with almost no result was very funny.
Jeanne Bates was a total trooper. She had to stay in that make-up for hours sometimes. Only one time did she even seem cranky about it: We were on the rooftop for the face-off with the cop who tries to shoot her. I asked her what I could do to make things a little easier for her. She responded that she wanted a vanilla milkshake…and she got it!
JC: In an age of reissues, re-releases and restorations, can fans expect to see a DVD or even Blu-ray release of Mom anytime soon?
PR: I really don’t know. You can order a DVD copy from the MGM library and also stream it on Netflix (or at least you could a year ago). It was also released, strangely enough, on laserdisc.
JC: If you could bring the principal characters from Mom back for a sequel to mark this year’s 25th anniversary of the original, what would you call it?
PR: I think it would have to be called Grandma. The premise would go something like this: Emily survives the explosion but goes into hiding. It turns out that even though Emily didn’t kill Alice, maybe she took a bite, and the unborn baby is a creature like Emily. She takes it to protect and feed it. Or something like that. Fun question!
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!
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