The late 1970’s and early 1980’s ushered in the golden era of slasher films. In the early 80’s, the formula for a hit horror movie was to take the premise of Halloween and implement it into your own unique setting. 1980 alone gave us Friday the 13th (and many others) taking place at summer camp, Prom Night; a school dance, and Terror Train; you guessed it, on a train.
But 1980 also saw the release of one of the most unique slasher films. Mother’s Day, though not for everyone, is one of the true bright spots from the slasher golden era. It’s difficult to even categorize it in the slasher subgenre because of how different it was from others being made at the time. If you were to pitch it to a movie studio you’d call it “Last House on the Left meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Quite the combination.
The premise is simple. We have three former college roommates (Abbey, Jackie, and Trina) going on a camping trip 10 years after graduation. We’re shown brief scenes of each of them living out their different lives, including a pool party scene taking place in Beverly Hills that I’m almost certain Paul Thomas Anderson referenced when making Boogie Nights (roller blades and all). While on their trip they are stalked and kidnapped by 2 backwoods maniacs (Ike and Addley). Ike and Addley take the trio back to their house in the woods to show “Mother.” In a series of events that are not for the faint of heart, the maniac son’s brutally torture the trio, trying to garner praise from Mother.
This could very well be (and has been) written off as a cheap exploitation movie. Roger Ebert famously gave it zero stars in his scathing review. While Mother’s Day does suffer some of the setbacks that a low-budget film typically endures, there’s also plenty of merit to be had. Some of that merit is found in director Charles Kaufman’s play on pop culture. Littered throughout the maniac’s house is an excessive amount of pop culture items. We see Sesame Street clocks, Trix cereal boxes, and a Raggedy Anne doll, just to name a few. When Mother is not watching her boys rape and torture, she’s watching whatever junk is on the nearest television. We even get an entire training montage of Ike and Addley doing their best Rocky Balboa impression. Whether Kaufman was making a correlation to the amount of pop culture one consumes and their mental health is up for the viewer to decide.
Another element that makes Mother’s Day stand out is its call backs and payoffs to what we saw earlier in the film. The opening credits is a great scene where our protagonists go through a photo album of their days as college roommates. During this scene there is mention of lowering a sleeping bag out their dorm room window, occupied by one of them, to sneak out late at night. This reference would be a throwaway in a lesser script but here it is paid off when the girls use the same exact tactic to escape from the second floor of Mother’s shack.
Mostly ignored in slasher movies before and after Mother’s Day are compelling character traits. Other than the obvious stereotypes like jock, hot girl, and nerd, we typically do not see much character development in a slasher. Mother’s Day is one of the few slashers to break from this mold. Through some early exposition and a flashback where she’s saved from a horrible date, we’re shown that Jackie is always being taken care of and looked out for by Abbey and Trina. When Jackie is taken away by Ike and Addley to have extra brutality inflicted on her, it is up to Abbey and Trina to save her once again. Although they make a valiant effort, it is to no avail as Jackie dies from her injuries. In the movie’s most emotional moment, we’re shown Abbey and Trina taking care of Jackie’s corpse before going out to extract their revenge on Mother and her boys.
Mother’s Day has become a cult classic among horror fans for its unique premise, satirical look at pop culture, and dark humor. Even if you’re not a fan of its disturbing content, there’s quality found in its screenplay and direction. It is an incredibly ugly film but if you’re willing to look past that, you’ll also find a surprisingly smart one.