Don’t forget your mama!

One of the cult movies to come from Troma Entertainment (The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ’em High) beginning in the mid-1970s is a little gem (?) called Mother’s Day (1980). While the name borrows from other “holiday horrors” of the era like Halloween and Friday the 13th, it actually has nothing to do with Mom’s special day.

And while it blatantly steals elements from those predecessors, it overall has more in common with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left.

The story is standard: three female college roommates reunite for their annual “mystery weekend”, which, ten years after graduation, is a camping trip to backwoods New Jersey. Pity the girl whose turn it was to plan this event; these particular woods are home to a deranged woman and her two murderous sons. The sons, either inbred or mentally-challenged, like to bring their victims home for Mother so they can put on a show for her before they rape and kill them. As she says on the movie poster, “I’m so proud of my boys – they never forget their mama.”

While obviously low budget, Mother’s Day (1980) does some things surprisingly well. It moves along at a decent pace, has some clever camerawork and offers some realistic special effects in a handful of gory scenes. Acting, though, is not one of its strengths, although it contributes to the campiness of the movie. And while the filmmakers must have coughed up a small fortune for the rights to “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James & the Shondells, the rest of the music is bad 80s synthesizer.

Because there seems to be such a shortage for original movie ideas, even something like Mother’s Day can inspire a remake. But that doesn’t mean it can get released. Sitting on the shelf for two years, director Darren Lynn Bousman’s version, also called Mother’s Day, was finally released on home video this week. I’m curious what the behind-the-scenes problems may have been, because Mother’s Day (2010) is surprisingly good.

Based loosely on the original in basic structure only, Mother’s Day (2010) gives a solid backstory to the dysfunctional family, while adding an extra son and a daughter to the fold. It also gives a purpose for their mayhem. In other words, the screenplay by Scott Milam actually has a plot. This time, the sons are on a bank-robbing spree when one of them is shot. Fleeing to their mother’s house, which they don’t know has been foreclosed upon and sold to another family, they inadvertently crash a party of eight young adults and proceed to wreak their havoc, under Mother’s guidance when she and their sister arrive in a Winnebago.

Mother is a highlight in both versions, although portrayed very differently. In 1980, she seems more like a grandmother, Rose Ross playing her with an over-the-top goofiness and a never ending supply of one-liners. In 2010, she’s Rebecca DeMornay, playing a variation of her The Hand That Rocks the Cradle character, all grown up and grumpy, except when she’s spewing her one-liners and fawning over her children.

While very different, the two movies do share a few plot points and structural elements. Both begin with a gory shock that acts as a prologue for the rest of the story, which takes place at a later time. In both, one of the sons meets a similar fate: death by TV. And, in both, a mysterious girl named “Queenie” may be lurking in the woods behind the house. Without spoiling it, I’ll say that one of the movies takes full advantage of this last element, while one completely squanders it. I’ll also say that one ends perfectly, while the other attaches an unnecessary explanation for the twist that precedes it.

Mother’s Day (2010) is, again surprisingly, rich in details. Many of the eight potential victims have secrets that are revealed during the course of the movie. And there’s an attempt to comment on an overall theme of reacting under crisis, to be active or passive, with judgment of each. This causes the dynamic of the group to unravel just as it should be working together. It is during this stretch that Mother’s Day becomes violent and cruel. It’s gory, too, with some of the most disgusting gunshot wounds I’ve ever seen.

I want to mention two things that might be considered spoilers, yet demonstrate some of the unexpected surprises in the new version of Mother’s Day. These have to do with the movie going against the tropes of horror movies. For example, it’s usually the villain who consistently springs back to life after he was thought to be killed. In Mother’s Day (2010), this happens not with the villains, but with the heroes. Also, the survivors are not who you think they’ll be. And it’s not only one, it’s all of the (insert gender here) who survive.

While Mother’s Day (1980) is nearly all flaws made somewhat lovable by its goofiness, Mother’s Day (2010) has a few flaws that make it less lovable. One thing that drove me crazy is that I don’t know where the story took place. It’s obviously the Midwest; however, it’s a bank robbery in Omaha that starts the movie, but the characters go to a Wichita National Bank ATM and a weather report on TV refers to a tornado in Kansas City. This also points out another flaw. Much is made of an approaching tornado, then nothing is ultimately done with it. (For much more effective use of the thread of weather, go see Nailbiter instead.)

My recommendation here is to check out Mother’s Day (2010) which, although far from perfect, is an unexpected treat. If you really like it and are curious to see where it came from, check out Mother’s Day (1980). But I don’t particularly recommend the original for a stand-alone viewing, that is unless your idea of classic horror leans more toward Sleepaway Camp than Friday the 13th.

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Mother's Day (1980)
Mother's Day (2010)
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