Saturday, 11 June 2011

Mother's Day (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2010) Review

Motherly love reaches dangerous levels in the surprisingly effective Mother's Day (2010)

A remake of the 1980 Troma movie, Darren Lynn Bousman's Mother's Day is one of the most surprising films of the year so far. A veteran of the Saw series (he directed parts II - IV), Bousman's fondness for decapitation is remarkably subdued here, at least until the nailguns ahoy finale, leaving plenty of time for atmospherics and character development, and allowing Rebecca De Mornay a platform on which to deliver her best performance in years. The film begins with a series of quick-cut tracking shots, draped in shadow and dread. A John Carpenter-esque score (paced, eerie piano lines) plays over the kidnapping of a baby by a character cloaked in darkness, but the tone is quickly disrupted by a frenzied burst of violence; volatile and foul-mouthed, it's like a shot of vodka before a soothing glass of whiskey, which is the tone the film eventually settles into upon the arrival of Mother (De Mornay). The violence is caused by her three sons. After a robbery gone wrong (they were double-crossed) the youngest brother has been shot and the trio make their way to Mother's house. What they don't know is that Mother has been evicted and the house has new residents, currently enjoying a basement party (pool and disco; who are these people?). One of them is a doctor (duh!), and so we find ourselves in the middle of a typical horror/thriller setup, albeit one with a genuine sense of danger. Bousman defines the claustrophobic spaces of the house without giving us a guided tour, relying on camerawork and editing to create a sense of the characters' entrapment. It's all chugging along rather nicely, if unremarkably, and then Mother pops in for a visit...

I've never seen De Mornay this good. It's an incredibly controlled performance, and a disturbingly likable one. She's like your typical TV mom; doting, kind, softly spoken and a dab hand at baking. The stern look she gives her sons speaks louder than any words, because it's a look we all recognize. She reassures the hostages downstairs, asking them to sit in a comfortable position and relax. She says this in whispered, friendly tones, and one considers how, if she weren't capable of psychotic levels of violence, she'd be the perfect mother. Her performance slowly becomes more and more unnerved, except that every detail exists behind her eyes, and is not flagged up by writing. Bousman ratchets up the tension, slowly turning the screw - or more aptly, the knife - to unbearable levels, but his anchor is always De Mornay. Whenever the tone seems to be slipping she wanders into the frame and everything is rectified; she's magnetic, warm and terrifying. But the scenes without her hold power as well, especially a deeply uncomfortable set-piece in which two innocent girls are presented with a knife and the option of choosing who lives and who dies. Whichever girl kills the other will go free. If that sounds too much like Saw then fear not. The scene relies on manipulating audience expectations and the psychology of that moment: what would you do?

Mother's Day isn't perfect, and towards the end it becomes everything you feared it might be in the first place: a soulless torture flick. It's a genuinely nasty little film, except that I say that in regards to tone for the first two thirds, and in-your-face slasher silliness for the final movement. Subtlety and sense are abandoned, and the film becomes tedious - a fact not helped by the 112 minute running time, desperately in need of an editor. But it's probably better to have ideas for abandoning than to have none at all, and for a long time Mother's Day is better than we had any right to expect; dark, feisty and exciting. Even for jaded horror fans, I heartily recommend it...

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