There are plenty of movies about good mothers. Take The Blindside, for instance: It’s a subversively racist film, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t a good mom right there. But we decided we wanted to have a little fun this Mother’s Day with “The Best Mother’s Day Horror Movies.”
But then we had some trouble reconciling Mommie Dearest as a horror movie, and even more trouble with giving Only God Forgives that label, and we weren’t about to write about some dreck like Hush or Mother’s Boys instead of those masterpieces. And so here we are.
We ended up going with “Worst Mothers,” which is an angle that I think is even more fun and tasteless, for this particular holiday, than the horror thing. Unfortunately, the change in our approach resulted in the cutting of Rosemary’s Baby, which makes this the second time that I’ve tried and failed to get the film into a roundup (but Father’s Day is coming up, and damn it, it will be going on that one). We were forced to replace that classic film with one of the aforementioned dreck ones, Mother’s Boys, but I promise you that while that film isn’t good, it is hilarious.
1) Only God Forgives (2013)
When director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling—who, when my girlfriend says is hot, I find myself completely unable to argue otherwise—unleashed the massively cool Drive upon the world, most people forgot that, before Drive, Refn had been making aggressively strange films for well over a decade. Most fans of the film viewed Gosling’s Driver as a classic lone cowboy-type hero, completely missing the fact that Refn was deconstructing that archetype and presenting that sort of hero as a dangerously obsessive psychopath. These people didn’t realize that, had the Driver not beaten a man to death in an elevator immediately after kissing Carey Mulligan, and she’d had some time to react, she probably would have said something like “Whoa! We’re, umm… I actually just think of you as a friend.”
These people had not seen the madness that was Refn’s Bronson or Valhalla Rising, and so these people were completely unprepared when they sat down at Cannes to catch Refn and Gosling’s follow-up to Drive, Only God Forgives. Any pretension of badassery on Gosling’s end was gone, as was any sense of irony that would allow an audience to pretend they were watching a straight-faced heroic tale. Forgives was a stripped-down, hard-to-watch, inaccessible film about impotence in the face of one’s own destiny, and half the audience at its Cannes premiere openly booed at the screen while it played.
At the heart of Gosling’s character’s impotence is his mother, Crystal, played with a chilling callousness by the usually sweet-on-screen Kristin Scott Thomas. She openly tells a date (who she knows right away is an escort) at a dinner with Gosling’s character, Julian, that his brother had a much larger penis and was the far better man between the two.
The plot is kickstarted by Julian’s brother being murdered for raping and murdering a 16-year-old prostitute. Julian knows his brother deserved to be murdered, and that he was a monster—but his mother wants revenge, and he’s unable to bring himself to go against her wishes. And so he goes about half-heartedly getting revenge, putting himself in grave danger, while making no real attempts to actually succeed at it. It’s a lose-lose situation for him—but he nonetheless goes along with it.
Crystal’s an awful mother, a kingpin of a small-time drug ring in Bangkok who pressures her son into killing men knowing full well that it will undoubtedly result in him getting killed right back. Her relationship with her son borders on incestuous, and she’s shaped Julian into somebody whose only sexual relationship is one with a prostitute who pleases herself while he sits tied to a chair.
Crystal is certainly a perfect fit for this list, as far as “worst mothers” go, but the film she’s in is as beautiful as it is difficult to digest. Just try to clear your mind of Drive before you watch it, and you’ll find something that, had Kubrick directed it 30 years ago, would be currently viewed as a psychologically complex masterwork of cinema. Also: Cliff Martinez’s score is amazing.
2) Carrie (2013)
I haven’t seen Brian De Palma’s Carrie in 15 years, so I went into the remake without too much prejudice. Once upon a time, a sequel to the originally Carrie, called The Rage: Carrie 2, was defecated into theaters… That film is fresher in my mind than the original, and all I know is the remake looks like The Shining next to it.
Quality-wise, the 2013 Carrie feels more like an extremely good made-for-TV Stephen King adaptation than a film that was widely released theatrically, but the effects are top-notch, and the performances are fantastic. Chloë Grace Moretz is great as Carrie, despite the fact that her radiant beauty is at odds with the character, but Julianne Moore is the star performer of the film, and also the reason that it’s in this roundup.
The film opens with Moore’s Margaret (which, with apologies to all the Margarets out there, is such a great name for a crazy fundamentalist) giving birth to Carrie in her bedroom, alone, and then trying to stab her newborn in the face with a large pair of metal scissors. Unconsciously, this is the first time Carrie’s powers are used—the scissors stop an inch from her face, and Margaret takes this as a sign from God that she’s supposed to keep this child born out of wedlock and drenched in sin.
As it often goes with fundamentalism, the general reaction to sinning yourself is to double-down on your beliefs, with Margaret eventually quadrupling-down as Carrie gets older, doing stuff like locking her in a closet after she has her period in her high school’s locker room after gym class and is ridiculed by her classmates (and as this remake takes place in modern times, you better believe those kids are filming the whole thing on cell phones)—and calling her period a “blood curse.”
Moore’s performance is incredible, and—I don’t care how attached you are to the original—it alone makes this remake well worth watching. She’s sickly, frail, and just generally shuffles around in a manner that sends shivers down your spine. Her deliveries of simple throwaway lines are creepier than any jump scare could ever hope to be.
I’ve never read King’s book, but I’m willing to bet that this version is closer to it than De Palma’s—the new opening scene feels like something King would write, anyway. Thankfully, it maintains that classic King Ending that was used in De Palma’s version, the sort of ending where “the previous supernatural stuff ramps up exponentially and then boom, boom, boom—the end.” It actually works really well for this particular story, too, so hold on tight.
3) The Babadook (2014)
It might not be fair to call Essie Davis’s Amelia a “worst mother,” because her spiral into madness is, in all honesty, completely understandable. Her child is the worst child to ever exist. I’ve seen children at the mall that were only half as annoying as newcomer Noah Wiseman’s Samuel and had [very brief] thoughts of them being sucked into the escalator. Am I proud of that? No! I’m just saying: I can sympathize with Amelia when she snaps and screams at her son, and still even a bit when she eventually chases him around the house with a butcher knife.
Still, she does do some awful things after being taken hold of by Mr. Babadook, and certainly enough to place her safely in this roundup. Plus, if we’re looking at Mr. Babadook as an allegory for depression, then we can place a bit of blame on Amelia for not coping with her depression sooner and allowing it to get so out of hand that she eventually tries very hard (if only briefly) to kill her kid. Yes, that’s the sort of blame that must always be accompanied by a huge heaping of sympathy, but nonetheless: She should have gotten her shit together sooner than she did.
I previously mentioned that Samuel was the worst child to ever exist, and holy fuck is he ever annoying, but this isn’t like Jake Lloyd’s annoyance as Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace; this character is supposed to be annoying, as it’s absolutely vital to the story that he’s as grating as possible. In other words—don’t be hard on actor Noah Wiseman for making you grit your teeth while watching the film, because while he will make you do that, it’s because he’s nailing his performance.
If you haven’t seen this yet, do it while it’s still streaming on Netflix. It’s kind of a must-see for film lovers of all stripes.
4) Mommie Dearest (1981)
This one’s also a bit unfair, but not because we can sympathize with Joan Crawford being an utter monster of a mother in the film—it’s probably safe to say that she’s even worse than a monster—but rather because the film itself embellished things a bit, and so we need to get something straight: The character Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, played by Faye Dunaway, is just as bad (if not worse) than Only God Forgives’ Crystal, but we shouldn’t confuse the character with the real-life Crawford.
Things get trickier there: While her daughter’s memoir (the film’s source material) does include some bits where Crawford is batshit insane, her daughter—Christina Crawford—was appalled by the film’s treatment of her mother, and felt that the film amplified everything ugly and excised everything sweet from her relationship with her. In fact, Anne Bancroft was originally set to play Crawford, but she exited the project after concluding that it was a “hatchet job” on the late Hollywood star. Franco Zeffirelli was originally set to direct, but Christina didn’t like his vision of Crawford as a Hollywood martyr. (In hindsight, she probably would have preferred that film over the one delivered by director Frank Perry.)
As it turned out, Faye Dunaway portrayed Joan Crawford in the film (as legend has it, she landed the role by showing up to Perry’s doorstep in character), and she acts her ass off in it. In fact, Dunaway was so sure that the role would land her an Oscar that, after it didn’t, she refused to ever speak about the film with an interviewer ever again and claimed that her loss was due to Joan Crawford’s ghost haunting her. I’m not sure if that claim was made in jest or not, but if ghosts by any chance do exist, there’s no way that Crawford’s isn’t haunting Dunaway for her portrayal of her in this flick.
She’s absolutely terrifying, to the point that I’d recommend staying away from this film if you endured any childhood trauma yourself that was related to your own mother. Upon its release, the film quickly became a cult classic—with audiences showing up with wire hangers and Ajax to participate in the film, à la The Rocky Horror Picture Show—and Paramount quickly changed gears to promote it as such (much to the dismay of Dunaway). But be warned: This does not mean that her performance isn’t still scary as hell, or that it’s not powerful enough to trigger a panic attack if you happened to have a crazy mother. (Note to my mother: Thank you for not being crazy.)
Fun fact: This is the highest rated film on IMDb to have swept the Razzies (including taking home the Worst Picture award), and “No wire hangers, ever!” is No. 72 on the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie quotes.
5) Mother’s Boys (1994)
Here’s the deal: When I said this was “hilarious” in the introduction to this article, I’d only watched the trailer, which is hilarious—after watching the movie, however, I’m afraid that it’s only kind of funny, but that it’s mostly just boring.
This is one of those situations where a woman has gone completely evil and insane, and we’re not really sure why. Movies in general are still a sexist mess in our modern times, but they do deserve credit for getting a bit further away from the “Wild Woman” archetype played by Jamie Lee Curtis in this weird thriller. (The film’s sole moment of nudity occurs when Curtis’s boob briefly falls out while she’s screaming; that’s classic Wild Woman archetype right there.)
The gist is that she leaves her husband and kids for three years, returning only after he proposes to his new girlfriend. When she returns, she repeatedly attempts to seduce her still-husband, spraypaints WHORE on the side of his new fiancée’s Volvo, and eventually psychologically manipulates her oldest child into unwittingly aiding in the new woman’s attempted murder.
When a movie opens with John C. McGinley (Dr. Cox from Scrubs), you know that you’re either getting Point Break or this film. You better pray it’s Point Break, but I do think that—with a few drinks and the right romantic partner laughing at your side—Mother’s Boys can break just north of boring and veer into funny territory (especially if you make it to the end).
Screengrab via Netflix