Written by: Scott Milam (screenplay), Charles Kaufman & Warren Leight (original film)
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Rebecca De Mornay, Jaime King, and Shawn Ashmore
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I'm proud of my boys, they never forget their momma."
Charles Kaufman and Warren Leight receive a credit for their original screenplay for Mother’s Day, but it only seems to be there out of common courtesy. What Darren Lynn Bousman and Scott Milam have done here isn’t really much of un update of the original cornball Troma “classic”; instead, it takes the same basic kernel--a psychopathic mother and her brood terrorize innocent people--and tosses it into a movie that looks and feels entirely different. There are a few familiar names and other callbacks to the original, but this isn’t the same Mother’s Day you once plucked from a video store shelf twenty years ago.
In the original, a group of gals stumbled upon a backwoods clan of murderous hillbillies, but this version is firmly situated in suburbia. There, Beth (Jaime King) and her husband Daniel (Frank Grillo) have gathered for the latter’s birthday, and all of their rowdy friends are in tow. What they don’t realize is that the new house they’ve moved into once belong to a bunch of crazy, criminal folk, and, when a bank robbery goes bad, a trio of brothers stop by their old place, only to find it occupied. This doesn’t sit well with them or their psycho mother (Rebecca De Mornay), who has to drop by to clean up their mess and concoct a scheme to get out of the country.
If any movie ever earned the term “grim ‘n’ gritty remake,” Mother’s Day is it. Even though the original featured an opening scene decapitation and an eventual rape, it was kind of hoot that already felt like a bit of a slasher goof in 1980. Bousman’s film is decidedly not a hoot; with the exception of some humorous bits, his Mother’s Day takes itself rather seriously. I imagine this is what Rob Zombie would have done with the property if he got his hands on it (even though his first two films are kind of morbidly funny at times) because it’s more of an unhinged and violent thriller rather than a silly slasher. As the sizeable cast gathered in the house’s basement, I imagined they’d be killed off in all sorts of horrible and inventive ways--but no. That’s not what happens, at least not exactly.
Instead, the film actually decides to hover around all of these characters, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if they were all that worth exploring. King makes for a likeable enough lead, but, as the film wears on and tries to pack in its fair amount of secrets and soap opera reveals, her husband becomes an increasingly horrible and ineffectual person. Shawn Ashmore makes for a more affable “good guy,” and he’s the one that strikes up a rapport with the psycho-clan’s daughter (Deborah Ann Woll), who seems way too cute and sweet to be with them. Other characters, essayed by the likes of Lyriq Bent and Brianna Evigan, are similarly fine but end up chewing up too much time. The film’s biggest problem is its bloat, as it attempts to stuff in minor arcs for everyone, but constant rotating and shifting deflates whatever tension or suspense there is (which isn’t a whole lot). Bousman’s effort to flip expectations on their head is notable and appreciated--had you told me that Mother’s Day would end up trying to be more of a character drama, I would have thought you were nuts--but he doesn’t quite pull it off because the characters’ thin development never centers the various twists and turns of the story.
In fact, De Mornay’s batty antagonist fares the best. A far cry from Beatrice Pons’s loony, cartoony granny, this Ms. Koffin is an icy, calculating middle-aged mother hen guided by an intriguing set of morals. De Mornay is fantastically in tune with a character that’s unaware of her own psychosis--she’d basically be an ideal mom if she weren’t so damn crazy about being one. “Family first” is the motto of many mothers, but she’ll go to insane lengths to preserve it; she not only dotes on her boys, but also some of her hostages. When she needs help in the kitchen, she grabs one of the girls to scoop some ice cream...and then she similarly plucks one when the youngest son (bleeding out from a bullet wound) needs to pop his cherry. This is the sort of batshit insanity that sometimes makes Mother’s Day a lot more silly than it lets on, and a more frenetic and deranged approach might have injected the film with more life and energy. Bousman abandons the hyperkinetic chops that defined his Saw films (and one can hardly blame him since it was a house style) and trades them in for a more measured, polished approach, but the flick is just a little too plodding and inert to leave a mark.
Oddly enough, some of the more memorable bits feel a bit Saw-inspired; Mornay is obviously driven by a twisted worldview kind of like Jigsaw, and this lends itself to some scenes that pit the victims against each other. Such moments are fleeting, especially when the flick degenerates into typical home invasion-revenge stuff that’s replete with torture, gunshots, stabbings, and people being set on fire. One of these instances results in a sweet gore gag, but, for the most part, this isn’t exactly a showcase for splatter effects. I suppose a comparison with the original is inevitable, even though you’d never do so if they didn’t share titles (they’re that unalike); this update is certainly the more technically proficient, but it’s also turgid and grim in the face of the underlying absurdity. On the contrary, the Troma effort is, well…a Troma movie: stupid, over-the-top, and totally in on its own joke at the expense of actually being a “good” movie (effects work aside).
So, in the end, it’s a wash and depends on what you’re going for, and, in my case, each are movies I’m fine with seeing once. Just being able to check out Bousman’s film has been a long time coming, as the film premiered at festivals a couple of years ago before Anchor Bay recently released it on DVD and Blu-ray (just in time for Mother’s Day!). Their high-def effort contains a clean and crisp presentation for the film, with the soundtrack being more aggressive and engaging than you might expect. The lone special feature is a commentary with Bousman and Ashmore, so it’s a bit of a light package. I’d say that’s fitting since the film is so light, but I’m not sure it is light because it sags under the weight of 110 minute runtime that dilutes its thrills. Sure, it’s appreciably different from the original film, but De Mornay’s great turn is the only thing that keeps it from being every bit as forgettable. Rent it!
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