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Fantastic Fest 2010: Mother’s Day

“It’s hard to take Mother’s Day at face value because it wants to be so much more.”

Mother’s Day

Directed by  Darren Lynn Bousman

It seems that Mr. Darren Lynn Bousman fancies himself a wild-card. After lending his talents to three (II-IV, if you have favorites) Saw films, he has made it his sincere mission to be mentioned in a sentence that doesn’t also include the word Saw. And in his two movies since abandoning the franchise, he’s taken two very different approaches to horror, with mixed results.  The first was his pet-project/bid-for-cult-relevance Repo! The Genetic Opera. which decidedly split audiences into those who think it’s simply a bad piece of film-making and those whose fetishistic tendencies it really speaks to. So let’s count that as a success. With his new film, Mother’s Day, he attempts to craft a more mature, refined, and less gimmicky character-based horror film.

The film is a remake of a thirty-year-old Troma flick, but much of the meat of the script is inspired by a real-life home invasion that occurred in Wichita. At Brett Ratner’s bequest, Bousman essentially took the Wichita script, borrowed the villainous family from the original Mother’s Day, and added a couple more members. So it begins at the new suburban home of Beth and Daniel Sohapi (spot the irony in that surname), who were able to sneak in on a recent foreclosure because they know a guy.  Too bad, because in the middle of hosting a party, they are interrupted by sibling bank-robbers Johnny, Ike, and Addley, who are expecting to find their (recently foreclosed upon) mother while they wait for the heat to die down. Despite it not being their house any more, the three do have guns, so they make themselves at home, even making use of the Sohapis’ doctor friend to help the critically injured Johnny. It isn’t too long before Mother (Rebecca De Mornay) shows up with daughter Lydia (Deborah Ann Woll) in tow, and things appears to get better for our innocent party-goers before quickly starting to get much much worse.

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Mother’s Day is probably Bousman’s best film.  It looks good, it has a fair amount of tension, and it rarely feels gratuitous–at several times the violence is so blunt and offhand that it’s downright novel. Bousman does manage to slip in a few trademark Jigsaw bargains for old time’s sake, but it’s sort of quaint here, and a scene where Ike pulls a Heath Ledger on some ladies and tells them one of them can survive if they kill the other stands as one of the film’s most effectively tense, even if it contextually violates both character logic and common sense. But that’s the problem with the film–character logic and common sense aren’t important factors to Bousman. I have no doubt that he believes he is making a character piece, but his understanding of characters seems to be derived exclusively from the same formulaic shockers he makes. Character depth, in the world of Mother’s Day, means that (spoiler) a husband might cheat on a wife. Or that hardened criminals still soften at the sight of their mother.

No single performer fails in this film, the whole cast is just a little flat. This would be totally acceptable if the central relationship–that of the mother with her children–was truly compelling. But it appears cobbled together from so many instances of a domineering–but loving–mother figure.  This time the mother just happens to be a murderer. Beyond the character work, there are also some pretty well staged chase sequences and scrappy mano-a-mano combat. But the twists and turns, and the offbeat character dynamics, are all borrowed. This all is not to say that it doesn’t scratch an itch when De Mornay sends a freshly baked cake down to her hostages, or when the captives furiously debate action plans–it really does. But it’s hard to take Mother’s Day at face value because it wants to be so much more.

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Emmet Duff

Visit the official website for Fantastic Fest 2010