I’m just going to put this out there: I love Troma. The company itself has been a source of disdain for many a cinephile, but I suppose this is one reason why I can appreciate them so much. They epitomize a company who chooses to produce and distribute the types of films that they want to produce and distribute, without the seal of approval from more mainstream crowds. They are especially known for their overabundance of gore effects, intentionally hammy acting, and a bizarre, surrealistic quality to their films. Indeed, there have inevitably been quite a few releases under the Troma name that brush the edges of trashy (not the good kind), unenjoyable filmmaking – particularly their latest, Poultrygeist, a rather embarrassing attempt at a musical. However, there are also those that make for genuinely enjoyable fare (in the strangest way possible), such as the cult classics The Toxic Avenger and this recent personal addition, Mother’s Day.
The plot begins as one that has been seen in many a slasher film of the past (at least it’s structured so for an audience who would undoubtedly be familiar with its progression). Three college girls – Abbey, Trina, and Jackie – opt to spend a weekend out camping. They are held together by the warm, sticky glue of sisterly love and nostalgia, as seen in their picture slideshow that plays over the credits, as well as their retelling of fond memories. During the expedition, however, the girls are captures by a pair of deviant brothers, who hold them hostage under the watchful eye of their mother – a sadistic, manipulative matriarch. Essentially the worst nightmare of characters and viewers alike.
Upon its release, Mother’s Day received quite a fair bit of a startled reaction, most of which wasn’t always very positive. Roger Ebert described the film as, “vile, depraved sadism”; it probably didn’t help that the film was released on Christmas day weekend in 1980, the most cuddly, family-friendly day of the year. However, it’s not hard to see where the disdain comes from. Although the film is marketed and presents itself as a classic horror-type film, employing traditional slasher troupes, many of its aspect border on the realms of exploitation flicks – specifically its concentration on rape. Moreover, the spontaneous, gratuitous violence that happens all too suddenly in this film is played out as messy and ungraceful – and, thus, completely effective. Its violent moments aren’t presented as gruesome, however, as the film takes on the true Troma fashion of emitting a form of pitch dark humor from situation that would normally be portrayed, in more serious works, as distressing and terrifying. The murders that occur through the film are obviously fake, staged, and kinda hokey – a humor that dwells in the macabre.
However, this film is more than just a twisted, perverted tale of bloody, sexual violence. Under this deranged story lies a biting critique of popular media’s projection onto modern day society, specifically by way of television. The disintegrating effects of consumer society are prominently displayed on the two sons, Ike and Addley, who are depraved, id-fueled, primitive, and sick. They capture our three protagonists and, in some twisted exaggeration of their actions, put on a display of roleplaying – guided by Mother – before acting upon their intentions of rape and violence. In one instance, the men force one of the girls to dress up like child actress Shirley Temple, before proceeding to rape her.
It is here where the primary theme of TV-viewer culture can be seen most prominently, specifically through the motif of “watching”. Just as the initial scene introduces a group of people watching a presentation from a public speaker, and just as the girls are seen watching a slideshow of memories during the credits sequence, Mother engages in watching her two sons perform these staged shows right before her eyes. She places herself at the top of this bizarre hierarchy of power as a voyeur, the one who essentially controls the channels of the show that her sons decide to put on.
The film embodies a fear of the modernized gone primitive. How I see it, the family is a twisted, grotesque, much more dark-humored version of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre family unit. Each member is technically tame and cultured – at least enough so to perform as efficient consumers in capitalist culture. At the same time, however, they are filthy and mentally inept. They essentially leave a trail of beer cans wherever they go and consume Easy Cheese straight from the can. And these are besides their heinous crimes of violent, sexual assault. Such observance of depravity and immorality is also projected from within the house itself.
The environment of the household – even filthier than the woodsy environment that surrounds its exterior – embodies a sort of trash aesthetic, with a proto-consumerist flair. The family presents an extreme disassociation from reality, and an integration into a framed, fictional scenario. In this world, the mother is a heavily dictating matriarch figure, while the father is the strong-handed grip of modern culture itself. Overall, the members of this household are deliberately painted as the very worst types of individuals – though ones that may have only been possible through the normalization of capitalist culture in the culture of the early 1980’s.
Therefore, if the narrative of the film introduces this family as dirty, dangerous products of pop media and consumer culture, the protagonists are conflicted with the journey to find a way out of this gruesome environment. The girls themselves are liberated products of the modern age who are making leaps in their college education, have boyfriends, and are basically apt to become successful, independent women. Their abduction, however, can represent a sort of backlash from the modernized structure that permeates their day-to-day living – specifically against their roles of women, working to avoid the traditional position of “housewife” or “stay-at-home mom”. The push-and-pull of primitivity against modernity is practically embodied within Mother, Ike, and Addley, who seek to retract violently against liberated, young females. In this sense, therefore, Mother’s Day is a biting critique on the results of such so-called progression within the frame of our everyday lives. Moreover, it is especially wary of the society of consumerism that normalizes “trash culture” that roleplays as modernity – and invites us to act as voyeurs, in order to especially highlight these incongruities in a brighter angle.