Mother’s Day probably seemed like a great idea for a horror remake at one point. The iconic title was attached to a somewhat obscure actual film that doesn’t have the legions of fans its contemporaries Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th (which was filmed at the same time, right across the lake) can still boast. I myself, esteemed film critic that I am (insert joke), only just saw the original film this year, in preparation for an interview with the remake’s director, Darren Lynn Bousman. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t. This new version of Mother’s Day, on DVD and Blu-ray this week, might have seemed like an above-average thriller without comparison to a bona fide horror classic.
Yes, obscure as it is, and coming from Troma no less, the original Mother’s Day is actually one of the better and most disturbing films to emerge from the late-1970s/early-1980s American slasher cycle. The film sports a trio of likable, and more importantly believable female protagonists who are assaulted by a pair of demented brothers who, at the behest of their own mother, and right in front of her, force their victims into humiliating rape scenarios. It’s as ugly as it sounds, but more to the point it’s also a powerful film that dramatizes the heroines’ scenario in such a way that audience sympathy is earned, not taken for granted, and by the end of the film their efforts to fight back against not just their enemies but also pervasive themes of misogyny and domesticity that plague women to this very day, are powerful and still resonate. Like similar films of the era, including I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, the original Mother’s Day has a grungy aesthetic and a fair amount of cinematic naïveté, but it’s one of the more powerful slashers of the era thanks to the relevant themes that inform the murder and mayhem.
Cut to 2012, in which Darren Lynn Bousman, director of several good Saw sequels and The Devil’s Carnival, has taken the original Mother’s Day and transformed it into a vaguely similar film that has more in common with a mainstream hostage thriller than a horror movie. In and of itself, this is no crime. Bousman was of course under no pressure, least of all from myself, to ape the original Mother’s Day too closely. Unfortunately, Bousman and screenwriter Scott Milam move the action from Mother’s home to the suburban dwelling of her victims. It might not sound like a great travesty, but taking the homicidal family out of their personal environment and making them familiar home-invaders prevents the film from revealing anything consequential about its villains or exploring in any depth the sort of subtext that made the original noteworthy beyond its holiday title.
Mother’s Day stars a host of actors, including recognizable faces Jaime King (The Spirit), Shawn Ashmore (X2), Briana Evigan (Step Up 2 The Streets) and Frank Grillo (The Grey), as normal folks having a party in their basement during a tornado warning. Unexpectedly, a trio of bank robbers burst into the house and take them hostage, forcing one of them, who happens to be a doctor, to tend to the nearly fatal wound one of them has suffered. It turns out that they’re all brothers, and that the reason they showed up in the first place is because this used to be their house, but their mother lost it in the housing crash. But that’s okay, because Mother is heading back home to make everything all better.
Except… not. Because this is Mother’s Day, don’t forget, the titular Mother, played by a spiteful Rebecca De Mornay, loves her children but manipulates them into criminal acts, and claims to want to avoid bloodshed but repeatedly places the hostages in positions of life-threatening moral quandary. The victims are often placed in a position to save themselves but doom the rest of their friends, or make painful decisions about who among them will be assaulted next while their loved ones cower impotently on the sidelines. The bulk of the film is based on these kinds of dilemmas, which seem extra familiar coming from the director of multiple Saw movies, and seem extra tacked on in a storyline that, remake or no remake, is clearly supposed to revolve more around character-driven themes as opposed to familiar torture porn scenarios.
That said, the violence in Mother’s Day deserves one of the film’s biggest kudos, as Bousman clearly understands the difference between merely showing violence and forcing the audience to feel his victims’ pain. A string of mostly strong performances also convey the horror of this particular hostage situation better than most, and De Mornay in particular makes a welcome return to the spotlight in a role she comfortably grounds in “Don’t Make Me Come Over There” maternity, although frankly, this version of Mother’s Day is so dour that it would have been liberating to see her camp it up a bit. Again, it all seems to stem from the film’s decision to take the villains out of their natural environment, a move which focuses the attention less on their interpersonal dynamics and more on the violation of breaking and entering. Which again, might be okay if this version of the film was less invested in those dynamics, but so much screen time is devoted to the family of murderers that forcing them to merely solve a series of problems gets tiresome. We never see what these killers are like when they’re not dealing with an immediate crisis, and such we never find out what really makes them tick.
Mother’s Day comes to Blu-ray with a nicely detailed transfer that perfectly captures the film’s stark, even empty aesthetic and a pleasing sound mix that sells the gorier moments (and rest assured, they’re really gory). The disc also comes with a commentary track from Shawn Ashmore and Darren Lynn Bousman. As for the film, Mother’s Day is a fairly standard hostage thriller with unusually creepy violent episodes and occasionally suspenseful moments stemming from the victims’ moral quandaries. But as a film that tries to explore the relationship between terrifying characters and illustrate the means by which their upbringing made them so ugly, it just gets too distracted by the by-the-numbers story to go explore any of the ideas it actually raises. And as a remake of Mother’s Day, it’s unfortunately kind of crap, no matter how refreshing it is to see Rebecca De Mornay in all her glory again.