It’s Mother’s Day weekend, and we’re celebrating our family matriarchs at Den of Geek. We came up with a list of the most demonic, cruel, and neurotic mothers from the past 70 years in film.
Mothers have always had a macabre tinge dating as far back as Euripides’ play Medea where the titular heroine kills her own children to punish her husband Jason. Then there are the Spartans, who would throw their children off of a cliff if they were deemed too weak to be warriors. Millennia later, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude connives after marrying her son’s uncle (who, coincidentally, has murdered the father), and Madame Bovary would later forgo her daughter and husband’s well being in exchange for flirtations and nice fabrics. Literature and history proves time and time again that within the cult of domesticity, these angels of the home sometimes evolve into demonic alter-egos where a scarlet A is the least of their (and our) worries.
Though Faye Dunaway’s performance as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981) doesn’t make the cut, the women in this list are equally terrifying. We can’t help but be thankful that the following 10 mothers aren’t our own. Here is a list of the top 10 scariest, most screwed-up mothers in film.
Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho is disapproving, overbearing, and old-fashioned. When Marion Crane arrives at the Bates Motel, Mrs. Bates is anything, but accommodating. She also just happens to be deceased.
The fun and fervor of Psycho resides in the mysterious presence of Norman’s mother, someone we recognize only by her harsh voice off-screen. Marion Crane overhears a heated confrontation between mother and son when she first arrives at the Bate’s Motel: “No! I tell you no! I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in here for supper—by candlelight,” Mrs. Bates cries.
When Norman pleads for understanding, Mrs. Bates retorts, “I refuse to speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me! Do you understand, boy?” David Thomson, in his book The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder (2009), highlights the wordplay of this conversation upon one’s first and then second viewing. As Thomson writes, “[Hitchcock] is teasing the first audience and congratulating the second. Above all, he is owning up to the idea that a film is a game to be played as opposed to be a dream to be inhabited…We are in a work of art. And the artist feels compelled to own up.”
Hitchcock does own up when we finally encounter Mrs. Bates’ skeleton in the fruit cellar; the terror is realizing that her presence is a product and figment of Norman’s psychosis. Yet, even though she is long dead, her physical and figurative mark is everywhere, from the bed where her body has indented the mattress, to not allowing Crane in the house, to convincing Norman not to kill the fly on his hand in the final sequence.
For a mother whom we never actually meet in the flesh, she is one of the most memorable mothers in film history—her voice as shrill as a screeching violin, her body as stagnant as a stuffed bird.
Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s iconic novel, Carrie, never loses sight of the true horror: t’s not Carrie’s telekinetic powers that unnerve the audience, but her mother Margaret’s religious zeal. Margaret’s faith is not fulfilling but abusive. She locks Carrie in the closet to pray when she’s been “bad” (including, but not limited to when Carrie unexpectedly gets her period), she calls her daughter’s breasts “dirty pillows,” and she hits Carrie. In the book and film when Margaret learns of Carrie’s menstruation she curses, “Boys. Yes, boys come next. After the blood the boys come. Like sniffing dogs, grinning and slobbering, trying to find out where that smell is. That…smell!”
Piper Laurie’s fervor and cruelty as Margaret is palpable. For one of the only characters whose voice is not directly catalogued in King’s epistolary novel, Laurie certainly paints a vivid portrait of Margaret’s unadulterated insanity.
With her hair like a halo of static, her almost singsong country lilt, and her eyes wide in fury and fear, Margaret practically levitates through her house like a fallen angel. Dressed throughout most of the film in a dark cloak, a color of mourning or evil, she switches to white, a holy color, when she stabs Carrie, convinced she is driving the sin from her daughter’s flesh. Carrie retaliates from the attack by driving knives telekinetically through the air until Margaret is framed in the doorjamb like the Jesus in Carrie’s closet.
Throughout all her torments, whether it is being bombarded by tampons in the locker room or drenched in pig blood at the prom, Carrie’s most desperate wish is to receive the love that her mother is unable to provide. Her constant refrain of “Momma, momma” never varies – and it is this repetition, without variation, that crushes Carrie (and us) most.
The Piano Teacher (2001)
In Michael Haneke’s sixth feature film, The Piano Teacher, Erika’s mother confronts her within minutes of walking in the door, demanding to know her whereabouts and riffling through her personal belongings until Erika grabs her mother’s hair in unbridled rage. There’s an intensity and co-dependence between the two women that unnerves the viewer, especially when Erika climbs into a twin bed pushed against her mother’s own. Erika is in her 40s and the incessant prying, the shared room, and the name calling all evoke a troubled romance, rather than a paternal relationship.
Her mother calls recurrently when Erika teaches piano lessons or rehearses, and this constant, nagging presence emotionally taxes Erika. She seeks autonomy and satisfaction outside of the apartment by frequenting sex shops and voyeuristically observing a couple copulating in a car. At one point, she encounters a teenage boy, her student, at a pornography shop, standing uncomfortably close beside him to peruse the shelf before striding haughtily away.
When Erika finally brings over a love interest, she has to drag the bureau across the door to bar her mother from spying. Later that evening, when her mother accuses her of running a brothel from their apartment, Erika physically smothers her mother, violently kissing her and professing her love.
Fun side note: Isabelle Huppert also played a dysfunctional and destructive mother in Christophe Honoré’s Ma Mère (2004), a film about a mother encouraging her son towards erratic and promiscuous behavior that eventually leads to incest.
Serial Mom (1994)
Though Kathleen Turner’s Beverly deems “hate” as being a very serious word, dons gingham, and doesn’t allow gum in her house, she makes obscene phone calls to her neighbor over a stolen parking space and runs over her son’s teacher for accusing her of being a bad mother due to her son’s obsession with horror films.
In John Waters’ deliciously dark comedy Serial Mom (1994), Beverly recycles, she tells her daughter not to diet for a boy, but only if it makes her happy, and she has passionate sex with her husband. In almost every way, she’s the perfect wife, mother, and citizen. Yet, Beverly’s temper and vengeance overrides her plucky perk. Seeing a neighbor refuse to recycle plunges Beverly into a murderous bent—she loves the environment so much, she’ll kill for it. She’s a murderer with morals, who makes nutritious home cooked meals to boot.
When her son asks her if she’s a serial killer, she breezily laughs that the “only cereal [she] knows about is Rice Krispies.” She bludgeons her next victim without mussing her hair or the string of pearls around her neck. Even on trial, a juror’s white shoes (worn after Labor Day!) do not go unnoticed by this serial killer and conservative sartorialist. This mother is ready for her close-up, mug shot and all.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller follows Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a soldier awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in the Korean War. Upon returning to America, a myriad of reporters and a parade greet him at the airport as his mother Mrs. Eleanor Iselin (played by a chilling Angela Lansbury) elbows her way to the front. As she answers questions on his behalf, Shaw turns to her and says, “You did this mother. You arranged this disgusting three-ring circus.” Mrs. Iselin syrupy response reeks of hypocrisy: “I’m your mother…. you know I want nothing for myself.”
It’s hard to believe Mrs. Iselin’s sincerity when she’s dripping in furs and pearls, harder still when she verges on hysteria at her boy conversing with a Communist. This mother is not selfless, but very much selfish. And, as we later learn, a lover of red, not red, white, and blue.
Angela Lansbury’s breakout role was in George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944) when she was only 17. She plays a sassy cockney maid and holds her own among thespian heavyweights like Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton. And in The Manchurian Candidate, she is equally captivating and self-assured. She’s the one pulling the strings in her husband’s political campaign and, as we later discover, in Shaw’s trancelike behavior.
Additionally, Shaw’s platoon commander Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) begins to have recurring nightmares of Shaw murdering soldiers, as do others from their platoon. In one nightmare, Shaw cocks his gun at the camera in a point of view shot of his victim, a shot that recalls The Great Train Robbery (1903) or when Annie Laurie first meets Bart in Gun Crazy (1950). Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and Shaw’s mother is the rub.
The Babadook (2014)
Australian-Canadian Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut The Babadook garnered critical accolades after its U.S. premiere at Sundance. The film follows mother Amelia, struggling to raise her young son Sam after his father was killed on the car ride to the hospital when Amelia was in labor. Practically paralyzed by grief and loss, Amelia moves listlessly through her life, barely responsive to hyperactive Sam who often performs his magic tricks at inopportune moments. One night, Sam pulls a mysterious book, the “Babadook”, from his bookshelf and as Amelia reads the children’s book (as unnerving as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was for young readers), the story’s narrative spirals into darker stratums.
Sam’s demands, erratic mood swings, and his abundance of toys that also serve as weapons wears on his mother. Amelia “can’t cope” between her responsibilities as a parent and the loss of her husband. She grinds her teeth, stays up late watching TV, and slowly starts to realize that the Babadook isn’t just a strange children’s book, but stalking her and her child. And yet, as Amelia’s own behavior becomes more and more disturbing; it is not the Babadook we’re worried about—it’s her.
When Amelia finally snaps, she strides through the house like a dancer in a Pina Bausch production. Her muscles ripple under the surface of her skin as she bangs a door down with her feet or strangles the family dog. Sam finally must bind his mother in the basement to prevent his own death at her hand. It’s a moment very similar to James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) where Lili Taylor is held down by Patrick Wilson to banish Bathsheba’s spirit from her body. Sam, though physically threatened by Amelia, loves her unconditionally and ultimately helps her to cope with and manage her grief.
Goodnight Mommy (2014)
Co-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy is a surreal experience that serenely drifts from dream to nightmare. Elias and Lukas’ mother has just returned home after a facial surgery that requires her to wear a full-face mask day and night. James Franco writes in his column for Indie Wire that the mask is like “the daughter in Eyes Without a Face (1960).” He also goes on to note that “characters in Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Hellraiser… all have characters with masks, or with messed up faces.” The twin brothers’ mother moves throughout the house in a trance-like state, distant, removed, and swathed in bandages that render her physically unrecognizable to the young boys.
It’s summer, and the boys often seek solace outdoors, swimming through the sable lake, jumping on the trampoline, and chasing one another through the forest. But when in their home, tensions escalate just as their mother increasingly punishes Elias while ignoring Lukas. The brothers start to observe their mother as if she is an unusual specimen, like when they watch a bug crawl in her mouth while she sleeps. The camera chronicles her walking through the woods at dusk, disrobing and shaking her head violently as if possessed. Ultimately, the boys resolve to discover who has taken their mother’s place.
The final minutes of the film are painfully visceral, and reveal crucial details to explain the mother’s seemingly erratic behavior. This film’s finale may be as much our mother’s worst nightmare, as the beginning of the film is our own.
In a palette of grays, slates, and creams, Woody Allen’s somber character driven drama Interiors pays homage to Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s films. The spare sets and restrained costumes would delight social French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who states in Distinction: “Bourgeoisie discretion signals its presence by a sort of ostentatious discretion, sobriety and understatement, a refusal of everything which is ‘showy,’ ‘flashy’ and pretentious, and which devalues itself by the very intention of distinction.”
It is this very aesthetic of “understatement” that Eve, an interior decorator and mother of three, desperately tries to attain. But Eve is not of the 21st century with modern iconography like the website Women Who Work (a product spearheaded by business mogul Ivanka Trump), where the feminine wears all various degrees, accomplishments, and skills on her Nordstrom sleeve.
Rather, Eve (played by Geraldine Page) is an emotionally and psychologically fragile matriarch, struggling to persevere after her husband unexpectedly announces he wants a separation. While their three daughters (Diane Keaton, Kristin Griffith, and Mary Beth Hurt) try to comfort and attend to Eve, they can’t always handle Eve’s nerves, her expensive taste in vases, and her suicide attempts. Her weeping and wailing, her constant criticisms, and her strict adherence to what defines “good taste” provoke the daughters, rather than pacify them.
Eve becomes the woman her daughters’ spouses don’t want to open the door to—she nags, she prods, and she rearranges the interior décor of rooms without any invitation to do so. Though Eve enhances the atmosphere and feng shui of a room, her attempts to reach the ones she loves most only alienates her more.
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (2009)
We hear about Precious’ mother before we see her in Lee Daniels’ 2009 Academy Award nominated film. In Precious’ matter-of-fact voiceover, she passingly notes that her mother has told that her she can’t dance. It’s only minutes later we realize that Mary (the Oscar winning Mo’Nique) both verbally and physically abuses her daughter, in addition to passively condoning her boyfriend, and Precious’ father, perpetually raping their daughter, which has resulted in two pregnancies for the 16-year-old girl.
It’s hard to believe the comedian with her titular comedy show and the woman who seduced Jay Chandrasekhar in Beerfest (2006) can embody a character so indelibly cruel. When confronted with reading aloud from a children’s book by her alternative school teacher, Mary’s voice enters Precious’ head, reminding her that she’s a “dumb bitch.” It’s a heart-wrenching film of parental abuse, abuse that has not just resulted in incest, but developmental issues when Precious stumbles over pronouncing words like “at.”
Mary dissuades her daughter from attending school, suggesting, instead, that Precious go to the welfare office. She chastises Precious for having her second baby, accusing her daughter of “stealing her man.” It’s an uncompromising glimpse into the unspeakable things family will do to one another—and Precious’ resilient spirit to press on in the face of hardship, pain, and parenthood.
The Brood (1979)
Contemporary audiences are familiar with David Cronenberg’s dialogue-driven films such as A History of Violence (2005), Cosmopolis (2012), or his most recent Maps to the Stars (2014). But his initial fan-base arose out of cult classics such as Rabid (1977), Scanners (1981), and The Brood. In his 1977 feature, husband and father Frank tries to ascertain what psychotherapist Hal Raglan is doing to his wife in his remote and isolated institution. Raglan limits Frank’s access to Nola, while allowing visitation of her five-year-old daughter Candice.
After Frank finds a series of bruises on Candice’s back, he tries to determine how he can keep his daughter away from his wife, whom he believes is responsible for the wounds. Frank’s lawyer flatly tells him, “The law believes in motherhood.” If only the law knew what Nola is mothering within Raglan’s secluded fortress.
Later, in a trance, Nola calmly asserts, “Mommies never hurt their own children.” When pressed by Raglan, Nola’s tone violently shifts as she revises her statement: “Sometimes they do. Sometimes when they’re bad.” Nola confesses her own mother beat her and even threw her down the stairs. And as Raglan exhumes Nola’s repressed anger, Cronenberg crosscuts to Candice with her grandmother, who is violently bludgeoned to death by what appears to be a small child in a ski jacket.
As the film progress and more murders occur, we slowly start to realize that these small children are products of Nola’s rage. When she gets angry, the target of her anger dies at the hands of the bleached blond children.
When Frank finally confronts his estranged wife, she’s in white, her coiffed hair a corona of light. However, Nola is anything but angelic. When Frank tries to coax his wife to reunite with him (as a way of placating her), she lifts her white gown to reveal her midsection with a swollen growth.
Nola bends to bite the skin, and pulls out a bloody child from the slit, proceeding to lick the blood from it with an ardor that causes Frank to involuntarily exclaim, “Oh god Nola.” Realizing that she disgusts her husband, she screams that she’d kill Candice before she’d let Frank take their child away. This is the stuff of ancient Greek tragedy, with Frank strangling his wife and her infant offspring in his desperate attempt to save his own.