It’s Mother’s Day in the UK this Sunday, traditionally a day when we celebrate that pal of our cradle days, by urging her to put her feet up, open a bottle of Blue Nun and enjoy the heady aroma of the flowers we’ve hastily procured from the BP garage round the corner. It’s a day for reminding ourselves of what we too often take for granted and appreciating all that those silver-haired angels have ever done for us.
However, it’s a double edged sword is motherhood, and if the movies have taught us anything about family and relationships, it’s that for every Mrs Gump dishing out chocolates, there’s a Mrs Voorhees dishing out death.
So, join me now as I take a look at this other set of women, those mad, bad or just plain sad matriarchs who sully the very name of ‘Mother’ and tarnish all that is good about this hallowed role.
As ever, be warned as there are some major spoilers in the article below…
Mrs Bates (Psycho, 1960)
“I won’t have you bringing some young girl in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds!“
For some mothers, no woman will ever be good enough for their son, and in the world of films, was there ever a mother that was harder to please in that respect than Mrs Norma Bates?
In her mind, all women were sluts and should any shameless hussy be foolish enough to speak kindly to her son or force him to spy on them through a hole in the bathroom wall, then the price they’d pay for their sins would be a severe shower scrub, with a kitchen knife substituting for a loofah.
Of course, you know how it all turns out, so perhaps you might think Norma’s inclusion on this list a bit harsh, considering it was Norman all along and that she was actually dead, stuffed and living in the fruit cellar the whole time.
Well, yes, and no.
You see, he was never all Norman, but he was often only mother. And their incestuously muddled relationship (see Psycho IV: The Beginning) seems to suggest that she played no small part in the development of Norman’s psychosis (as well as suggesting that she was a great deal hotter than we’d ever had reason to believe up to that point).
Regardless, the enduring lesson we can always learn from Psycho is that a boy’s best friend is his mother.
Mama Fratelli (The Goonies, 1985)
“Oh, Slothy. I may have been bad. I may have kept you chained up in that room, but it was for your own good.“
Do you remember how embarrassing it could sometimes be having your mum pick you up from the school gates? Usually this was for no other reason than, well, it was your mum, and as far as you were concerned, you were big enough to be able to walk home from school yourself.
How much worse would it have been, though, if she turned up and looked like Mama Fratelli, a woman whose appearance could be likened to that of Edward G Robinson in a dress. With a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp, you might have hoped this brutish exterior would hide a heart of gold, but you’d be wrong. Not only does she steal, kidnap and generally terrify, she is also responsible for dropping poor Sloth on his head as a baby (twice), an accident that resulted in him looking only slightly more attractive than her.
Played by the wonderful Anne Ramsey, Mama Fratelli is firmly in the tradition of gangster matriarchs found in such films as James Cagney’s White Heat, women with Tommy guns, doting sons and deceased husbands who probably had the good sense to croak it years before.
Joan Crawford (Mommie Dearest, 1981)
“Don’t fuck with me, fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.“
For all the criticism celebrity mums such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie have sometimes attracted when adopting children, at least their hearts seem to be in the right place. But that doesn’t appear to have been the case with Hollywood legend, Joan Crawford (played here by Faye Dunaway), who at one point in Mommie Dearest, tells her daughter, Christina, that she adopted her for the good publicity it would bring.
Although the version of events depicted in this film have been disputed by some, the Joan Crawford on show here is a neurotic and obsessive alcoholic who, in perhaps the movie’s most famous scene, beats her daughter with a wire coat hanger when she discovers it in her closet, because she only allows wooden ones in the house.
Other examples of her ‘Mother of the Year’ credentials include her boast to her daughter after beating her in a swimming race (“You lost again!”), and always one with an eye for an opportunity, replacing her daughter on a soap opera when Christina develops cancer.
Crawford thought she’d had the last word by writing her son and daughter out of her will, little suspecting the strength of the retort Christina would issue by writing the book on which Mommie Dearest is based.
Nola Carveth (The Brood, 1979)
“Are you ready for me Frank? I seem to be a very special person now.“
Ever noticed those mothers who never shout and scream at their kids, always seeming to cope so well that it makes you wonder what lurks beneath such beatific calm? If these models of mothering perfection make you wonder what they’re doing with all of that bottled up fury, consider the approach that Nola Carveth takes to channelling her anger in David Cronenberg’s classic horror.
By parthenogenetically (it’s okay, we had to look it up, too) giving birth to some terrifying offspring, Nola manages to then send these white-faced and black-eyed little demons to attack and kill whoever happens to be the object of her murderous rage.
Of course, like much of 70s cinema, it’s all Oliver Reed’s fault as, in playing Nola’s psychotherapist, he encourages her to adopt his revolutionary new approach, whereby his patients transform their negative emotions into physical changes to their bodies.
Only with Nora it works too well, as we can see when she lifts her dress to show her husband just what she’s been hiding under there. It’s certainly a moment I won’t forget in a hurry, as never did the promise of momentary titillation turn to throat gagging disgust so quickly.
Margaret White (Carrie, 1976)
“Pimples are the Lord’s way of chastising you.“
A girl growing up needs her mother to help her understand all of the changes that are happening to her body, as well as deal with some of the challenges thrown up by a developing sexual maturity. What she doesn’t need on the very day she has her first period is to have her mother telling her that it is a blood curse brought upon her as punishment for all her sins.
After a traumatic shower room incident in which Carrie’s classmates throw tampons at her with shouts of ‘plug it up’, Margaret’s way of comforting her daughter is to lock her in a closet and urge her to pray for forgiveness. That she’s locked in there with a crucifix and the creepiest looking Jesus in cinema history gives further credence to the notion that Margaret White’s religious fervour might just be impinging on her ability to be a good parent.
But despite having a mother that refers to her breasts as “dirty pillows” and who also wishes she’d committed suicide the day Mr White ‘put it in her’, Carrie actually loves her mum. And in the final, tragic minutes of the film we see this demonstrated most clearly, as Carrie comes home to the only person she’s got left after slaughtering all of her schoolmates. Bless.
Alien Queen (Aliens, 1986)
“Get away from her, you bitch!” – Ellen Ripley
You know those mothers who always insist that their children can do no wrong, regardless of the mayhem and carnage the little bastards unleash? Well, in the Alien Queen we have the ultimate cinematic example. Whether it be leaping onto John Hurt’s face and impregnating him with a xenomorph embryo, wiping out a platoon of elite US Marines or killing an entire colony of settlers on LV-426, there’s a good chance that the Alien Queen would justify her murderous charges errant behaviour by claiming that they must have been provoked.
What you have to admire about her, though, is her utter devotion to her brood. The scream of rage and anguish she lets loose as Ripley torches hundreds of her eggs leaves us in no doubt that this is one pissed off mama. It also serves as the overture to a showdown between two of the strongest maternal figures in science fiction movie history.
Fashion fans may have noticed that the Alien Queen is the first of Giger’s iconic creatures to combine a ruthless and savage instinct with a distinctly feminine look, sporting what look like high heels when she steps down from the dropship prior to ripping Bishop in half. Very snazzy.
Concha (Santa Sangre, 1989)
“I’m not asking you, I’m ordering… my hands… and my arms… to kill her. Kill her!“
In Alejandro Jodorowsky’s wonderfully bizarre film, we meet a mother who, bereft of her arms, really knows how to get the most out of the home help, namely her son, Fenix.
He is committed to an asylum after his father slices off his mother’s arms before committing suicide by cutting his own throat. Fenix’s mother, Concha, was more than a bit miffed, you see, having earlier discovered her husband was having an affair and so threw acid over his genitals.
Rescuing Fenix from the asylum years later, Concha then embarks on a murderous trail of revenge and, by using Fenix’s arms, settles some old scores as well as creating plenty of new ones.
In many ways, the relationship between Concha and Fenix is rather touching, and the scenes where she is eating breakfast and his hands dab her mouth as though they were her own provide a glimpse of the unique bond that often exists between mothers and sons. It’s just when she’s demanding he slaughter tattooed ladies, French mimes and transsexual wrestlers that you realise her hold over him is probably a tad strong.
Lily Laemle (Parents, 1989)
Michael Laemle: “What are we eating?” Lily Laemle: “Leftovers, honey.”
“Eat your greens or you’re not getting down from the table.” Ever wish you’d heard less of that? Well, if you’d been brought up in the Laemle household, clearing your plate of veg would have been the least of your concerns. That’s because little Michael suspects that his parents are cannibals and what’s more, in feeding him the dinners that she does, his mother Lily is ensuring that he is one too.
The thing that makes Lily so terrifying is how normal she appears to be. As well as conforming in every way to the perfect image of the doting mother, she’s also the 1950s all American ideal, with her Doris Day dresses, homespun philosophy and cheery kitchen sink demeanour. But underneath this exterior beats the heart of a woman who makes Lucrezia Borgia look like Carol Brady.
Most parents will have secrets, things that they wouldn’t relish their children finding out, and as children we gradually learn that not everything our parents tell us is necessarily the truth. Lily Laemle is a movie mother for anyone who has ever stopped to ask themselves, metaphorically or literally, “What the hell is she trying to feed me?”
Eleanor Iselin (The Manchurian Candidate, 1962)
“Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?“
Mothers often have to give their children a little gentle encouragement in order to help them fulfil their potential, and without them, there’s a chance that some of us would still be lying in bed, listening to The Smiths and reading Batman comics.
Eleanor Iselin, however, takes things a little too far when volunteering her soldier son, Raymond, for a Communist bloc brain washing program, designed to enable her to control him as a secret agent and send him to assassinate a presidential candidate.
Raymond is captured, implanted with false memories and returned home from Korea, supposedly as a war hero. However, one flash of the queen of diamonds and he’s under his mother’s evil spell.
There’s a moment in the film where we witness her at her cold and cynical best as she feigns upset and outrage that it was her son who was chosen for this task, before planting the sort of kiss on him that would make Oedipus blush.
Now I come to think of it, I reckon my own mum must have brainwashed me, as it’s the only possible explanation for why I never became heavyweight boxing champion of the world and the UK’s sexiest man, instead spending the best part of fifteen years in a mundane office job, staring at spreadsheets and picking doughnut crumbs from between the letters on my keyboard.
Yes, finally, my life makes sense.
Malcolm Turner aka Hattie Mae Pierce (Big Momma’s House, 2000)
“I’ve seen a lot of scary shit in my days, but damn that was a lot of ass.“
I don’t need to elaborate on this one, do I?
Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here.