Halloween Fifteen #9: Mom (Featuring Ivan Lerner)
Mom (1991; Patrick Rand) can only be recommended if you are a horror-comedy completist, or working on your graduate thesis on the topic. Not to say there aren’t moments of almost pure genius, but they are few and far between, and I just don’t know if you should spend your time on this movie.
(I watched Mom about five weeks ago, and I’m mainly going by my memory—mainly because I dread having to go back over the film to find the good parts; the “bad parts” were that bad…)
Screened as part of The Moon Is a Dead World’s “Halloween 15 Movie List” blogathon, and currently available on Nflix InstaVue, this schizoid flick starts well, with cult icon Brion James (RIP) as some sort of ill-defined demon, toying with and then slaughtering a sexy hitchhiker (a pre-Babylon 5/post-The Hidden Claudia Christian).
For me, the flick’s wishy-washiness towards ever locking down what sort of monster it was showing was a great hurdle never properly overcome. The movie ping-pongs between horror and comedy (and in that specific genre, often between sophomoric sitcom hijinks, and subtle, dark humor), and that sort of quicksand environment is not helped by the audience’s uncertainty with what sort of critter we’re dealing with.
Mom isn’t a werewolf (so no worries about the moon); or vampire (she can go out in the daylight if she has to), but she’s sort of a demonic combination, with severe flesh-eating zombie tendencies. It’s hard to understand why the filmmakers never even just simply called out, “My mother is a demon!” and leave it at that.
After James bites Mom and “turns” her, it was amusing seeing the still-somewhat-kind old lady fatten up and treat her victims (usually skid row bums) “nice” before tearing their throats out; and these segments had a nice, “better episode of The X-Files” vibe about them: the monster is given sympathy and depth.
Meanwhile, Mom’s dialog with either fellow monster James, or her confused and resentful son, is straightforward, and becomes increasingly witty as a macabre problem is discussed earnestly, or with gallows humor as desperation sets in.
But the dialog among the “normals” is atrocious, and utterly derails whatever greater points could have been made: A grown man’s problems cutting the apron strings is a situation far too many of us are familiar with here at the start of the 21st Century—and one that is only going to get worse as the kids who’ve been “helicopter parented” get older.
As such, “momism” been a fertile field for both comedy and horror mixed together in varying amounts, from Carl Reiner’s cult comedy Where’s Poppa? (1970), to the infamous Psycho (1960), not to mention 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, or Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive.
Specific monsters have such great tropes about them, that there could have been plenty said about maternal relations in contemporary North America. Metaphorically, lycanthropy in mother could be a stand-in for menopause; and vampirism is rich territory to explore where mater is concerned.
The tonal shifts in Mom make me think that two separate scripts were staple-gunned together and rewritten—by someone for whom English is a second language—and I feel Mom is a lost opportunity to use the horror genre to say something genuine.
Mom is very much influenced by John Landis’ problematic An American Werewolf in London, I feel—even down to using the “Landis Font” that has been used in all his films since National Lampoon’s Animal House.
This highly inconsistent tone is very much in evidence in Landis’ 1983 picture, a film I can appreciate for its historical value but don’t honestly like—in the early 1980s “Werewolf Sweepstakes,” Joe Dante’s The Howling may not be as supposedly “groundbreaking” style-wise as Landis’ flick, but it is overall a more consistent and effective film— and 1981’s Wolfen (directed by Michael Wadleigh, and several others, uncredited), while inconsistent, has a special place in my heart for its far-reaching sociopolitical message(s), groovy visual style, and its proto-X-Files duo of male-female cops, with the grizzled, paranoid Homicide dick—who’s seen everything—teamed with the rational scientist.
An American Werewolf in London didn’t click with me on its initial release (I actually saw it at a Fangoria-sponsored press screening then), nor about two years ago when I viewed it again on DVD. The film is neither funny enough; nor consistent enough with its supernatural “rules” concerning the werewolf and the undead. If anything, Landis’ monster seems to be more like the Canadian Wendigo, than the Northern European lycanthrope.
That absolute nerdism aside
, I didn’t like the “snark” provided by the rock’n’roll soundtrack, and personally, the idea to shoot Rick Baker’s (admittedly excellent) special makeup effects in bright light wasn’t a good one. Meanwhile, keeping the finished werewolf monster suit so hidden was another disappointment—I felt like the victim of a bait-and-switch.
Landis’ film really feels like a first draft that egotism didn’t let rewrite, and hubris granted by its eventual financial success (guaranteed by the nudity, gore and heavily over-hyped werewolf makeup effects) has covered up. Even as a kid, I didn’t think this film went far enough—and what a lost opportunity to comment on clueless Yankee students backpacking in foreign lands, right? (And because the title of Landis’ movie harkens to Mark Twain’s satirical fantasy, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, I’m doubly disappointed that commentary about the “cousins” is kept to the level of stolen children’s balloons and Jenny Agutter’s lovely body.)
The Moon is a Dead World’s Take
There is nothing wrong with the occasional inane comedy. Some of my favorite movies come from terrible ideas executed humorously on film; case in point the Vacation films, which technically aren’t very good at all without their sense of humor. Mom seems to want to establish this tone in its introduction, and even the plot synopsis – about a mother transformed into a werewolf by the bite of another – would seem to indicate that the film would veer off into ridiculous, comedic territory. But Mom takes a turn towards the serious side of horror after the initial premise is set up, and that wavering between genres is ultimately what takes the bite out of the film.
Mom first introduces Clay Dwyer (Mark Thomas Miller) as our main protagonist, a news reporter living a fairly wonderful life – he’s close to his mom Emily (Jeanne Bates), he’s got a great job, he’s landed a wonderful wife, and she’s also pregnant with their first child. The genre stereotypes are out in full swing at the beginning, taking the happy lifestyle of a main character and throwing it into turmoil with a hair-brained conflict. That conflict comes from the serial killer that Clay’s been following for work; and just as this is happening, Emily is renting out Clay’s old room to a mysterious blind man with a terribly gruff voice and bad fashion sense (Brion James). Of course, we know that this man’s a werewolf, since he’s recently ripped out the throat of a young girl, but the irony is that Mom doesn’t! Oh, Mom.
It sounds pretty funny, right? At first I thought Mom was going to turn into The Odd Couple on steroids. And to be honest, I really liked the opening sequences – they’re cheesy, light-hearted, and I found it easy to get close to Clay for whatever reason. The dialogue sucks, but who cares, because it’s supposed to be goofy. Mom’s a blast, and I can see myself in her house during Christmastime because I feel the exact same enthusiasm for the holiday. All told, it’s a comforting setting, which makes it all the more funny and ironic when Mom is changed into a blood-dripping beast.
But once the werewolf sets in, Mom transforms too. It sheds that comedic skin for something much darker, with violence and guts, sex and curse words. I’m not a religious fanatic; I’m not offended by the change. But when the film renounces its comedic counterpart, shifts into full-on “trying to be a horror movie” mode, the film is bound to fail. That’s because it’s very hard for a film, especially one like Mom, to shift the tone so quickly and noticeably without the whole thing falling apart. Reading Ivan’s piece before writing this, I have to agree with him when he notes that Mom‘s script feels like two separate pieces stapled together. There’s something quite unequal about the way Mom runs away from its comedy for a grim, grisly look at werewolves.
Is it still funny to see Mom get kicked in the head by a victim trying to get away from her? Hell yes it is. Just thinking about Jeanne Bates enthusiastically signing on to star in this film makes me want to introduce her as my other other grandmother. There are the occasional moments where Mom decides to take a reroute through dark comedy, but for the most part, the last hour or so of the film stays deeply embedded within a bleaker atmosphere.
It starts because Clay knows what his mother has been doing – he sees it firsthand, then sets the mysterious werewolf stranger on fire. Then he begins to go a little crazy, loses his job and his wife, enlists the help of a hooker to try to feed Mom… the usual comedy stuff. None of it’s funny, though, and Mom doesn’t seem to want to be funny. It’s not trying hard at the jokes; if they happen, it’s more because of the poor writing than anything else. There’s too much emphasis on intently focusing on the werewolf part of the film, and Mom could have been much better sticking to the comedy side of things, because there’s a lot of room to mock the genre and Mom never goes there. The movie is unsure of whether it wants its theme to be a snarky look at role reversals between parents and children or if it really wants to highlight the underappreciation of the elderly.
Mom is still a fun movie, but it’s nowhere near as good as a premise like this should be. The approach to comedy is light to say the least, and the very dark ending is incredibly surprising for a film that seems to tout itself as a good-natured horror comedy. It’s enjoyable for what it is, but it’s a film that limps through the finish line not because of its age, but because it doesn’t recognize how to combine horror and comedy without isolating one or the other.