Back in the day when Friday the 13th and Halloween reigned supreme, right as the 70s were becoming the 80s, low budget horror/exploitation films were being made that were just begging for a market that didn’t involve passing theatrical rating systems. It’s almost as if a catalog of movies was being filmed in preparation for the early 80s home video explosion.
The most crucial part of marketing these films would be the theatrical poster (aka: the VHS box artwork). The gruesome scenes of sex and slaughter alone made young, impressionable teen and pre-teen stomachs turn with terror, afraid to imagine what brutal horrors awaited the adolescent sinners on celluloid.
1980’s Mother’s Day was definitely one of those cover visuals that kept me away from the film until I was much older. From the title, you could assume that this movie was cashing in on the emerging slasher/holiday themed films, but in truth, it has more in common with Deliverance and I Spit On Your Grave. It’s definitely the torture porn of its day.
But back to that artwork, which is what promises a gory good horror experience. This ain’t no Mamma Mia. Mother in her chair with half her face looking like a skull immediately brings to mind Mother Bates. The gift she holds with a decapitated head indeed points at some demented celebration of the Mother’s Day holiday. Behind Mother we see her two sons. The inbred looking one on the left is holding the bloody axe, so we assume he’s a deranged killer, while the one on the right we can only assume is more horribly disfigured and deformed under his potato sack mask, much like Jason in Friday the 13th Part 2 (which this film pre-dates by a year). His knife screams Michael Myers. So this simply has to be a straight up holiday horror film, right? Nope. It is the work of a genius artist and marketing team, because this simply isn’t a scary film, not a holiday slasher, and barely even a disturbing exploitation flick.
The film’s opening is classic. When a sweet old lady offers a couple a ride, it appears the couple has nasty plans for her. The ominous synthesizer accent stabs are sheer 1980 perfection. The twist, of course, is that this is Mother, and it is she and her sons who have plans for the couple. We cut to a blatant dummy profile in the back seat that is supposed to be the man, then we cut to the girl in the front seat, who screams as blood is splattered on her, and then we cut back to the man dummy, whose head is THEN chopped off….you know, after blood has already flown! Hard to believe an editing job this bad was not corrected upon the film’s original release. Let’s just say this scene ends with some…geriatric lesbianism??? Blech!!!
We are then introduced to the three main chicks of the movie. Let’s face it. By 1980, any trio of girls in a horror movie was simply a poor man’s Laurie, Annie, and Linda. These three are slightly older though, and planning to do a whole girl getaway thing, but first we’re treated to a pool party that captures a moment in time when men were men, sporting beards, filling the packages of speedos, their backs covered in hair, their heads bald. They just don’t make men like they used to.
Once the girls are on the road, all signs point to a bad weekend. They are heading off to a lake to camp. Bad sign. They stop at a gas station convenience store and two kids are playing banjos out front. Bad sign. A crazy redneck store clerk warns them to stay away from their destination. Bad sign. They drive past a “proceed at your own risk” sign. Literally a bad sign! And yet, they still go skinny dipping almost immediately!
Before the horror begins, we get the weirdest 1970s flashback to when these girls were in high school (the 70s being, you know, a year before the film was released, and probably when the film was made). The flashback holds plenty of promise. First off, they paid for the rights to use Tommy James’ “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which is a big surprise. Anyway, the girls are recalling playing a prank on one hell of a cute guy—one of the girl’s luring him onto a baseball field at school at night to have sex. She runs off for a minute, he gets naked and begins doing naked pushups, and then the girls turn on all the playing field flood lights! And it’s more than just a full moon that’s out! As the guy scrambles for his clothes and runs off, everything is flapping in the cool night breeze!
Just as the girls are reminiscing, Mother’s boys attack. The girls are dragged kicking and screaming in their sleeping bags to Mother’s house. Magically, when the girls are released from their sleeping bags, they are no longer in their nightwear, but are instead fully dressed in their day clothes! They are brought upstairs and tied to machines in a fully equipped gym! Did Leatherface have one of those?
Weird thing is, this family seems almost normal, aside from the whole kidnapping girls and doing sexual things to them. This is definitely not the Texas Chainsaw family. In fact, when one of the girls calls one brother a “backwards, perverted piece of shit,” he replies, “Don’t ever say backwards again! We civilized! Look around!”
You totally believe it. They have TV, they have Trix on the breakfast table. And they don’t even look particularly frightening, which is a big disappointment for someone like me who loves Wrong Turn. One brother has red hair, fucked up backwoods teeth, and a deformed eye, but when the other brother takes off his creepy potato sack, he’s…um…actually really cute and totally normal! WTF? On the bright side, he’s the one whose butt we get to see when he takes advantage of the first girl.
This is the one and only disturbing exploitation scene in the film. They bring the girl outside, make her dress like a little girl with toys in her hand, then he pins her down on the ground and begins slapping her repeatedly while screwing her—as Mother sits by and watches! More old person sexual weirdness. Meanwhile the other brother takes “Kodak” photos per Mother’s request. I wonder if this was the kind of advertisement Kodak wanted for their precious moments? The scene, thankfully, can’t compare to the heinous rape in I Spit On Your Grave, and modern desensitization and overexposure to torture porn further weakens its impact.
From this point on, the movie is essentially just Deliverance with women seeking revenge instead of men. This is also when the film is most suspenseful. There are a couple of horror elements thrown in as the girls escape the house (the obligatory body parts found around the house, for instance), there’s a great cat and mouse game in the woods (the girls have amazing sense of direction in the strange woods in the middle of the night), there’s a classic TV set kill (you can’t pull that off with a modern flat screen), and even an electric knife kill. See? This family really isn’t backwards at all. But the ultimate moment comes when the chicks get revenge on Mother—using a set of blow up tits that were lying around. I’m not even kidding.
This is one of those movies that holds all its potential in the very final image you see before the credits role. There is a bit of family backstory referenced between Mother and sons a few times throughout the film, but you don’t really even give it much thought as you’re watching. But then comes the final scare and you can’t help wonder why the family backstory wasn’t the focal point of the entire film. Oh if only they’d remade Mother’s Day with the ending as the starting point. Because the best part of Mother’s Day 1980 is the Psycho-homage artwork.