Original artwork by ANDY VANDERBILT!
To mark the release of mother!, the Daily Grindhouse team got together to ask ourselves…
WHO’S THE SCARIEST MOTHER IN FILM HISTORY?
DIRK DIGGLER’S MOTHER (Joanna Gleason), BOOGIE NIGHTS
When it comes to the scariest mothers in film, I automatically tend to shy away from horror film mothers. Real world monsters are scarier, right? One would then tend to head for MOMMY DEAREST. I can think of a scarier one. This mother was at least ten times scarier and with much less screen time. I’m talkin’ Dirk Diggler’s mother from BOOGIE NIGHTS, played by the great JOANNA GLEASON.
The first time we see her in the film, her husband tries somewhat in vain to give her an affectionate kiss on the cheek. I will let the dialogue speak for itself:
“Shave if you’re gonna do that! You scratched my face!!”
She then proceeds to belittle Dirk as he eats what I’m sure must be a very tasteless breakfast that she has cooked.
When we next see her it almost does seem to a certain extent like a horror film sequence. She waits “calmly” in a dark corner with a cigarette and a bottle of liquor. Waiting to verbally attack her son. Waiting as Dirk’s father cowers in another room as if he wished he had the balls to intervene. Yes, Dirk is a high school dropout but it was her emotional abuse that led to this, no doubt:
“You can’t do anything! You’re a loser! You’ll always be a loser! You couldn’t even finish high school because you’re so stupid!!”
Even Paul Thomas Anderson couldn’t give good dialogue to such an idiotic character. Yet Joanna Gleason sells it so well. She tears down his posters as tears roll down his eyes. Her son had stayed out all night, yet she is the only one wasted out of their mind. “Scary” ceases to be the word to describe this film mother.
— RICH MAIER (@SANITYKAOS)
Hoo-boy, ain’t this a loaded question? This reminds me of something my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Kunzel, told the girls in class: pay attention to the way your boyfriend treats his mother, because that’s how he’s going to treat you! Likewise, I imagine the answers to this Big Question will reveal so much about what a bunch of film-bloggers fear about women.
Along those lines: in the New Jersey town where I grew up teenagers would sneak into the abandoned asylum across from the old Mall. It was fun because you could trespass, break windows, and throw chairs into the empty swimming pool. But you could also look at the personal paperwork left behind in the rusty file cabinets. Imagine yourself standing in a dark, dilapidated institution, reading real case histories. This one packet asked an inmate to do a series of drawings. One section said: Please draw a woman. The inmate drew a long bi-ped with big teeth and no arms. Later in the packet, a section said: Please draw the scariest thing you have ever seen. The inmate drew the same exact figure.
Okay, onto my picks for scary mothers.
First, Lily Dillon (Anjelica Huston) in THE GRIFTERS (1990).
On the one hand she’s a strong female character. At the same time she’s a liar. She’s a killer. And she fosters an unhealthy relationship with her son. Anjelica Huston breathes life into this Femme Fatale Mom, originally conceived by legendary pulp author Jim Thompson. She’s smart, experienced, vulnerable, angry, judgemental, scheming and self-loathing. A well-rounded character, and also a scary mother.
Second, Earline Fitzgerald (Margo Martindale) in MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004).
Each one of us has to ask the question: If I was paralyzed in a California hospital, would my Mom come see me before or after she went to Disneyland?
The grotesque portrayal of Hillary Swank’s mother shows all of Clint Eastwood’s cards. She’s made out to be a welfare-cheatin’, mullet-topped, overweight Southern dummy in a Woody Woodpecker t-shirt. She didn’t even watch the big fight. And she tells her daughter “You lost!” It’s a shameless caricature of “poor white trash”, but maybe that’s why it’s so unnerving: the deep-seated fear that you’re trash and you were born into this world by trash*.
*author’s note: I’m allowed to say “white trash” because of my blue-collar roots.
— KEVIN MAHER (@KevinGeeksOut)
Mum from DEAD ALIVE (1992)
When I think of scary mothers, I immediately flash to the domineering hellbeast that is Mum from Peter Jackson’s 1992 film DEAD ALIVE (aka BRAINDEAD). Played by Elizabeth Moody, this maternal figure is so intent on keeping her son under her heel that she inadvertently causes a zombie outbreak in 1950s New Zealand. She can’t even let her son, Lionel, out on a date for a few moments for fear that he’ll abandon her. And her insistence on controlling Lionel is only matched by her desperate need for keeping up appearances, taking a luncheon with socialites despite her decomposition and slow descent into zombiedom. Her overbearing nature reaches its zenith, along with more than a few Oedipal issues, once she transforms into a gigantic rat zombie monster and literally tries to reabsorb Lionel into the womb. Jackson has never been known for his subtlety, especially in his pre-LORD OF THE RINGS work, so this is all rendered in great gruesome detail that makes the metaphor pretty obvious. While other mothers have been negative influences or abusive to their children, few cinematic moms have gone the length of attempting to stuff their children back inside of them.
— ROB DEAN (@neuroticmonkey)
“Mother” from PSYCHO (1960)
Forget the increasingly convoluted reverse engineering of Norman Bates’ backstory that began with the otherwise entertaining PSYCHO II and continued through the Bates Motel TV series. Focus instead on the original PSYCHO and the unsettling details we are given about Norma Bates and how she shaped her son. Then look at the even more horrifying possibilities of incest only implied in bits of dialogue and alternately confused or embarrassed looks by older residents of the town who knew Norma.
Factor in how Norman has “resurrected” Norma. She is a shrewish woman who is jealous of any young woman who comes near Norman. She is a murderer, savagely hacking her victims to death with a kitchen knife. She is cruel to Norman, berating his every move and thought. And finally, she throws Norman under the bus to save her own hide when questioned by the police psychologist. It is not hard to imagine how terribly Norman was treated before he murdered Norma and her lover ten years earlier.
Norma was a cancer on young Norman’s life and set him down a road to ruin that resulted in murder and madness for years after she died. Not only did she destroy her son, she destroyed families unlucky enough to get caught up in the sphere of chaos in which she placed Norman. Now that’s scary.
— MATT WEDGE (@MovieNerdMatt)
FRAU BRÜCKNER (Daria Nicolodi), PHENOMENA (1985)
When Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) arrives in Switzerland, she’s greeted by Frau Brückner, hired remotely by Jennifer’s movie-star father to chaperone his daughter to the all-girls school where she will be boarding. Frau Brückner seems sweet and polished, if a little distracted at times — to the American-born Jennifer, she’s the friendly face welcoming Jennifer to Europe. As the story progresses, a series of grisly murders occurs at and around the boarding house and Jennifer experiences disturbing visions of the crimes while sleepwalking. The identity of the killer remains a mystery, but Frau Brückner always seems to be there to shelter Jennifer as needed, and ultimately she harbors Jennifer in her own home, nominally to protect her. At that point, her friendly demeanor quickly drops away and she becomes stern, strict, snappy, even mean. Jennifer realizes she’s a prisoner of this harsh and suddenly-nasty woman.
Spoiler warning! Frau Brückner is not the killer. But she is the killer’s mom! Frau Brückner’s son, who is severely deformed as a result of Patau syndrome, is also homicidal and insane, as is she, apparently — having kept her son chained up in various locations but allowing him to roam free by night to commit his hideous crimes. PHENOMENA ends with Jennifer facing down both killers, mother and son, and she won’t be saved by either the well-meaning police inspector Geiger or by the last-minute appearance of her father’s Swiss-local Morris. Luckily she still has some friends outside the human species…
PHENOMENA is all kinds of things, but one of them is a seriously warped fairy tale, and if Jennifer is its princess, then Frau Brückner is the evil step-mother figure. She isn’t just a twisted enabler either; she’s perfectly willing to throw down and grab something sharp to swing around whenever her son isn’t there to do it himself. It’s pretty clear to see from where her boy got his temperament.
The exciting thing about this character is that she’s played by Daria Nicolodi, not just an actress but also a frequent collaborator of the film’s director, Dario Argento (and the mother of his completely awesome daughter, Asia). For all of these reasons Daria Nicolodi is beloved by horror fans worldwide, but beyond that, she began as an ingénue and played significantly more sympathetic roles in films like Argento’s DEEP RED, INFERNO, and TENEBRAE and Mario Bava’s SHOCK. So when she first shows up in PHENOMENA, her presence is reassuring to a horror-movie audience, as it would be to Jennifer. Even if you don’t happen to recognize her from her previous work, she’s immediately a very pleasant figure, her movie-star appearance intentionally muted by large glasses and a very specific haircut. No matter how you’re coming at PHENOMENA, you’re going to start out liking Daria Nicolodi in this movie.
Which makes it all the more distressing when she starts snapping coldly at Jennifer, let alone trying to decapitate her with the sharp edge of a sheet of metal. It’s a strong, shocking, unhinged performance from Daria Nicolodi, finally cutting loose with the primal scream of a fed-up mother who has truly been through some shit. PHENOMENA is arguably the most under-heralded Argento movie; this is most certainly the most under-heralded performance in it.
— JON ABRAMS (@JONZILLA___)
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