This week sees the release of “Mama,” the low-budget horror flick, expanded from a short film by writer-director Andres Muschietti, and executive produced by Guillermo Del Toro, which as the title must suggest, is a chiller at least in part concerned with the issue of motherhood. Jessica Chastain‘s bass-playing hipster is forced into a maternal role when the nieces of her boyfriend (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) are found in a near-feral state. But the kids are being menaced (or are they?) by something that may — or may not — be the spirit of their departed mama.
Muschietti and Del Toro are stepping into a long tradition here when it comes to malevolent mother figures — from Oedipus’ ma Jocasta and Grendel’s mother in “Beowulf” to fairy tale stepmothers and Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, they’ve long been a literary staple, and the archetype has carried over to the big screen in the last century or so. So, to mark the release of “Mama” on Friday, we’ve rounded up five of our favorite evil(ish) screen mothers. Let us know your own picks in the comments section below, and read our interview with Del Toro about the film right here.
Angela Lansbury – “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)
One of the reasons that the mad mother archetype is so prevalent is that of all the people in the world, your ma is meant to be the one that always has your best interests in heart, so when the opposite is true, it’s especially terrifying. This is rarely better summed up than by Angela Lansbury‘s character in John Frankenheimer‘s classic paranoid conspiracy thriller “The Manchurian Candidate.” Eleanor Iselin is seemingly the power behind the throne of a rising right-wing political dynasty; her husband is a McCarthy-ish senator and Vice-Presidential candidate, her son, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) an adored war hero. The latter who, as it turns out, is the brain washed stooge of the same communist conspiracy that his mother serves, who’s being set up to kill the presidential candidate, to pave the way for his step-father to take the White House. And only Shaw’s all military commander Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) stands in their way. Lansbury (famously only three years older than her screen son), in a part a million miles away from her more modern Jessica Fletcher persona, is positively demonic, thanks to the shades of Lady Macbeth, and a faintly incestuous feel (played up in Jonathan Demme‘s inferior 2004 remake, with Meryl Streep in Lansbury’s role). But she also adds layer of shade too — as monstrous as it is for her to use her son in such a way, her hand was forced somewhat; she reveals to her son that, once they’re in power, she’ll find those responsible for picking him to be their assassin, and “grind them into the dirt.” But it’s not enough to save her; a vengeful Shaw breaks his programming, and shoots her before killing himself.
Piper Laurie – “Carrie” (1976)
The horror genre has all kinds of bad mothers across its history, but certainly the most memorable (when you exclude Mrs. Bates, due to her being long deceased by the time “Psycho” gets underway) is Margaret White, the bonkers, bible-bashing mother of the title character in Brian De Palma‘s classic Stephen King adaptation “Carrie.” While De Palma strips out much of the backstory from the novel involving Margaret’s past, she’s still the most monstrous thing in the film. From her first appearance, paying a visit to a neighbor to preach the word of God, she seems friendly enough, if a little off, but when Mrs. Snell tries to palm her off with a $10 donation, it becomes clear that she’s a total lunatic. Her daughter, Carrie (Sissy Spacek) owes her torment in early scenes to her mother’s refusal to tell her about her coming period, and when she comes home, she beats her daughter and locks her in a closet. But whatever thin grip of reality she has disappears when Carrie tells Momma both that she’s been invited to prom, and that she has telekinetic ability. The loss of control of her daughter, and her fears that she’s an emissary of Satan, cause her to snap, and try to kill her daughter; unfortunately for her, Carrie’s already massacred the entire prom, and pins her to the wall with a series of knives like St. Sebastian before bringing the house down on the pair of them. Laurie (previously best known for her tragic role in “The Hustler“) gives a phenomenal turn, her fiery religious conviction sitting side by side with hair-tearing mental illness, but she also layers in some degree of sympathy; you can see the tragic past that made her quite so crazy, and what seems to be a real, albeit entirely misguided, love for her daughter. She rightly got an Oscar nomination for the part, and even an actress as terrific as Julianne Moore will have a tough time of living up to her in this October’s remake.
Faye Dunaway – “Mommie Dearest” (1981)
Joan Crawford had to deal with a near-demonic screen daughter in “Mildred Pierce,” but if the 1978 memoir by her adopted daughter, Christina Crawford, and the 1981 film adaptation by director Frank Lewis, are to be believed, the actress was a real-life monster of a mother that could compete with any of the fictional creations on this list. Crawford (played by Faye Dunaway), after seven miscarriages, adopts a daughter, Christina (Mara Hobel, then Diana Scarwid), who is spoiled, but also becomes subject to her mother’s competitive nature, heavy drinking, instability and physical abuse. She beats her in swimming races. She hacks her hair off. She trashes her daughter’s room and bathroom, hitting her with a wire hanger. She throttles her, pulls her out of school, shuts her away from the outside world, disinherits her, and generally acts like Mo’nique in “Precious.” Unlike the other films on this list, “Mommie Dearest” is in no shape or form a good movie; trashy, wildly over the top and fairly self-serving, veering more towards unintentional laughter than serious drama (Dunaway even acknowledged in her autobiography that she wishes that director Lewis had reined her in more; she was nominated for a Razzie for the part, while the film was later named the worst film of the 1980s by the organization). But there’s a certain camp value to the film (it’s become a midnight cult classic among some circles), and however scenery-chewing she might be, Dunaway’s pretty indelible as Crawford. One viewing, and you’d probably rather take Andres Muscietti and Guillermo Del Toro‘s creation over Dunaway as a mother.
Anjelica Huston – “The Grifters” (1990)
Unlike some of her competition on this list, Anjelica Huston‘s Lily Dillon in Stephen Frears‘ still-woefully-underrated adaptation of Jim Thompson‘s Greek tragedy of a crime novel (produced by Martin Scorsese, and with a script penned by crime fiction legend Donald Westlake) is driven by love for her son. Roy (John Cusack), a small-time con-artist, has followed his ma into the family business, much to her disappointment. She’s especially suspicious of Roy’s new girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening), who’s older, and another grifter, one looking for a partner in an elaborate long-con. Lily, having already threatened a doctor to save Roy’s life after he’s beaten when a grift goes wrong, is prepared to go to any lengths to protect him, especially after Myra tries to have her killed by claiming she’s been stealing from her bookmaker employer (Pat Hingle). Lily ends up killing Myra (admittedly in self-defense), and even attempts to seduce her son, telling him he’s not really hers (there’s already a somewhat incestuous Freudian dynamic between the pair, something pointed out by Myra earlier). But her efforts are counter-productive; she ends up accidentally cutting an artery in his neck with a drinking glass, and he bleeds to death. This is the most generous version of her actions; Frears walks a delicate line of ambiguity that suggests that she may just be out to rip her son off. It’s one of the most complex and fascinating screen mothers we can remember, and rightfully won Huston (who initially turned the part down, and found the shoot tough) an Oscar nomination, though she was beaten by Kathy Bates in “Misery.”
Teri Hatcher – “Coraline” (2009)
One of the most chilling screen moms of recent years came not from the live action world, but from the animated, and with the unlikely vocals of “Desperate Housewives” star Teri Hatcher involved. In Henry Selick‘s excellent stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman‘s childrens’ book “Coraline,” the title character (Dakota Fanning) has moved away from her friends, and is ignored by her benevolent but self-involved parents (Hatcher and John Hodgman). But one night, she discovers a tiny door that leads to an alternate reality where her Other Mother and Other Father (Hatcher and Hodgman again) are, despite having buttons for eyes, warmer, fun-loving and more attentive. But things aren’t quite what they seem to be: the Other Mother is in fact a horrific, spider-like witch, with needles for fingers, known as the “beldam.” Selick’s gorgeously-rendered fairy tale sits with the best of such cinematic fables because of the way that it taps into very real concerns, and there’s a sly comment on the traditional role of women in the way that darkness lies in Other Mothers’ skills at more traditional feminine, maternal pursuits like cooking and sewing (especially when contrasted with the resourcefulness of Coraline). And as Stepfordishly perfect as the Other Mother seems at first, she becomes one of the best screen villains in recent memory when her monstrous true form is revealed.