By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com January 16, 2013 at 12:57PM
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.
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.
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.