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