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Cinematic Mothers Who Kill!

For this Mother's Day, we offer up a special tribute to those murderous cinematic mothers we love! Just be thankful your own is not on the list...

Let’s get something straight: we at Tribeca love our mothers. To celebrate this most special of holidays, we didn’t want to produce yet another saccharine tribute to model cinematic moms. Instead we think it is time to revel in exceptional movie mothers—those with murder on their minds. Whether they kill to protect their child or to exact revenge or just for the fun of it, they are always interesting to watch. Which leads us to ask the question: is murder the ultimate act of a mother’s devotion?

So if you do decide to watch a film this Mother’s Day with the lady of honor, take in one of these “lethal mother” features for a change of pace. You will be more thankful than ever for your own wholesome Mom! 

White Heat (1949)
Margaret Wycherly as Ma Jarrett
Of course, being an old woman, I wouldn't know much about the law, but I hear you got to have witnesses to make anything stand up in court.

Margaret Wycherly made a career of playing memorable movie mothers, but her greatest role will always be that of Ma Jarrett in White Heat. Ma Jarrett is just as crooked and ambitious as her dear boy Cody (one of James Cagney’s most famous roles). She proves to be Cody’s only true adviser, even more so than his wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo). When the audience learns that Pa Jarrett died in a mental institution, it is no surprise that Ma Jarrett coddles her son, knowing his fragile mental state and propensity for blinding headaches. It is truly an unnerving sight to see the weakened Jarrett climb upon his mother’s lap to take a shot of whiskey to calm his nerves. Verna ultimately shoots Ma Jarrett in the back, insane with jealousy at the realization that her husband will always love his mother best. Cody’s display of grief when a fellow prisoner reluctantly tells him of his mother’s death is one of the most famous scenes in cinema. And it is his mother that Cody calls to as he stands upon an oil storage tank for his final shoot-out with police: Made it, Ma! Top of the World!

Kindergarten Cop (1990)
Carroll Baker as Eleanor Crisp
Where’s my grandson?

With her steely portrayal of the villainous Eleanor Crisp in Kindergarten Cop, Caroll Baker adds new dimension to the “lethal mother” character. In the film, she aids her psychotic son Cullen Crisp (Richard Tyson) in his relentless pursuit of his ex-wife, who took his son and fled when Cullen was in prison for murder. When this delightful pair is in turn pursued by Detective John Kimble (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Eleanor knows what she has to do. To save her son and recover her grandson, she slips a key witness a fatal dose of heroin, mows down Kimble’s partner with her car, and is ready to pull the trigger as she aims a gun at Kimble’s head. Only a timely smack with a baseball bat administered by Kimble’s wounded partner stops this resolute, toxic mom.

The Black Dahlia (2006)
Fiona Shaw as Ramona Linscott
Well, that was the cruelest joke of all.

Because Brian De Palma’s noir throwback, The Black Dahlia, was universally panned by critics, Fiona Shaw’s mesmerizing performance as the twisted matriarch Ramona Linscott was largely unappreciated. Based on the James Ellroy novel about the unsolved slaying of a young starlet known as The Black Dahlia, the film offers a fictional solution just as bizarre as the actual crime. In a particularly disturbing scene, the crazed Ramona (Shaw giving her best Norma Desmond impression) appears at the top of an elaborate staircase and recounts the scandalous details of the murder (the starlet had to die because she was involved with the father of Ramona’s illegitimate child) in a remarkable monologue that gradually reveals her insanity. Our suggestion is that you rent the film, fast forward to the end to watch Shaw’s tour-de-force monologue, and then call your mother and tell her that you love her.

Notorious (1946)
Leopoldine Konstantin as Madame Sebastian
Stop wallowing in your foul memories.

Romance. Deception. Nazis. Conspiracies. Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious offers all these things and includes career-defining performances by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to boot. Alicia (Bergman), the daughter of a Nazi, is forced by government agent Devlin (Grant) to spy on her father’s neo-Nazi friends in South America. In love with Devlin and angry at his seeming rejection of her, Alicia agrees to enter into a sham marriage with Alexander Sebastian (the Oscar-nominated Claude Rains), a Nazi sympathizer who lives with his formidable mother, the icy Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin). Sebastian soon discovers Alicia’s deception and turns to the only person he can trust, his mother. Jealous of her son’s relationship with Alicia, Madame Sebastian coolly suggests that they slowly poison this inconvenient bride. Knowing that her son is weak, she takes it upon herself to slip arsenic into Alicia’s coffee each morning and to desperately sequester the increasingly ill Alicia from their fellow conspirators. In a memorable denouement, Devlin infiltrates the Sebastian fortress and rescues the dying Alicia, fittingly leaving Sebastian and his mother to a shared fate at the hands of their ruthless colleagues.This Nazi mother will certainly make you appreciate your own.

Hush (1998)
Jessica Lange as Martha Baring
The pain is terrible, isn’t it? You’ll just have to go through it.

Does anyone play unhinged quite like Jessica Lange? In Hush, she portrays Martha Baring, a rich Southern widow who loves her son, Jackson (Johnathon Schaech) above all. Ever since her husband’s “accidental” murder, she has had Jackson to herself, dispatching Jackson’s grandmother, Alice (Nina Foch), to a nursing home when she tries to interfere. When Jackson announces his marriage to his pregnant girlfriend, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), and returns home to Mother for the birth of the baby, the two women enter into a psychological mind game. Despite her knowledge of her mother-in-law’s propensities, Helen is tricked into eating a piece of cake that Martha has laced with labor-inducing horde medicine. Of course, the baby comes while Jackson is away, and Martha pulls out all stops to be the only woman in Jackson’s and her grandson’s lives. The movie revels in Martha’s crazed and fascinating fragility, and Lange’s riveting performance almost makes us root for this lethal mother.

Friday the 13th (1980)
Betsy Palmer as Mrs. Voorhees
Come, dear. It'll be easier for you than it was for Jason.

There is no doubt that Mrs. Voorhees as played by Betsy Palmer is one of the horror genre’s most beloved lethal mothers. Driven mad by the death of her son caused by negligent camp counselors, she decides to take her revenge, descending on a group of virile teenagers with knives, axes and even arrows. While viewers may feel pity for the victims, Palmer manages to elicit sympathy for her deadly character despite the havoc she wreaks, causing audiences to ask what they might do to exact revenge for the death of a child. Because of Palmer’s over the top performance, Mrs. Voorhees has achieved pop culture infamy, and Friday the 13th is still terrifying to watch more than thirty years later.

Wild At Heart (1990)
Diane Ladd as Marietta Fortune
All I know is that trash killed a man with his bare hands that are probably all over my baby right now!

David Lynch’s Wild At Heart is a quirky little movie loosely based on The Wizard of Oz. Laura Dern plays Lulu, a big-hearted girl in love with Sailor (Nicolas Cage), a gangster’s lackey who witnessed the apparent suicide of Lulu’s father by self-immolation. Diane Ladd (Dern's actual mother in real life) gives a tremendous performance as Lulu’s deranged mother, Marietta Fortune (the Wicked Witch of the West) who, of course, murdered Lulu’s father. Marietta even tries to seduce Sailor into silence, and grows insanely jealous when he rejects her. There are no lengths to which Marietta won’t go to kill Sailor when he rejects her advances, including sending waves of hit men to exact her revenge. Marietta, despite her psychopathic spiral, does show some signs of mother love, but Ladd’s frantic performance as this lethal mother will stay with viewers long after they have purged other elements of Wild at Heart from their conscious minds. Who can ever forget Ladd channeling the Wicked Witch by coating herself in red lipstick and surrendering to madness? Motherhood has never been so twisted. 

The Grifters (1990)
Angelica Huston as Lilly Dillon
I gave you your life twice. I'm asking you to give me mine once.

Based on the pulp novel by Jim Thompson, this incredibly dark neo-noir directed by Stephen Frears follows a family of con, led by matriarch Lilly Dillon (Anjelica Huston). Looking fierce in a bleached blonde wig, Lilly is a veteran of the game who teaches her son Roy (John Cusack) everything she knows and parts ways with him. Years later, Lilly stumbles upon Roy after a “grift” gone wrong, which has left him battered and bleeding internally. Lilly kicks into motherly overdrive, rushing Roy to a hospital and even threatening to have the doctor killed if he can’t save Roy’s life. What else would a mother do? In Lilly’s case, her motherly good deed does not go unpunished—by saving her son life’s, Lilly fails to place bets on a horse race and costs her bookie boss a lot of money. Lilly realizes that by putting her son first for once, she momentarily lost her edge. No worry, though. When Roy’s girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening) betrays Lilly to her boss, Lilly easily shifts to the offensive, killing Myra and using the corpse to fake her own death. In a desperate attempt to recover the money from Roy, she stoops to a new low even for a lethal mother, attempting to seduce him by saying she’s not his real mother. Roy, disgusted, rejects her, but when Lilly retaliates by swinging a briefcase at her “ungrateful” child, she slashes an artery in his neck. As Roy lies dying on the floor, Lilly packs up the money and escapes without a backward glance. Now, aren’t you glad your mother isn’t on the “grift?”

Bloody Mama (1970)
Shelley Winter as Ma Barker
The family that slays together stays together!

The exploits of Ma Barker, an iconic lethal mother, are celebrated in Bloody Mama. The film is based on the true story of The Barker Gang, which was comprised of four brothers (played by Clint Kimbrough, Don Stroud, Robert Walden, and Robert De Niro) and their beloved Ma. As Ma Barker, Shelley Winter is the ultimate lethal mother. She’s tough, shows no mercy to strangers, and kills at random, but oh, how she loves her boys. Ma is ruthlessly protective when it comes to her family. When two of her sons are imprisoned for theft charges, Ma leads the gang on a bank-robbing spree and bails them out. When Lloyd (De Niro) sexually assaults a girl at a local lake, Ma drowns the unfortunate victim to save her son. The film ends in a bloody and fatal shoot out in Florida at the Barkers’ hideout, with Ma being the last to die. Mother love has never been so deadly.

Serial Mom (1994)
Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin
Officer, I'm sorry, but we don't allow gum in this house.

Serial Mom is a joyous campy romp about a seemingly perfect housewife who moonlights as a serial killer. Written and directed by John Waters, the film features Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, a woman who loves her family so much that she kills over the slightest criticism, insult or infraction. Her perfect nuclear family, comprised of Eugene (Sam Waterston), Chip (Matthew Lillard) and Misty (Ricki Lake), is oblivious to her activities, ignoring the deaths of Chip’s math teacher, Misty’s ex-boyfriend and a neighbor who doesn’t recycle until the evidence begins to pile up. Waters’ brilliant film transitions into pure satire once Beverly is apprehended, but manages to put the media on trial. Turner’s Beverly is conniving, mannered, charming and criminally insane, but that doesn’t make her a bad person! One bit of advice—don’t wear white after Labor Day or you might end up like Juror #8. Would it be so bad to have a psychotic but loving mother who eliminates anyone who annoys you? Hmmmm.

Now that you've read your mother and wish her a Happy Mother's Day!


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