Sunday, March 03, 2019

Playing with Tropes: Flesh-Eating Mothers

This is an absolute paragon of 80s B-Movieness. Released in 1988 and directed by James Aviles Martin, it is a schlock, low-rent comedy with cannibals. One might suggest that these cannibals are not vampiric, despite their anthropophagus ways but, whilst this might be true, this film certainly plays with tropes from the vampire genre – though I think some are accidental.

So, it starts with a man in the winter woods, we later discover he is Dixon (Ken Eaton). He sees blood in the snow and looks to his arm to discover that it is mostly missing. We also see a woman (Lori Gustafson) who approaches Dixon. He picks up his gun (with his remaining arm) and shoots… After children’s pictures of suburban America we meet Roddy (Louis Homyak) and Booty (Grace Pettijohn), who have just had sex. It becomes apparent quickly that they are married – just not to each other. Roddy is actually a serial adulterer, cheating on wife Sylvia (Katherine Mayfield) with several housewives.

Lee and Clyde
We also meet cop Clyde McDormick (Mickey Ross) who has gone to drop his alimony check off with wife Lous (Marie Michaels). Lous is drunk – seemingly a regular occurrence – but the suggestion that he take their son Billy (Scott Lerner) is met with scorn. He goes to see he friend, Dr. Lee Grouly (Michael Fuer), to share a beer and talk about Billy, who he hasn’t seen for a couple of weeks, when they are interrupted by Dixon (who is the police commissioner). After Dixon has left we hear that he told everyone that he and his wife were attacked by a bear, which took his arm and that he accidentally shot his wife during the attack. The previous coroner mysteriously disappeared at the time.

eating Billy
So when Clyde returns to Lous’, he finds her eating Billy’s arm. She turns on him and he kills her in self-defence. However the commissioner subsequently suggests that he has lost it and murdered both his ex-wife and son and he is arrested. Clyde (off screen) assaults a fellow officer to escape. Meanwhile kids (of the teen variety) around town are noticing that their mothers are behaving oddly. It starts off with uncontrollable hunger and they stuff themselves with food but that isn’t enough; for instance Linda (Donatella Hecht), daughter of Roddy and Sylvia, comes home to see her mother eating her baby brother.

the animated microscopic
So, essentially, we have a sexually transmitted disease – named as a virus – that is causing the cannibalism. The idea that a virus could cause flesh eating is a play out of both the vampire and zombie playbooks. These mothers would be classed as infected rather than undead but why is it only mothers? It is discovered that the virus can be carried by men but is dormant, it activates within female hosts who have had children. As well as the hunger it seems to have a few other effects.

sharp teeth
The mothers become stronger (we see one chew through a steel chain) and the faces change though it is less ‘vamp face’ than it is kind of like the Joker. The teeth sharpen (actually it looks like parts of the teeth blacken but I assume that was the limited sfx budget) but they keep enough wherewithal to discuss ornaments (and changing prices), coffee mornings and two manage to attend a function (eating copious buffet to stave off the hunger) until their children arrive and they lose control. One even feeds their child milky mash potatoes and milk to try and produce a veal effect.

snack time
So, the biggest trope used is a virus causing the need to cannibalistically consume others (they don’t just target their kids) and this need is driven by an uncontrollable hunger. The physical changes are also vampire reminiscent – especially the sharpening of teeth. However, one thing to consider is the socio-political commentary. This outbreak is caused by a STD (the STD aspect is again one used in some vampire films and also the occasional zombie flick), but the aim of the commentary seems mired in misogyny.

Roddy is the source
The woman affected are all mothers cheating on their spouse (it is mentioned that Lous was an adulteress, logically prior to the divorce) and so the film deliberately 'Others' these mothers – where the serial male adulterer is unaffected though it is he who is spreading the disease. Indeed, when he goes for a more traditional STD check (as a matter of routine) the clinic doctor is disinterested in anything non-standard (sub-text, that doesn’t impact men). Dixon suggests that the virus is actually a punishment from God for adultery (and thus means that these women, by default, belong to the Devil). They will attack anyone, so the punishment is reserved for the Othered women, those attacked by them are collateral damage in that respect. However, the attacking of children also has a genre route in the Blooferlady.

two of the mothers
In Dracula Lucy is accused of being a polyandrist (a woman married to multiple men), not because of the three suitors who try to woo her, but because of the multiple transfusions she receives from four sources. She then dies (out with the grace of God), rises as a vampire and hunts children as the Blooferlady. This is sometimes read as her turning from being the nurturing mother to the monster due to low morals, and that is certainly what is happening here. Whether the filmmakers put that much thought into it is doubtful but the trope is still there. As is the fact that they are Othered, not only attacking the nuclear family with their lack of morality and then their teeth, but in the monstrous visage they are forced to wear.

searching for a cure
In the end they are redeemed (which leads to hugs with their children, committed now to being the mother’s society expects) and in their redemption their faces return to normal (including their teeth). But they are the detail of a wider problem and the radio at the end mentions plenty more women turning across the nation. Perhaps the local issue is resolved with Roddy getting his comeuppance? Incidentally they are saved through penicillin injections (a cure found by a woman, Felicia (Carolyn Gratsch), which their own children are sent to administer, having suggested themselves that they are responsible for their mother’s actions – a strange choice of dialogue direction). Unfortunately, of course, penicillin is an antibiotic and wouldn’t affect a virus at all.

eating through steel chain
Is it a great film? Not at all, but it is an amusing film at the very least and it is a great slice of 80s B-horror, misogynistic aspect aside. Yet it is that very aspect that makes it a product of the eighties and a reflection of the espoused views of the, so-called, Moral Majority. However, it does Other a specific group, and Othering is a mainstay vampire trope, and in Othering that group they become flesh eaters and have sharp teeth. The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

On DVD @ Amazon UK

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