13 Most Heroic Movie Mothers
Article By: Tony Timpone
Though those special ladies will get their due this weekend as we celebrate Mother’s Day, horror movie moms are usually a figure of fear (see here) and not joy. From Psycho’s Norma Bates to Friday the 13th’s Pamela Voorhees, these horror hags can terrorize with an axe or just a scowl. But not all horror movie moms are bad, as many of those quoted below will tell you. Defeating opponents supernatural, alien or even human, these stalwart actresses examine the extreme side of parenting with The Friday 13’s Most Heroic Movie Mothers. (Titles arranged according to year of release.)
1. The Exorcist (1973)
As Chris MacNeil, Ellen Burstyn literally went through hell to win back the soul of her young devil-possessed daughter (Linda Blair). It’s hard to imagine anyone as good as Burstyn in the role, but the acclaimed actress had a devil of a time securing the gig. In director William Friedkin’s autobiography The Friedkin Connection, he recalled the casting process: “Ellen was passionate, intense, focused, and highly intelligent. She told me about her Catholic girlhood and how she had left the church and was now studying to become a Sufi. We discussed the novel for a couple of hours, and I thought she had an acute understanding of it. Yet I didn’t think the studio would approve her.”
They almost didn’t. Warners bigwigs wanted Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda or Audrey Hepburn to assume the role, but Friedkin’s persistence paid off. Burstyn nabbed the role and also eventually earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in the process.
2. The Entity (1982)
In this ’80s sleeper, Barbara (Black Swan) Hershey turns in a gutsy performance as Carla Moran, a single mom tormented and sexually assaulted by a randy demon. Since the movie was based on actual events (so they say!), Hershey consulted with some of the actual participants from the baffling occurrence. “I didn’t meet [the real victim],” Hershey told Birthdeathmovies.com. “I met some of the [paranormal] investigators who worked on it. It was a very interesting case because there were two very different interpretations; one was psychiatric and the other was paranormal. But both ideas were really interesting to me—whether it really happened to her, or whether she was so powerfully insane she was creating this, actually raising marks on herself. That was probably more fascinating to me.”
3. Poltergeist (1982)
In one of the biggest horror hits of the 1980s, a family is besieged by ghosts in their suburban home, culminating in the kidnapping of the youngest daughter (Heather O’Rourke) into another dimension. As take-charge Mom Diane Freeling, JoBeth Williams endures violent attacks by the entities and courageously ventures to the other side to rescue her child. Williams initially turned down the movie. “They said they were sending me a script called Poltergeist, and I went, ‘Oh, no way. No way will I be doing that movie.’ And then they said, ‘Well, Steven Spielberg is producing it.’ And then I went, ‘Oh, well, maybe I should read it,’” Williams recounted to HNGN.com.
4. Cujo (1983)
Dee Wallace accepted one of the toughest challenges of her career to portray Donna Trenton, a mom trapped in her car with her young son by a rabid Saint Bernard. Despite a rough shoot on the Stephen King movie, Wallace reminisces about the experience with fondness. “I always looked at playing Donna Trenton as an opportunity to express the fierce love, devotion and protective passion of mothers,” she says. “I am proud of my work in Cujo. I didn’t have my daughter then, but I realize how I channeled that love. There is no other emotion like it on Earth: a mother’s consuming love for her child.”
5. Aliens (1986)
The theme of maternity flows in every frame of James Cameron’s action-packed Alien sequel. Having survived the horrors of the previous film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) returns to Earth to find her daughter long dead. But when a new mission puts her nose to nose with another hive of monsters and their gigantic Queen, maternal instincts emerge once more as Ripley risks it all to defend the orphaned Newt (Carrie Henn). “The Queen wants to protect her children, too,” Weaver acknowledged. “The face-off at the end between the two mother figures is so important to the themes of motherhood and nurturing that are throughout the film.”
6. Child’s Play (1988)
A scenario where a killer doll stalks a widowed mother and her 6-year-old son could have gone the route of unintended camp, but the commitment of actress Catherine Hicks elevated the scares and believability in Child’s Play. “Catherine is the unsung hero of the movie,” says Child’s Play co-writer/director Tom Holland. “It was her love for Andy [Alex Vincent] that drove her. You see that in the opening scene where he brings her breakfast and she plays with him on the bed. Catherine is very pretty, but she has personal warmth that makes you like her on the screen. She’s the single housewife next door, whose life is a struggle, and whom you instinctively sympathize with. That’s why the visual sequence works after she comes home from the police station and picks up the Good Guy box to throw it away, only to have the batteries fall out. You, the audience, knows the doll is alive, but she doesn’t. She is the rational side of you. Catherine has a humanity that makes that acceptable. She could be you. She drives Child’s Play.”
7. The Addams Family (1991)
Following in the footsteps of TV’s Carolyn Jones, Anjelica Huston gave new life (death?) to slinky Morticia Addams (mother of Wednesday and Pugsley) in the two big-budget Addams Family movies. For inspiration, Huston did not reference either Jones or the original Charles Addams cartoons. Writing in her autobiography Watch Me—A Memoir, she recalled: “I was looking for a template on which to base Morticia Addams, a key to giving this potentially cartoon character some humanity. I decided on my friend Jerry Hall, the beautiful Texan model, feeling that her kind, gentle disposition and utter devotion to her children might lend some warmth to Morticia’s chilly, unflappable nature.”
8. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
During her three-film tenure in the Freddy Krueger dreamscape, lead Heather Langenkamp ran the gamut from frightened teenager to fierce maternal protector. “I had the unique chance to play a character named Heather Langenkamp in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” recalls Langenkamp of the film’s self-reflexive scenario. “I was the mother of a 3-year-old when we began filming, and Wes wrote the script with my own life as a loose inspiration. What Wes didn’t know was that I cherished motherhood more than anything. I realized that the best thing about being a mother is that you will lay your life down for that little person. You will defy all authority to do what you feel is right, and you will have a gut instinct about your child that no one can understand but yourself.
“The significance of Nancy Thompson as a film character grows even stronger as we watch her go from a young girl who fought Freddy to save her friends and a young woman in Nightmare 3 to fight Freddy to save her teenage patients,” Langenkamp continues. “And then in New Nightmare, she is a mother who must fight Freddy to save her own child. This growth from girl to mother is something that I hold as a sacred rite of passage in my own life and what makes Nancy Thompson such a unique character in film.”
9. Halloween: H20 (1998)
Returning to the franchise that made her a star, Jamie Lee Curtis relished the idea of catching up with Laurie Strode 20 years later. Now a single mom (to handsome teen Josh Hartnett), Laurie must come to terms with the terror of her past. The actress also enjoyed the opportunity to act alongside her own mom, Psycho legend Janet Leigh.
“It was hard to get her, only because I wouldn’t let them get her until it was right,” Curtis told Angelfire.com. “I was not content with just calling up my mom and saying, ‘Mom, just play my secretary, please.’ It really demanded good writing. And I made them go back to the table three or four times and said, ‘Guys, write me a scene with my mom that will encompass everything we’d want to see with me and my mom in a movie.’ It had to be scary, it had to be poignant, it had to be very ‘knowing,’ very inside. It was very much like taking a bow. When she walks to the car and says, ‘Happy Halloween,’ as far as I’m concerned, it’s her doing a huge stage bow and saying, ‘Thank you very much for a great career.’ That’s how I saw it.”
10. The Sixth Sense (1999)
In one of the most heartfelt moments in M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural blockbuster, 9-year-old Cole (Haley Joel Osment) finally proves to his disbelieving mom Lynn (Oscar nominee Toni Collette) that he “sees dead people.” Up until this point, Lynn’s been at her wits’ end over her son’s mental anguish. The woman loves her kid and will do anything to make him feel safe and secure, but this ghost business is driving her nuts.
“Doing that scene was a relief,” Collette told The Guardian. “It was towards the end of the shoot, I had been living with the knowledge of that woman’s story for so long and I had experiences in my life that were similar to hers, so when we were finally shooting that scene, it was almost as if the floodgates burst open—as if I didn’t have control over it because it had been lingering so long.”
11. The Ring (2002)
In this remake of a Japanese chiller, a solid Naomi Watts stars as an investigative reporter trying to get to the bottom of a deadly urban legend that has ensnared her adolescent son. “What I think sets it apart,” explained Watts to IGN, “[is that] the character has her own personal journey to go through. She starts out as a flawed person and not a very good mother, and after all the chaos, she learns to recognize what her child needs…Rachel is a very ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances.”
12. The Orphanage (2007)
Spanish director J.A. Bayona’s ghost story follows Laura (Belén Rueda) and her family to an old orphanage, where the woman herself once lived as an orphan. Before long, adopted son Simon starts chatting up invisible friends, and when the small boy mysteriously vanishes, Laura too begins experiencing otherworldly shudders. Rueda told Ain’t It Cool News that the filmmakers drew inspiration from a classic fantasy story, while the actress related to her character from being a mother herself.
“At first, [director] Juan Antonio told me that Laura is like Peter Pan, and I said, ‘No, she’s like Wendy,’” said Rueda. “And it was very funny because he presented to me a little Wendy figurine, which I kept in my dressing room and had with me all the time. It’s very important that the director tells you what he thinks, but it’s also important you tell the director what you think. I’m a mother, I have two daughters, and I think that I can help Laura to be an adult. Because sometimes, he would say, ‘She’s like a child.’ And I’d say, ‘No. She loves to care and nurture.’ And she wants to be in that situation for her whole life, but she’s not a child. And he said, ‘Ah, yes. That’s good.’ It’s good when you can speak to the director and you are thinking the same way.”
13. The Babadook (2014)
Jennifer Kent’s Australian horror film looks at the dark side of motherhood, as widow Amelia (Essie Davis) tries to keep it together when her 6-year-old son (Noah Wiseman) insists he’s being stalked by the titular supernatural creature. Amelia begins to lose patience with her distraught child, a situation most moms would find relatable, according to Davis.
“That’s why it was quite a confronting role to play, because I think lots of parents will recognize themselves there in some small way,” the actress told Fangoria.com. “We all say terrible things to our children at some stage or other. I believe so many women probably think they’re terrible mothers at some point, and I’m sure lots of men think they’re terrible fathers, or regret what comes out of their mouths or out of their arms. Amelia is a very specific, particular woman, but there will be a lot of people who will recognize themselves and/or their parents, and/or may never have had that kind of mother-and-child relationship with issues of repressed darkness. Many people have to live with some very dark part of themselves, one that a lot of other people can’t comprehend.”
FANGORIA editor emeritus Tony Timpone attended this spring’s Tribeca Film Festival, where his favorite screenings included Hounds of Love, Tilt, Gilbert, The Public Image is Rotten, Mr Long and Dare to Be Different.