CRYSTAL (KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS) IN ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)
In this delirious, ultra-violent slab of misanthropy from Danish trailblazer, Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Pusher, Drive), Ryan Gosling stars as Julian, a passive, near-somnambulant Bangkok-based drug dealer who has to snap into action when his vile, vicious, ball-breaking mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), demands that he take revenge for his demented brother, Billy’s murder. Surreal to the hilt, Only God Forgives also boasts one of the most horrible movie mums of all time. Kristin Scott Thomas goes crazily, perfectly over the top as Crystal, a shrill harpy who insults everyone around her, and even questions Julian’s manhood during dinner when he’s out with an appropriately shocked date. “And what with Billy being the older brother and having a bigger cock… Julian’s was never small, but Billy’s was… oh, it was enormous,” Crystal says when talking about the, um, differences between her two sons. But Crystal’s transgressions are far worse than mere physical put-downs. Most disturbingly, she has little interest in the fact that her oldest son was killed by the father of the sixteen-year-old girl that he violently raped. “I’m sure he had his reasons,” she sighs of Billy’s rapacious kinks. Meeting a bloody, disturbingly sexualised fate by Julian’s own hand (“He’s a very dangerous boy,” she intones), the morally bankrupt, profoundly awful Crystal goes out as she came in: horribly.
MARGARET WHITE (PIPER LAURIE) IN CARRIE (1976)
The blood soaked, telekinetically driven emotional explosion at the end of Brian De Palma’s 1976 supernatural thriller, Carrie (adapted from the novel by Stephen King) – courtesy of the titular teen, whose mental powers are unleashed after a systemic bout of peer bullying which reaches its dire zenith at the school prom – is principally born of years of parental abuse. The utterly hateful perpetrator is Carrie’s deranged, reclusive, religiously obsessed mother, Margaret White, who visits all manner of cruelty upon her innocent daughter. She blames the introverted teen’s menstrual cycle on her “sinning”, hurls hot tea in her face, and denounces her as a witch and tries to kill her when she discovers her telekinetic powers. She says that she loves God, but Margaret White – who checks out courtesy of a heart attack prompted by a drawer-full of telekinetically hurled kitchen knives – is truly the mother from Hell, and is played with fevered menace by the usually sweet Piper Laurie (The Hustler). “Piper came in looking like Margaret White with this red hair and black outfit,” Brian De Palma recalled in a later interview. “I said, ‘My God! This is it!’ I liked the idea of making Margaret White very beautiful and sexual, instead of the usual dried-up old crone at the top of the hill.”
KATRINA SKINNER (EMILY BARCLAY) IN SUBURBAN MAYHEM (2006)
In Paul Goldman’s stylised, richly aggressive black comedy, Suburban Mayhem, Katrina Skinner (Emily Barclay) is a walking nightmare. She’s a nineteen-year-old single mother who wants the good life. When her well-meaning father (Robert Morgan) threatens to cut her off financially and take away her child because of her, erm, unconventional parenting style, Katrina cracks. She then sets in motion a plan of shocking callousness designed to get her exactly what she wants. Playing her nice guy boyfriend (Michael Dorman) and her brother’s dimwitted sidekick (Anthony Hayes) like finely tuned violins, Katrina soon has her father in her crosshairs. Katrina is so shocking and so memorable because she is so resolutely self-absorbed, hardly the core trait of a good mother. In short, she wants everything and she wants it now. She doesn’t care who she has to corrupt or manipulate in order to get it, and once she’s rolling, she’s like a freight train that can’t be stopped. “I was completely aware of people’s concerns when writing Katrina,” screenwriter, Alice Bell, told FilmInk. “So I gave her a baby to make it worse! The fact that people had such moral problems with Katrina’s behaviour just spurred me on to make her even more appalling. It was fun!”
MRS. TAGGART (BETTE DAVIS) IN THE ANNIVERSARY (1968)
Though she has played far more well-known nightmares (most notably in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?), Bette Davis’ Mrs. Taggart – who sports a lurid eye-patch – is undeniably one of the legendary actress’ most despicable, repulsive, and absolutely hilarious creations. Appropriately enough, The Anniversary comes from Hammer Films, and Mrs. Taggart is just as bad as any of the monsters on the horror company’s esteemed roster. Each year, this bitter old widow invites her three sons over to “celebrate” the anniversary of their late father’s death, and then proceeds to verbally excoriate them, along with their unfortunate wives and girlfriends. Mrs. Taggart’s idea of a thigh-slapper is to inform her daughter-in-law that she’s had a telephone call informing her that her children have been involved in a horrific car accident and are now in hospital in a critical condition. Hilarious! Though she receives spirited resistance from her daughter-in-law (Sheila Hancock) and her youngest son’s pregnant fiancée (Elaine Taylor), Mrs. Taggart’s three sons are a pathetic trio, and she tears strips off them with ruthless abandon, unpicking their various secrets and making sport out of their humiliation. Mrs. Taggart is the kind of mother that not even a child could love. “Why am I so good at playing bitches? I think it’s because I’m not a bitch,” Bette Davis once said. “Maybe that’s why Joan Crawford always plays ladies.”
MRS. WADSWORTH (RUTH ROMAN) IN THE BABY (1973)
Though known as a journeyman director with a few pearls on his resume (Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, Hang ‘Em High, Go Tell The Spartans, Magnum Force), the wholly under-celebrated Ted Post is actually responsible for one of the weirdest movies of the seventies…and that’s saying something. 1973’s The Baby is the kind of demented curio that John Waters would probably love, and it features the kind of mother that nobody deserves. Mrs. Wadsworth (played with repugnant abandon by Ruth Roman in a performance that would make Joan Crawford proud) – with the help of her two trashy daughters – has a grown son that she has maintained as, yes, a baby, complete with bibs, nappies, soft food, a large, adult sized crib, and, oh yes, a cattle prod! When well-meaning social worker, Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer), is assigned to the Wadsworth clan, a battle of wills erupts over Baby (David Mooney), who is revealed to be the victim only of intimidation and abuse, as opposed to any actual mental or physical condition. The battle of wills eventually becomes an actual battle (replete with knives, hatchets, and live burials), as the monstrous, man-hating Mrs. Wadsworth finds a worthy adversary in Ann Gentry, who has a freaked-out agenda all of her own that puts a further kinky spin on the not-so-sacred institution of motherhood.
LILLY DILLON (ANJELICA HUSTON) IN THE GRIFTERS (1990)
“It’s a woman’s fate, I guess, at a certain age, to be cast as a mother, and then as a grandmother,” Anjelica Huston told Venice Magazine in 2008. “But the mothers that I’ve played are very interesting people, and that’s what I like playing.” Indeed, whether it’s the wonderfully ghoulish Morticia Addams in The Addams Family, the charismatic Patricia in The Darjeeling Limited, or the warped and needy Ida in Choke, Anjelica Huston has made her movie mums far from conventional. Her most horrible maternal creation, however, is unquestionably Lilly Dillon in Stephen Frears’ minor masterpiece, The Grifters, adapted from Jim Thompson’s fetid noir pulper. With tarty blonde hair and a manner generously described as hard-bitten, Lilly is an ageing con-woman whose lack of love and air of amorality have spiritually corrupted her son, Roy (John Cusack), himself a con artist, though one of far less ability and considerably more decency. When Lilly meets Roy’s new girlfriend, Myra Langtry (Annette Bening), their mutual dislike is instant, and the mother’s jealousy and need for control will set in motion a downward spiral of events that should not be the gift from any parent to a child. “In The Grifters, that poor woman, Lilly, she was a completely lost cause,” Huston told Venice Magazine. “She was like a fox that bites off its own leg, to leave the trap.”