Earlier this week I was having a Twitter-chat with some friends about why certain films don’t live on. Specifically, were talking about the Jodie Foster-starring The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, a phenomenal little thriller from the ’70s starring Foster (and Martin Sheen as a pedophile!) that has all but completely faded from public eye. Lane’s disappearance can be acknowledged as possibly due to Foster’s apparent distaste for the film, but it’s always interesting to see which films continue to draw attention and/or adulation, while others appear and just sort of fade.
You’ll Like My Mother, new on Blu from Scream Factory, is an interesting almost, a 1972 slow burn thriller that never quite lives up to its central hook and never quite clicks into that higher gear. People with a taste for the ’70s aesthetic and a deliberately paced narrative (Ti West may have cribbed entire shots of House of the Devil from this) will find much to like, but the film as a whole exists as a strange relic.
Mother opens with a classic Gothic set-up. Recently-pregnant, even-more-recently-widowed Francesca (Patty Duke, RIP) has traveled to her husband’s ancestral home to meet his mother. She is shocked to discover that the house is a towering estate, that her husband has a “feeble-minded” sister, Kathleen (Sian Barbara Allen), that he never told her about, and his mother, Mrs. Kinsolving (Rosemary Murphy) is a nasty, snippy sort who wants nothing whatsoever to do with Francesca or her baby.
Something is off, right from the start, and Francesca makes the rare thriller smart call to get the hell out of dodge as soon as possible. But a sudden blizzard strands her at the house, and odd incidents begin piling up.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Gothic traditions can make a reasonable guess as to what is going on, and when Kathleen produces a newspaper article about her vanished “psycho rapist” brother Kenny (Richard Thomas), the jig is up. I was actually surprised by how quickly the film overturns certain narrative cards, rather than try and drag things out for late film reveals.
But once Mother has played those reveals, there’s nowhere for it to go. Literally. The characters just hang around the house waiting for the snow to melt. Director Lamont Johnson tries to draw claustrophobic tension around these people with conflicting agendas trapped in a shared space, but he never cracks how to make the shared space feel oppressive. One scene can have characters engaged in a screaming match that no one else notices, while another sequence will find a squeaky floorboard setting off chains of reactions.
Duke, Murphy, and Allen are all talented actresses, but they are constrained by a script that defines each character in their opening moments and never wavers. Duke is hot-tempered and anxious, Murphy is closed-off and curt, and Allen is that ’70s version of handicapped that doesn’t actually resemble any kind of developmentally disabled person but fluctuates in capability depending on the needs of a scene.
Thomas is the closest thing the movie has to a stand-out. I know him predominantly for his exemplary work on The Americans these days, but back in 1972 he was only a month into his tenure on that The Waltons show. Thomas has a kind of All-American Golden Boy appeal, but one that he curdles here with an edge of impatience and mania. He’s like a dog that has smelled a treat and is rapping at the door to get a bite, and a better film would have milked that tension for all its worth.
You know what this movie really needed? A great ending. Even if the run-up had been draggy, I still think the film could have ended up on top if it had a really top-notch, pulse-pounding climax. But the actual climax of the movie fits the whole: It’s fine. Passable. Well-done.
You’ll Like My Mother is a movie that has the pieces of greatness but never assembles them in quite the right away. It’s very much worth a watch, and at a brisk 90 minutes it never overstays its welcome or gets too draggy, but probably will only be of great interest to people who already inclined towards this era of film and this style of thriller.
Get it at Amazon:
You’ll Like My Mother – [Blu-ray]