This week Guest Star Nick Hanover gets ready to celebrate Mothers Day with Flesh Eating Mothers (1988)
I am not nor will I ever be a mother but as the oldest in a family of three rambunctious, mischievous children I suspect one unspoken fact of motherhood is this– sometimes, you envy those areas of the animal kingdom where it is acceptable to eat your own young. That is the wonderfully concise premise at the heart of James Martin’s 1988 absurdist horror film Flesh Eating Mothers, wherein a very bad dad spreads an STD around an anonymous suburb, causing a group of desperate housewives to suddenly be inflicted with the desire to devour their children (and others, the film is a little vague on the rules here).
Standing in direct contrast to the vengeful mother trope of films like Friday the 13th (1980) or John Waters’ classic Serial Mom (1994), Flesh Eating Mothers suggests that the most base, animalistic desire in mothers is a ravenous hatred of their spawn. In the liner notes to its recent reissue of the film, Vinegar Syndrome connected it not only to the zombie genre, but also to the body horror of David Cronenberg, a trait most visible in the gradual transformation of the mothers as the STD works its way through them.
Initially the STD’s symptoms present as a larger-than-normal appetite, perhaps best represented in a decidedly Tim & Eric-esque scene where one mom eats the world’s loudest sandwich. Soon that growing appetite becomes more ominous, with a different mother explaining the finer points of veal to her son as she tries to force feed him milk before attacking him. Eventually the hunger rages out of control and the mothers take on the appearance of what can only be described as bad Joker cosplay as they wander the streets, seeking out their delicious, delicious children while engaging in hilariously stilted conversations where they mostly repeat phrases like “I hate when that happens” and “It’s the worst when that happens.”
But Flesh Eating Mothers differs from Cronenbergian body horror in one key way– none of the mothers seem all that concerned about the transformation, in fact, they don’t seem to have any awareness of it whatsoever. Whether it was intended as commentary on suburban ennui and parental loathing or is exactly the shallow gorefest its title suggests, Flesh Eating Mothers is a remarkable satire of the very idea of suburban normalcy. Other than a nurse working alongside a bewilderingly inept sexual health clinician and a Stephen King-esque alliance of a small town cop and a group of loser kids, everyone appears blissfully ignorant of the disturbing cannibal mother problem. By the time they notice it, they are mostly focused on regaining normalcy and pretending a not-inconsiderable portion of their adolescent population has not just been eaten.
That contrast between gruesome child murders (and I use the term child loosely here, as almost every “kid” in this movie is played by someone on the rougher side of their 30s) and the endless cycle of suburban intrigue and boredom also stands out from Cronenberg, making it more like a collaboration between his Canadian peers Kids in the Hall and Guy Maddin. Take our sexual health expert, Dr Bass (Allen Rickman of Boardwalk Empire fame), who tells his nurse he isn’t interested in any test results that don’t feature gonorrhea or syphilis, and who has a sign in his office informing his patients of famous historical figures who also had VD, including Napoleon, Gauguin and, uh, Hitler.
Tonally, Flesh Eating Mothers has much in common with the evil fetus subgenre represented by films like Prevenge (2016), Baby Blood (1990) or The Unborn (1991), but those are almost more socially acceptable in their premise– who hasn’t joked about an unborn baby as a parasite or, to paraphrase Coupling (2000-4), expressed anxiety over “the John Hurt moment” of pregnancy? We all have at least a basic level of familiarity with the way fetuses take over a host body’s hormones, appetites and general comfort, and it’s not unusual to hear “I just want this thing out of me already” as a complaint from an expecting mother. But once the thing is already out, you’re generally expected to not wish expulsion or violence on it.
Maybe that’s why Flesh Eating Mothers has so few peers in the horror space– the recent pitch black comedy Mom and Dad (2017) is one of the only films that comes to mind–even as the number of “children are demons, actually” movies continues to rise, be it Cooties (2014) or whatever number of The Omen remakes we’re on by this point. That’s too bad, because there’s a lot of gold left to be mined in Flesh Eating Mothers’ basic themes and concepts, particularly in the hands of a more progressive and visually adept director like Mary Harron or a more acidic wit, such as Amy Heckerling.
Yet even with all of its ‘80s misogynistic baggage, Flesh Eating Mothers provides some (perhaps accidental?) subversion, particularly in the idea that daddy fuckboi Roddy (Louis Homyak) is the one chiefly responsible for the cannibal mom epidemic with his unsafe mom mating antics, and eventually gets his comeuppance at the hands of the impeccably named Booty Bernett (Grace Pettijohn). There are also the numerous, albeit almost certainly unself-aware, scenes where male professionals worsen the situation and doom themselves by refusing to listen to nurse Dodd (Carolyn Gratsch) about her hunches regarding the infection causing the mayhem.
That said, Flesh Eating Mothers’ campy obliviousness to its own themes and subversive commentary might just be why it succeeds at all, particularly when coupled with the awkward acting by performers who are decades removed from the ages they are supposed to be portraying, the Dollar Store approach to set design and the comically grotesque final transformation make-up.
A more serious and artful film about mothers devouring their own young might be a little too close to Goya to be entertaining, but Flesh Eating Mothers blessedly revels in the stupidity of its core conceit as well as its suburban setting. When nurse Dodd and company finally crack the mystery of the STD– which involves a small town government cover-up, for good measure– it’s less of a climactic reveal than an excuse for yet another reminder that sinful hook-ups could have permanent repercussions, or at least repercussions that require awkward and humiliating injections of penicillin. That in turn provokes a final showdown that is choreographed with all the grace of a middle school food fight, which in turn is just a set-up for a perhaps overly optimistic cliffhanger.
Flesh Eating Mothers, of course, never got the franchise treatment of Friday the 13th, but given how quickly Mother Vorhees was disposed of and forgotten from that series maybe that’s for the best. Instead, Flesh Eating Mothers can stand out as a unique, bizarre reminder of a phrase I certainly heard come out of my mom’s mouth all too often growing up: I’m your mother, I brought you into this world and I can take you right back out of it.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man, which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage over at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover