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Non-Review Review: M.o.M. Mothers of Monsters

M.o.M. Mothers of Monsters is an ambitious and clever piece of indie horror constructed on a tight budget.

It marks the feature-length narrative directorial debut of Tucia Lyman. Lyman has a variety of experience in horror, particular on television shows like Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, Ghosts of Shepherdstown and Ghosts of Morgan City. With that in mind, it makes sense that Lyman’s first narrative feature should borrow a lot of the language of paranormal reality television. M.o.M. is essentially a found-footage horror film, with the audience navigating and assembling a collection of seemingly raw video files into a cohesive narrative.

Will he snap?

There is something inherently old-fashioned about the found footage horror template. The format was all the rage in the early years of the twenty-first century, perhaps informed by the use of first-person camcorder footage to document events like 9/11. It arguably reached its apotheosis with the release of the security-camera home haunting horror Paranormal Activity in 2007. Contemporary horror has moved back toward more traditional approaches, prompted by the success of films like The Conjuring, making M.o.M.‘s found footage approach feel decidedly retro.

M.o.M. is occasionally a little clumsy and heavy-handed, sometimes stretching its premise a little too far and struggling to balance sharp tonal shifts between heightened sensationalism and grounded domestic horror. Still, there’s something endearingly committed and energetic in this low-fi horror thriller, an infectious and gleeful embrace of its more absurd elements.

Receiving a dressing gown.

The basic premise of M.o.M. is recognisable. As the title implies, it’s the classic horror movie trope of the monstrous offspring. This is fertile ground for horror storytelling, producing classics as diverse as Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Babadook. Of course, recent years have pushed that subgenre in less explicitly paranormal directions. Parent no longer need to be afraid that their children are the literal spawn of Satan. There are more grounded anxieties and uncertainties in this era of mass shooting and radicalisation.

In some respects, M.o.M. plays as a trashier and schlockier version of something like We Need to Talk About Kevin, a horror story about a mother who feels no emotional connection to her offspring and who comes to suspect that he is going to do something truly monstrous. Melinda Page Hamilton plays Abbey, the protagonist of M.o.M. She comes to believe that her son Jacob is a psychopath who may even be orchestrating a school shooting.

Brought to heel.

It’s a very simple and very taut premise. It’s to the credit of Lyman that she creates a palpable and mounting sense of dread. M.o.M. is explicitly a period piece, with the bulk of the drama unfolding in the middle of 2017. The anxieties of that moment seep into the film, often through snippets of television news reports that play as Abbey falls asleep on the couch. During one extended sequence, the news reports on the infamous and horrific “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, a gathering of angry and radicalised young men probably not too different from Jacob.

In its own way, M.o.M. plays as a horror tapping into the fears of parents watching a generation of young men slip away from them, making it an interesting companion piece to more high-profile recent releases like JoJo Rabbit or Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker. The political context of this fear is kept close to the surface. It’s notable that when Abbey singles out “racism” as “a big one” when it comes to indicators of psychopathy in teenagers, Jacob expresses that racism through antisemitism. Similarly, Jacob collects Nazi memorabilia.

The mother of all problems.

Of course, it’s too much to describe M.o.M. as a biting piece of social commentary, although it demonstrates a keen understanding of the fears that shape modern parenting. M.o.M. never renders its political subtext too explicit, but it simmers throughout the film. It is a welcome reminder of the capacity of horror cinema to tap into these collective uncertainties and anxieties in a more direct and more visceral manner than more obviously weighty and worthy genres.

M.o.M. does suffer from a couple of key problems. The film feels a little over-extended at nearly one-hundred minutes, often circling back over itself to make up the runtime. Quite early in the film, Abbey explains that she knows that Jacob is a psychopath and that she knows that there is no way to catch him, but the film continues to play that cat-and-mouse game for another half-hour before escalating sharply in its final act.

You gotta be kidding.

That escalation brings its own problems. M.o.M. struggles slightly with tone. Lyman understands that M.o.M. is designed to be an effective and efficient horror thriller. As such, the film gets away with a number of elaborate twists that verge on the ridiculous, including a final act that veers sharply towards the absurd. These choices are admittedly goofy and surreal, and the film seems to play them as such. At points, Jacob seems less like a teenager with “sociopathic tendencies” and more like the heir apparent to Jigsaw from the Saw franchise.

There are points where M.o.M. is self-aware enough to pull this off. Abbey’s introduction to the premise is played in a wry and cheeky manner, as she jokes about her age and points out the sorts of absurd contrivances that are necessary for a found footage horror film like this to work. However, there are also points at which M.o.M. swerves too sharply into earnestness and struggles to reconcile its disparate tones.

You know the drill.

Repeatedly in M.o.M., Abbey explains that she is capturing this footage to help mothers in similar positions, which is a handy justification for the found footage approach. However, M.o.M. occasionally leans too heavily on this, playing it with something approaching sincerity. The film closes with a phone number on screen directing audience members to services that can help them if they are in similar positions. This lends M.o.M. the sense of a weird moral panic public service announcement, rather than embracing the more absurd elements of the execution.

Still, there’s a lot to admire in M.o.M. It is a film that was obviously shot on a modest budget, and which manages to use that wisely. It gets a few effective suspense set pieces out of a very simple and very relatable set-up. It never really hesitates before following its own ideas, even when they lead to some very outlandish conclusions. While the execution is a little clumsy in places, it taps into some bold and big ideas. M.o.M. marks an impressive feature debut.

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