Home Video Hovel: You’ll Like My Mother, by Craig Schroeder
Exploring grief and how one copes with loss has long been a theme of horror films, coupling tangible scares with the emotional horror and uncertainty of continuing a life marred by devastation and sorrow. Shout Factory’s new release, 1972’s You’ll Like My Mother, is an astounding exploration of how a person begins to trudge towards a dubious future in the midst of colossal grief. And though the film’s scares (or thrills, as the title on the Blu-ray box reads, “You’ll Like My Mother: A THRILLER”) aren’t particularly innovative or original, the film is a lean, tense study on what it’s like to restart life after insurmountable heartache.
Francesca (played wonderfully by Patty Duke) is alone from the film’s very beginning, the sole passenger of a bus as it travels through a small Minnesota town. Francesca is pregnant (quite pregnant) and is determined to meet her late husband’s mother before her child is born. Francesca arrives at her mother-in-law’s home, a massive estate buried in the woods, only to learn her husband’s mother, Mrs. Kinsolving (an astounding, menacing performance from Rosemary Murphy), wants nothing to do with Francesca or her unborn child. Ready to leave and start her new life, Francesca is forced to wait out a blizzard in the home, where she discovers her husband’s family is hiding a dark secret. Directed by Lamont Johnson, a career television director, You’ll Like My Mother doesn’t lay on the thrills but instead relies heavily on tone. The characters waltz through cavernous hallways and dance around dangerous questions, allowing quiet moments to evolve into unease and terror. Beyond the introduction to the manor, rare is an exterior shot of the estate, instead we learn the terrain when Francesca chooses to peek out a window pane or peer behind a half-open door, turning the home into a fortress that is both claustrophobic and capacious.
You’ll Like My Mother—based on the novel by Naomi Hintze—is a film held together by its central performances, which play wonderfully off of each other, creating much of the tension from verbal fencing matches, each opponent scoring against the other with a knowing scowl or an uncertain nod of agreement. Duke’s Francesca is both world-weary and innocent, a character whose life has been pretty easy until it wasn’t. Duke’s performance humanizes a film that had the potential to get bogged down in ugliness and sadism. But neither Duke nor Johnson is interested in exploring the evil that is present in the film, opting instead for a feminist understanding of grief and single motherhood. Murphy’s Mrs. Kinsolving is antagonistic form the very beginning, begging the question: is her antagonism a product of apathy or animosity? It’s a question that both Francesca and the audience must turn over for quite some time. Included in the cast is Sian Barbara Allen, who gives a (nearly) non-verbal performance as Mrs. Kinsolving’s “feeble-minded” daughter Kathleen, the sister Francesca never even knew her husband had. Richard Thomas (of The Waltons fame, currently starring on The Americans, television’s best show) is the outlier, a shadowy figure whose intentions are unclear but almost certainly malicious. All are playing different versions of horror archetypes, but each is able to elevate their characters beyond the genre’s formula, creating characters whose lives matter and aren’t just the perfunctory gears used to churn out blood-thirsty thrills and scares.
You’ll Like My Mother is a patient film, coming to a slow boil but not wasting a single minute of run time during the first two acts as it builds to its climax (a dismount it doesn’t quite stick, opting for a fairly conventional, neat conclusion that seems incongruous to the labyrinthine plot and pacing of the first two acts). Johnson fills each scene with unease and joyful uncertainty, that make the film’s eventual reveals feel like actual discoveries instead of traffic signs the film is following en route to its final destination. And though the viewer must suffer a shaky finale that relies all too heavily on traditional horror tropes, the underlying themes of loss and uncertainty marinate so wonderfully with the film’s eerie tone that the final product is a spooky thriller that’s hard to shake.