Thursday, April 25, 2013

OUR MOTHER'S HOUSE: Suffer the Children...

Our Mother's House (1967)
Director: Jack Clayton
Rating: 7.5 / 10

To say that I went into Our Mother's House blind is sort of an understatement. I learned of its existence a couple of months ago through a creepy trailer that screened during a revival showing of The People Next Door. I remember coming away from the trailer with a vague sense that the film had something to do with religion, secrets, and a bunch of strange little kids, but not much else. (Unfortunately I can't find the trailer online - this more straightforward one isn't the one I saw, and spoils a major part of the ending shortly after the two-minute mark.) It turns out that my first impression wasn't too far off, and I'm happy I checked it out. It's an unsettling little British chiller that didn't go quite where I expected in the end.

Our Mother's House opens with a young girl named Elsa coming home from school on a seemingly ordinary day. She's the eldest child in her family, which contains a grand total of seven kids. That seems like a lot when you take into account that Elsa isn't more than about thirteen years old. Maybe the constant pregnancy has taken a toll on Mother, who lies pale and ill in bed. We don't see much of Mother before she dies and leaves the kids alone in the house. Their reactions to her death neatly encapsulate their personalities - the eldest boy Hugh is uneasy with the sudden lack of authority, but the more mature Elsa assures them all that they'll be able take care of each other. The middle boy and girl, Dina and Dunstan, essentially flip their shit. Dina begins sobbing hysterically while Dunstan insists that they need to organize a funeral for their mother immediately, "BECAUSE GOD SAID SO!" The fact that Elsa reading from the bible calms them all down says a lot about how they'll handle the tragedy. Through all of this, the youngest kids remain somewhat oblivious and wonder why they can't just bury Mother in the garden...

A backyard burial seems pretty good next to the possibility of ending up in an orphanage, and it ends up being the agreed-upon solution. This in itself would be weird enough, but the kids decide to move mom's possessions out to the garden shed along with her body and build a little shrine in her memory. Mother becomes almost like a god to them. They begin praying to her, scheduling "Mother time," and even speaking to her using an entranced Elsa as a conduit. It takes all of one day for things to get crazy within this house. Despite all of this, they insist (quite Britishly) that things will go on roughly as they have in the past and that the family will keep up appearances. The outside world must never suspect that anything is amiss. And if the looming threat of an orphanage isn't enough, the kids know what happens to those who can't keep secrets: "if we tell, we'll go to hell."

Hell, heaven, prayer, the bible, and belief are all at the forefront of Our Mother's House, which often reads as a metaphor for the controlling influence of religion on the innocent. Elsa's messages from Mother act as a stabilizing force for the orphans at first, but quickly get out of hand when the kids start to stray from her demands. After one of the younger girls, Gertie, takes a motorcycle ride around the block with a stranger, "Mother" demands a confession and punishment. The self-righteous Dunstan can't get enough of this, calling Gertie a "harlot" for thanking the cyclist with a kiss. Her subsequent punishment is the scene that people seem to remember from this film, and without giving the whole thing away, I'll say that it's pretty unsettling. All of this madness happens roughly a third of the way into the film, and it's natural to wonder how much crazier things can get from here.

I fully expected the kids' little society to remain intact throughout the story and for the kids' world to become an allegory for society as a whole. Surprisingly, the microcosm is broken when their estranged father shows up at the door. Charlie Hook (played by a gloriously sleazy Dirk Bogarde), is a degenerate of the highest order. Once he finds out that Mother has died, his only goal is to somehow weasel his way into her will and take ownership of the house. It's interesting that he does this not through any overt authoritarian measures, but by trying to win the affection of the children through their desperate longing for a parental figure. Still, he's an awful dad, and vice reigns supreme in his life. It seems like the natural assumption is that his lifestyle will clash with the remnants of the religious upbringing that Mother bestowed on the kids, but that's not quite the case, at least initially.

Essentially my childhood.
The cult of Mother that the children establish collapses relatively easily under Charlie's influence, most prominently with the boys. Even uptight Dunstan totally buys into Charlie's smooth talk. "We have a code," he tells the boys, "you can say this is right or that's right." Women, on the other hand, are more fickle: "they can turn on a sixpence and go in the same direction." But it's quite the opposite if you watch how the house becomes divided along gender lines. While the boys adopt the lax morals of their freewheeling dad (smoking cigarettes, reading porno mags, doing generally whatever they want), the girls attempt to uphold the more rigid rules of Mother. The exception seems to be Gertie, whose punishment earlier in the film has masculinized her in a sense. It seems like the film is falling prey to the notion that "boys are wild and need taming by girls", but I don't think it's that simple.

Father knows worst.
The film equates all things female with religion and order from the start - an interesting inversion of the typically male-dominated real-world organized religion. Even the title is a take on all the New Testament references to "my father's house." When Mother dies, Elsa is just taking on the role of matriarch and reworks her own immature religious beliefs into something more tangible for the younger kids. It's too bad that her new religion is grounded in so many of the negative aspects of the old-school Christianity she was raised with. On the other hand, Charlie - the father, key figure of the traditional family, and here champion of amorality - is no less manipulative. If anything, he's worse, as he has no ulterior motives in mind other than how he can profit from his ex-wife's death. So, Mother was an authoritarian religious nut, and Father is a manipulative dirtbag. Everyone is corrupt and nobody wins, particularly the youngest kids caught in the clash between the two.

Our Mother's House is a great little film that keeps you guessing, largely in part because of Charlie Hook, the film's wild card. Dirk Bogart is a highlight of the film, and manages to be convincingly despicable and manipulative while still occasionally hinting that there's a shred of good somewhere in his corrupt soul. Placing seven child actors front and center could easily turn into a disaster, but the kids are also surprisingly good here, particularly Pamela Franklin (as Elsa) who would continue her acting career throughout the following decades. A stuttering little Mark Lester also pops up, just before achieving minor child stardom with Oliver. (He'd eventually return to creepier territory in 1972's What the Peeper Saw.) It's a shame that Our Mother's House has fallen by the wayside, especially with the popularity of director Jack Clayton's The Innocents, which I haven't seen but am immediately seeking out. Layton was also responsible for Something Wicked This Way Comes, and thus can take credit for at least a few of my childhood nightmares. He's a director whose work I'm looking forward to exploring in more depth. Our Mother's House is definitely worth a look if you can find a copy.


  1. Just want to say that I can't read many of these reviews because I haven't seen the movies yet, but this blog has become a go-to for my "To Watch" lists. I mean, this is by Jack "The Innocents" Clayton right? MUST SEE.

    1. Yep, this the same Jack Clayton. I actually haven't seen "The Innocents" (gasp) but it jumped to the top of my own to-watch list after this one.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, even if my reckless spoilers prevent you from reading!

  2. Warner Archives finally releasing this on DVD Stateside in March, 2015...