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December 6, 2010

The Mike's Tribute to a Beloved Mother of Horror

"There's nothing like a brush with mortality to teach you to appreciate life; a little bite of death can make you grow up real quick".

As our latest Midnight Warriors journey rolls to a close, I couldn't be happier to see so many great friends of FMWL honoring Mothers of Horror (and occasionally their own mothers!) in their own ways.  I'll be sharing all the fine links with you all later this evening (There's still time to participate if you'd like!), and the amount of thought put into them all gave me plenty of moments of deep thought.  But there was one Mother of Horror that stuck in my head throughout the last couple of weeks, and I couldn't think of a better choice to study than the mother played by Barbara Hershey in Stephen King's Riding the Bullet.
(There's an unfortunate side to this selection.  Riding the Bullet is a relatively inconsequential horror flick from the deepest depths of six years ago, and I understand that many probably haven't seen it.  I've got something I want to say about it you might fall into reading some spoilers here.  Be wary if you tread forth!)

This call to action was born out of my own overactive mind while worried about my own dear Masha, and I'm happy to say that - thanks to good doctors, a boat load of faith, and all graces from above - things are looking up for her.   It's kind of fantastic how much things can change in just a couple of weeks in today's society, but it's also a statement about human nature.  When it really boils down to it, our relationships with those we love can change drastically in the blink of an eye - for better or worse.

Riding the Bullet, which was born from the keyboard of King and made it to the silver screen (briefly) in 2004 via Mick Garris, builds its horror around one of those moments.  It doesn't do so particularly well, mostly because the film cries wolf more often than Bella from Twilight, but the central relationship of the film is incredibly rich.
The focal point of King's story is not the mother Jean Parker, but her son Alan (played by Jonathan Jackson).  Alan is a morbid 21 year-old college student who usually sees the worst side of life.  His girlfriend is considering dumping him on his birthday, and a combination of drugs and depression rope him into an accidental suicide attempt.  But that's nothing compared to what he hears the next day (which happens to be Halloween), when his mother suffers a stroke and is hospitalized.  Alan is shaken by the news and has to find his way home by any means possible.  In this case, that means hitchhiking with several strange and potentially dangerous forces.

Along the way, a paranoid and possibly delusional Alan spends a lot of time looking back at his life.  Several strange things happen along the way, but two are most pertinent as I look back on the film.  Firstly, Alan vividly remembers the time when he decided he was ready to ride the town roller coaster - the titular Bullet - and then backed out, upsetting his mother so much that she struck him upside the head.  Secondly, Alan runs into an undead fiend (hammily played by David Arquette), who claims he must take Alan's life or his mother's.  In a moment of panic, Alan condemns his mother...only to escape before the faux-reaper can claim his prize.
As Alan's mother is revealed through is flashbacks, it's easy to see that she has been a kind and caring mother to her only son.  It's been a struggle for her - which is evidenced by her chain smoking and occasional drunken moments - but she has always been looking out for her boy.  It's clear that Alan loves her too, but it's not all roses.  In a poignant scene, Alan envisions his mother in her hospital gown and with her IVs attached walking along the road, asking if he wants to see her before she dies and scolding him for turning down rides.  She's not scolding him solely because he's foolish, she's trying to remind him to focus on the important things in life; the same way she focused on him for years.

Surviving a prolonged encounter with the undead Arquette, Alan makes it to his sedated mother's hospital bed as she's slipping away for the evening.  Despite her medical condition and the medications in her veins, her eyes seem to sparkle and her smile brightens the room.  Pleasantries are exchanged, and Alan seems to have finally gained some perspective regarding what he almost lost.  He is too scared to mention his journey, aside from the fact that he hitchhiked home, but his mother isn't above getting sentimental.  As she's drifting into sleep, she lets him know that she dreamt of the time when he declined to ride The Bullet...and apologizes for being short with him on that fateful day.
 After relaying the quote which started this post, a mature Alan reminisces about the lessons learned that night and the ensuing time with his mother before her eventual passing.  What was once a silly horror film full of holes suddenly becomes a charmer, and leaves me smiling completely.  It doesn't hurt that Hershey is as charismatic as ever as Jean Parker - especially since Jackson is a pretty vanilla actor - because a lesser actress may have rendered King's dramatic touches obsolete.  As it is, Riding the Bullet's motherly drama hooks me well. 

Jean Parker rings true to me because her love for her son despite his inability to focus or express himself reminds me of my mother.  This is one of the best examples of unconditional love I've ever seen in horror, because it feels so real.  Alan Parker went face-to-face with evil and put his own life ahead of his mother's - while she may have been dying - and all she's worried about is that he's OK and that he's not mad at her about something that happened several years earlier.

I don't know how parents do it, but I'm glad they do.  I'm also glad that my Masha is still fighting the good fight while looking out for me, and I'm glad to sing the praises of good mothers any day.  Though the horror genre is full of bad examples of family love, I'm glad that King, Garris, and Hershey - despite the fact that much of their story/film is ridiculous - offered us this vision of a truly fabulous Mother of Horror.


Malice said...

I loved this short story so much. I wish they had thought through the adaptation or possibly hired another writer. But I digress...Barbara Hershey was the best possible person they could have had to bring Jean to life.

Jinx said...

Oh, brilliant choice!

Hey! Look Behind You! said...

You should see her in Black Swan!