Roger Corman’s 1970 low-budget gangster film Bloody Mama is a lurid and perverse tale that focuses on the exploits of the Barker family, a real-life criminal gang from the Arkansas backwaters that ran riot in the depression-era American South. It’s a strange and unsettling film that that deals with brutal and disturbing themes whilst at the same time being comical and camply over-the-top. Despite being made on a shoestring budget, it’s extremely well acted and well-shot. which epitomizes Corman’s talent for making high-grade B-movies.
Shelley Williams plays Kate Barker, the indomitable matriarch who governs her brood of criminal sons. In the opening scene of the film, we are given something of an explanation as to Kate’s unconventional approach to motherhood as a young Kate is held down by her brothers so that her father can rape her as he claims “blood is thicker than water”. She vows to grow up and have sons who will forever protect her. This she certainly does, as, in the next scene, we see a middle aged Kate surrounded by her semi-naked adult sons. When the oldest, Herman, is accused of raping a local girl, Kate doesn’t hesitate to take off with her boys, leaving her weak and inept husband behind. The film then follows the family’s exploits as they indulge in petty theft, bank robbery, kidnapping, rape and murder, all of which leads to a climactic shoot-out with the police.
Throughout Bloody Mama, Corman plays on the traditional American values of family, religion, nature and wealth. The hillbilly Barkers are not without ambition to do better. As Kate reasons to her sons, she left her husband because “He was a born loser and I ain’t, and you boys ain’t. You gotta fight the bastards always, boys.” She also talks of wanting to live in a palace some day. Ma Barker has taken the American idea of self-betterment but goes on to apply her own very twisted rules to it.
This is something that is underlined by the footage of contemporary American events that break up several of the scenes. Kate narrates over footage giving vague opinions on everything from Civil Rights to the depression to women’s rights, without really understanding or caring much about the causes behind it all. Just as they have a distorted take on American values, the Barkers are similarly distanced from events going on in American society.
Probably the most perverse aspect of the film is the incest subtext. There’s enough references to it to make Oedipus blush -- whether that be Kate scrubbing down her near-naked sons in an early scene or one of her consoling Herman after he has killed a man by having him sleep in her bed. Corman has taken the notion of family values and twisted it to the extreme. Just as the Barkers operate outside of societal norms in their criminal activity, their family relationships are equally warped.
The sons, of course, all react differently to their dysfunctional and overbearing familial situation. Lloyd, played by a young Robert De Niro in one of his first films, becomes addicted to and eventually overdoses on heroin. De Niro, in typical method-acting style, dropped 30 pounds to achieve a more junky-like appearance for the role. The child-like Freddie gets sent to prison where he meets and later pursues a gay relationship with his sadistic cellmate. Herman, the most psychopathic of the sons, kills several innocent people and impregnates the prostitute Mona. As each of the sons gradually self-destructs, Kate takes an ever-larger role in the criminality, first masterminding a bank robbery and then deciding to kill an innocent girl Lloyd meets at a lake, fearing she may know too much about the family.
With so many grim themes moving through it, the film sounds like it should make for bleak viewing. Yet, the tone is more strange and macabre rather than appalling. This is partially due to the idyllic landscapes that pepper the cinematography. In the first scene, for example, the young Kate is shown running through sundrenched woods as she tries in vain to flee from her abusive father and brothers. The brutality of the scene is deeply at odds with the tranquil landscape. Similarly, Lloyd meets his end by overdosing in the rushes of a serene-looking lake, whilst the final shootout happens at a seemingly peaceful country house. The serenity of nature and Arkansas landscapes in the film is played off against the violence and dark subject matter endowing the film with a deeply peculiar feel.
The film ends in a climactic shootout between the Barkers and the police. Herman is the last of the sons to die, choosing to shoot himself in the face in front of his mother, perhaps alluding to his obsession with his ‘Pa’s eyes’. Bizarrely, a group of picnickers are shown to observe the shooting from afar (by all accounts, this was a real practice back in the day -- crowds of onlookers would happily gather to watch shoot-outs). In cutting between the ultra-violent Barkers and the supposedly urbane onlookers, the line between civilized and uncivilized society is suddenly blurred, perhaps a suggestion on Corman’s part that the Barkers’ freakishness and warped morals are not so far removed from American society after all.
Bloody Mama is a film that is by turns shocking, grim and funny. In taking traditional American values and injecting them with incest, murder, drugs and sadism, Corman has made a truly memorable anti-American fable, something that is furthered in one final darkly comic move when he dedicates the film to the mothers of America.
John Greco: ‘Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama’, http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/bloody-mama-1970-roger-corman/
Gary Morris: ‘Downward Mobility: On Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama’ http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/59/59bloodymama.php