Tuesday, 4 August 2009


I first saw BLOODY MAMA prior to its English cinema release when it was shown at the National Film Theatre in London on the same day as Roger Corman;s John Player Lecture. At the time Corman could do no wrong for me and I liked the film a lot more then than I did this time around. Don't get me wrong, it has lots going for it. The film is a wildly inaccurate retelling of the story of "Ma" Kate Barker and her killer sons diring the American depression. There is no evidence that Ma was ever involved in her sons' crimes and the image of her as a gun-toting gang leader (as depicted in this film) is a product of an FBI cover-up to excuse their killing of an old lady in a hail of machine gun fire. But, as John Ford, said "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" and that is the route Corman takes. He totally refuses to glamourise the Barkers - Ma is incestuous, her sons are psychopaths, incestuous, sado-masochists, drug addicts etc. and parts of the film plays out like some perverted Greek tragedy. The killings are nasty (the drowning of an innocent irl who has wandered into the gang's clutches is particularly disturbing) and the crimes petty. Performances are excellent with Shelley Winters showing no trace of parody (she would later play the character for laughs as "Ma Parker" in the BATMAN tv series.) Pat Hingle is terrific (as always) as a kidnap victim whose eyes disturb the gang (the eye motif an ever present element here and in many other Corman films) and the sons include Don Stroud, a young Robert De Niro and Robert Walden. Alex Nichol has a memorable scene as "Pa" Barker and the always welcome Scatman Crothers has a small role. Bruce Dern is outstanding as a very creepy member of the gang inspired by the real life, aptly named Alvin "Creepy" Karpis. As I said, this time around it didn't quite come together for me but I can see what Corman was striving for. The script by Robert Thom was novelised by him and is a historically much more accurate depiction of the Barker gang. Although there have been other films inspired by Ma Barker - THE GRISSOM GANG, MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD, PUBLIC ENEMIES (not the new Johnny Depp film but the 1996 production starring Theresa Russell as Ma) and, of course, the famous WHITE HEAT, the definitive film on the subject is still to be made. Rating ***

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