One of the last films Roger Corman directed for American International Pictures (and one of the last before he went on to form his own company, New World Pictures), BLOODY MAMA is a violent period gangster bio pic produced in the wake of Arthur Penn’s much heralded BONNIE AND CLYDE. Thanks to Scorpion Releasing suggesting it for release to Kino Lorber, BLOODY MAMA now sees its way to Blu-ray looking better than ever!
I an opening flashback, we learn that a young girl is raped by her own brothers in the Ozark Mountains. Years later, that woman, Kate “Ma” Barker (Shelley Winters, WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?) is married to a useless husband (Alex Nicol, THE SCREAMING SKULL) and rules over her band of grown sons: Herman (Don Stroud, THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE), Lloyd (Robert De Niro, MEAN STREETS), Arthur (Clint Kimbrough, NIGHT CALL NURSES) and Fred (Robert Walden, BLUE SUNSHINE). As this is during the Great Depression, Ma Barker decides to leave her man and take off with her four boys for a life of crime, and everything then goes downhill for the tight-knit family unit. When the boys get annoyed boarding a ferry boat ride, Herman stomps an innocent bystander to death; crying hysterically after the incident, Ma beds as her way of comforting him. When Herman and Fred cause havoc and attempt a robbery at picnic fundraiser, they are caught and thrown into the slammer. Ma, realizing she needs the money to spring them out, plans a bank robbery with the other two kids, taking off with thousands while eluding the police after a high speed chase.
After Herman and Fred come out of prison, the family of course makes a conscious decision to change their identities. Now along for the ride is Herman’s prostitute girlfriend Mona Gibson (Diane Varsi, WILD IN THE STREETS) and Fred’s cell mate and now lover, the sadistic Kevin Dirkman (Bruce Dern, THE TRIP) who fits right in with the depraved bunch. A master plan to obtain wealth is implemented when they kidnap millionaire Samuel Adams Pendlebury (Pat Hingle, THE GAUNTLET), keeping him tied up while constantly blindfolded and demanding a hefty ransom for his release (Ma begins to look at her hostage as an absentee husband while the boys take a liking to him as a father figure). The gang eventually ends up renting a hideout in Lake Weir, are recognized and tipped off (by a chraracter played by the great Scatman Crothers) to the feds, with agent McClellan (busy TV actor Stacy Harris) pulling gunfire on their country mansion hideout (naturally, the Barker clan fires back).
As Corman had already been independently producing and directing prolifically for fifteen years at the time in which BLOODY MAMA was made, the film proves how much he had grown as a filmmaker since that time. With the lowest budgets possible, Corman dabbled with monster films of the rubber suit kind and every kind of exploitable film genre possible, later finding critical praise with his gothic Poe adaptations. The studio gangster film THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (made for 20th Century-Fox) proved that Corman was adept at larger scale, epic adult storytelling (and defying a still modest budget and four-week shooting schedule). By the time BLOODY MAMA was offered to Corman by AIP (with a script by Robert Thom, in which Corman hired another writer to polish up), the MPAA rating system was implemented and on-screen violence and more explicit sexuality quickly became the norm in various “R” rated releases. BLOODY MAMA was relentless in its violence (Corman’s most overtly violent film to date), not shy of female nudity (courtesy of Varsi), fitting right into the post-WILD BUNCH films of the period. In fact, Corman stated in his autobiography, “Ma Barker made THE WILD ANGELS and THE TRIP look about as menacing as fairy tales” and he went on to say, “BLOODY MAMA is still one of my favorite films, even though it was viewed as a little picture here and got somewhat passed over by critics. But it got rave reviews and serious attention in Europe.” Once again Corman was able to defy his tiny budget while keeping the film’s period setting (1930s Depression era) spot-on while shooting entirely on location in Arkansas without the benefit of a proper studio. Always with an eye for talent, Corman cast the film with some seasoned prominent veterans, as well as up-and-coming young actors whose best years were ahead of them (Dern, for example, was just recently nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar).
Once a Hollywood glamour girl and a two-time Oscar winner, Winters, here middle aged and plump in terms of Barbie doll standards, was finding herself cast in rather grotesque roles and would soon be a part-time horror queen starting with Curtis Harrington’s WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? and several TV movies in this tradition. She’s perfectly cast here as the title character the film is loosely based on (ironically, she previously essayed the similar role of “Ma Parker” on the family-friendly 1960s “Batman” series) playing the machine gun-toting matriarch, who is prone to an incestuous relationship with her eldest son, to the hilt. Winters was also partly responsible for the casting of De Niro, who was under her wing at the time, and introduced him to Corman (who had seen him in one of his early Brian De Palma films and liked what he saw). De Niro is given a character with plenty of depth, as the junkie son who moves from sniffing glue to shooting up dope (while chomping on Baby Ruth candy bars) and winds up violating a girl he meets (Pamela Dunlap) who the family then drowns and discards in a lake. De Niro lost around 30 pounds to look like a weathered drug addict (a decade before his drastic weight change for his role as Jake LaMotte in RAGING BULL) and in the book Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses by Chris Hathaway, De Niro is quoted as saying, “We shot it in Arkansas, and I think we had five weeks. I don’t remember what I got paid on BLOODY MAMA. Maybe $3,500 – that number sticks in my head for some reason. I didn’t care, because it felt like I was finally making a Hollywood movie”. And what more can you say about a movie which casts both Dern and Shroud as psychopathic cohorts?
Previously, BLOODY MAMA was made available on DVD by MGM only as part of a 2007 box set called The Roger Corman Collection. MGM’s HD transfer is now available here on Blu-ray in a 1080p presentation preserving the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Great colors are on display here, hues are bold and skintones look true. Detail is strong throughout, providing vivid textures best noticeable on close-ups. Surface noise and other blemishes are practically nonexistent, and grain is also minimal. The English language soundtrack comes 2.0 DTS Master Audio mix that sounds very good for the most part.
Producer/director Roger Corman is on hand for a video interview (15:37) as he tells how AIP had a number of unfilmed scripts offered to him, with BLOODY MAMA being the best of bunch. AIP wanted him to shoot the film on the Warner Bros. backlot, but Corman thankfully chose to shoot on location in Arkansas. He tells about the classic cars used in the film (and how De Niro ended up driving one of them in a shot, despite not knowing how to drive), how he cast the film (with co-AIP founder James H. Nicholson) and that all the sons were actually cast from the Actors’ Studio. Corman goes on to talk about the main stars (Winters, De Niro, Stroud, Hingle, Varsi, Walden, Kimbrough and Dern who he worked with several times before), as well as cinematographer John Alonzo, and he mentions that a scene where Ma Barker gives birth was shot but removed from the final film (part of the scene is in the trailer which is included here). As Corman is always a fascinating interview subject, this is a solid featurette. The original theatrical trailer is also included. (George R. Reis)
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