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A review of "Ed and His Dead Mother" (1993)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Ed and His Dead Mother is a so-so movie that just barely gets a pass.  Most of its jokes fall flat and there's nothing especially unique about it.  But it does move quickly, it has some good energy, and most importantly: I happened to watch it this week, which means I'm capable of writing an informed review.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Plot Summary

Ed (Steve Buscemi) is a sad-sack type character who inherited a hardware store and received a substantial insurance payout following the death of his mother (Miriam Margoyles).  He lives with his creepy slob uncle (Ned Beatty) next door to a gorgeous woman, Storm Reynolds (Sam Jenkins), who frequently disrobes next to an open window the way nobody does.

One day, a creepy and shady salesman, AJ Pattle (John Glover), comes to Ed's store and offers him the chance to bring his mother back from the dead at a cost of $1,000.  Despite his reservations and skepticism, Ed agrees.

Of course, the revival comes with a catch.  For one thing, Ed's mother is more than a little quirky and offbeat; not totally the same mom he remembers. More importantly, she's not alive, she's undead. The only way to keep her from being completely dead is to give her more "life" - translation: she needs to eat living things.  Like bugs.  Or the neighbor's dog.

As you can expect, antics ensue.

As Ed struggles with his mother, he also begins a wholly undeserved and paper-thin romance with Storm, who may or may not have ulterior motives.  (Spoiler: she does.)  Can Ed keep his dead mother under control, or will he have to put her back in the grave for good?

This is the Part Where I Complain About a Minor Directorial Quirk

There are a lot of weak spots in this movie. The jokes are often flat, the titular dead mother is a one note character who basically just keeps doing the foul-mouthed old person joke, and the visual sensibilities are unfortunately flat.

There's also a recurring pet peeve of mine in this movie regarding the characters' eye-lines, and I'm not sure how to describe this briefly.  You know how sometimes a movie will show us what a character is seeing by keeping the frame cropped only on a small piece of the set, but then the character will act surprised when the camera pans or pulls back to show more?  Most of the time this is a fine bit of cinematic shorthand that passes by seamlessly and communicates enough to keep the movie flowing.

But every now and again, a director will do this with something that the character could not possibly have missed.  First example that comes to mind: that stupid moment in Home Alone 2 where Daniel Stern walks straight into a massive fucking hole in the ground because he is somehow incapable of looking down.  The camera doesn't show the floor when he walks into the scene, so naturally, the character doesn't see it... except that there is literally no possible way a person could enter a room without seeing the floor.

I feel like there has to be a name for this.  "Impossible Peripheral," maybe?  Anyway, the reason I bring it up is because it happens in Ed and His Dead Mother at least three times.

The first is when Buscemi walks into a kitchen where the counters are stacked to the ceiling with pies, yet he doesn't actually see the pies until Beatty mentions them and the camera pans left.  Second is when Dead Mother whips out a chainsaw to kill a guy, but her victim doesn't notice until she charges at him - despite the fact that she's holding the chainsaw in front of him the whole time, even though it's offscreen.  Third is the aftermath of the chainsaw scene, in which Beatty somehow misses the carnage in their living room until the camera has enough time to show it to us.

This shouldn't bother me as much as it does, but I can't help it.  What's wrong with this town?  Why does everyone have such bad vision problems?  Just look up, stupid!

The Bit Where I Give Praise to a Minor Plot Point

Good acting can really save an otherwise bland movie, and Ed and His Dead Mother is great proof.  The entire cast does a fantastic job and really breathes a lot of life into what is otherwise a lot of tepid dialogue.  John Glover in particular is fantastic and really elevates the material.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Glover's character is the most interesting piece of the film.  His existence and his company raise so many fascinating questions that they provide an immediate and persistent hook.  Just how successful is his company?  How many zombies are there in the world thanks to them?

The company, which I think is called "Happy People Inc," is meant to be satirizing the pseudo-friendly approach that big businesses take toward customers that they are actually exploiting.  It's not terribly subtle, but the joke is there and it's well-made for the most part.  But what's really interesting is that the movie takes its satire to a more subtle and horrifying level - perhaps unintentionally.

The technological advancement that they're so greedily pushing on their clients is virtually unknown to the world at large despite the fact that Happy People Inc is huge enough to have traveling salesmen and a call center.  So, people who don't fully understand or care about the ramifications of what they do are successfully selling a paradigm-shifting service to confused people who never get the scope of the world they live in.

The most insidious part of Happy People isn't that they keep cheating their customers out of money, but that they keep their customers stupid.  Ed deals with his mother in isolation even though there should be a vast support network out there to help him manage his dead mother.  Happy People would never dare to give him access to that network.  As long as they can keep Ed stupid, they will keep making a profit.  That's ultimately a lot more chilling and hits closer to home than a few measly chainsaw murders.

A Short Bit About Violence

I'm not sure why it stuck out for me during this movie specifically, but Ed and His Dead Mother  really glosses over its violence.  It's hardly the only movie to take a casual approach to violence, but it may be one of the most lackadaisical.

It's not excessive by any means.  Aside from the stuff with Ed's mom turning into a chainsaw murderer, the main streak is a crazed priest who speaks openly about killing his (allegedly) cheating wife.  The entire town is aware of his plot and has grown bored of it, to the point at which Ed's employee is unfazed by a phone call from the priest in which he searches for advice on the best tool(s) to use for the job.

What's really strange is that this is supposed to be a joke, but it's one of the more effectively disturbing elements of the movie.  This is a town where sociopathy is normalized.  The fact that Ed's mom has risen from the dead and commits murder is taken extremely well by everyone because it's actually one of the least disruptive things that seems to be going on.

This probably speaks to why the movie is not as funny as it could be.  It's one of the important rules of comedy: your zaniness is only as exciting as your straight man / men are boring.  When the supporting cast is in a competition to outdo each other with violent threats, the titular dead mom can't actually be all that shocking when she starts her killing spree.

The Bit About Primer Movies

Confession time: I have a soft spot for Ed and His Dead Mother mainly because I remember watching it when I was only ten years old and first starting to understand dark comedy.  I have the same sort of attachment and fondness for it that I do for other lesser (or outright terrible) movies like Toys.

Upon re-watching it now as an adult, I don't love it, but I also think it's unfair to call it a bad movie.  (It's certainly no Toys.).  It's just that if you've seen as many movies as I have, it's hard to feign surprise or shock at the jokes in this movie that rely specifically upon surprise or shock.  When Ed's mom chases a dog with a butcher's knife, it's supposed to be a goofy image because of its incongruity; but if you've spend much time on the Internet, it just plays out as a distant cousin to a Rappin' Granny joke.

So I'll have to file Ed in a subgenre I call "Primer Movies."

These are movies that aren't great - or even necessarily good - but they are well-made and accessible enough that a kid or a burgeoning movie fan can grip onto them, get into the plot, and expand their horizons.  Their value fades over time the same way that a primer book does.  No self-respecting reader would very well want to check out Gumby Teaches Colors when they're in their 30s or 40s, right?  But at the same time, you'd have to be an asshole to write off that book as being useless.  It's just not useful to you at this moment now.

Ed is the kind of movie that you should show to ten year-olds, the same way I saw it.  You share it with a kid who has a borderline morbid sense of humor in order to let them know that it's okay to laugh about dreadful subject matter from time to time, and there's a way you can be productive about it.  The movie goes to some unsettling places, as I've touched on, but it doesn't have any gore or bleakness to make it off-putting for a small child.

Plus, you briefly get to see Sam Jenkins' breasts.  Brief nudity's an important thing for a ten year old boy.

I guess what I'm saying is that if I hadn't watched Ed as a kid, I might not have ever come around to enjoying the Coen Brothers the way I do now.  That's a totally fair trade, in my opinion.  Pay 90 minutes to Ed when you're a kid and get rewarded with one of the richest film careers in history.

So, In Conclusion...

Speaking of watching this as a kid... I have clear memories of not totally understanding this movie when I first saw it.  Somehow, there were moments in it that I just didn't "get."

When I was young, I always took a kind of self-deprecating approach to movies; if I didn't get it, it was because the movie has to be so brilliant that I just wasn't ready to figure it out yet.  Not getting a movie was pretty much all the proof I needed that it was a good film.  I didn't understand 2001 or Blade Runner, so obviously those had to be excellent films.  Not because they were well shot or thought provoking or brilliantly acted - no, no, no, it was because I felt like I was missing something, so they had to be operating at a level beyond me.

Ed and His Dead Mother is not operating on a high level.  It's just a bizarre little movie that feels like an overlooked gem and has been gradually building a following in the 20 years since it came out.  As it turns out, that's as good a reason as any to give it a watch.