So ubiquitous is the stereotype of the ‘evil’ stepmother that we almost fall into an Owellian-like variant of Newspeak to describe her opposite: we don’t really think of ‘good’ stepmothers as we do ‘un-evil’ stepmothers, ‘double-plus-unevil’ stepmothers perhaps kept for women of particular charm and virtue, flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that tells us stepmothers by definition are, of course, just plain bad.
We know this even if we’ve never seen a movie; from the distinctly Eurocentric Brothers Grimm’s “The White Bride and the Black One” and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The White Swans” through to Bedouin folklore, the stepmother’s bad PR is both global and historical. As Wednesday Martin noted in her 2009 book Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do, “the wicked stepmother, it seems, like the incest taboo and the fear of snakes, is a cultural universal, easily recognized and justifiably loathed”. By the time Disney brought fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella to the big screen, ‘evil’ as a near-permanent prefix to ‘stepmother’ seemed consolidated for all time.
As seen in folktales such as “The Crystal Casket” from Italy, witches and evil stepmothers have historically been closely aligned, merging famously into the same character in Snow White with the mirror-loving, apple-poisoning queen-witch supreme. In horror, witches and stepmothers intersect in often famous cases; think, for instance, of the central film in Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy—1980’s Inferno—where we are told Mater Lachrymarum (the Mother of Tears), Mater Tenebrarum (the Mother of Darkness) and Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs) are in fact only “so-called mothers”, but in reality “actually wicked stepmothers, incapable of creating life.”
This reference to infertility is an important aspect of the ‘evil’ stepmother; while not a hard-and-fast rule (take Cinderella, for instance, where the ‘evil’ stepmother has her own biological children), implicit in the ‘evilness’ of the stereotype is that her status as interloper or fraud stems from a biological incapacity (or unwillingness) to have children of her own. So while legally valid, according to the logic that makes the stepmother so traditionally ‘evil’ stems from the implication that by marrying a man who has children already, she is basically committing a low-key, socially acceptable form of child abduction. Not only is the ‘evil’ stepmother a witch, then, she stands accused of the less supernaturally audacious act of so-called ‘home-wrecking’. Let the clutching of pearls begin.
Like their 2014 debut feature Goodnight Mommy before it, the suspense at the heart of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s first English-language feature The Lodge is suspended largely around this ‘is-she-evil-or-isn’t-she’ riddle surrounding a central maternal figure: is she a monster, or is just plain misunderstood? After the shocking death of their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone), two children—Mia (Lia McHugh) and her older brother Aidan (Jaeden Martell)—find themselves suffering from the death of their beloved mother while simultaneously being forced to play happy families with their father Richard (Richard Armitage), and his new fiancé Grace (Riley Keough), the much younger woman he had previously left Laura for. Specialising in evangelical cults, Richard and Grace met when the former was the only surviving member of a mass suicide pact made by an extreme Christian group. Leaving Mia and Aidan in Grace’s care in the isolated ski lodge of the film’s title, his hope that some yuletide bonding might bring his new family closer together doesn’t go quite as expected, as the traumatic pasts that haunt all three characters—Aidan, Mia and Grace—take control of the situation with devastating results.
In The Lodge, that question is complicated by the long, cross-cultural history of the ‘evil stepmother’ figure. What makes the film so intriguing—and largely adds to its feeling of providing a relatively new angle on the old tried-and-true trope—is how it combines two different configurations of the stepmother stereotype in the popular consciousness. While certainly riffing on the stepmother-as-witch tradition—a devious, duplicitous schemer, a devourer of children (who are, after all, supposedly innocence incarnate)—The Lodge combines this with the more contemporary, less monstrous model of ‘stepmotherism’: that of the ally. Identifying another “unrealistic stereotype”, Martin describes this “updated, thoroughly ‘modernized’ face” as the “younger, ‘cooler’, more bionic counterpart to boring, reliable old Mom, a friend to the step kids instead of the foe of yore”.
With particular relevance to The Lodge and Grace’s traumatic victimization at the hands of a deranged religious cult before she became involved romantically with Aidan and Mia’s father, Martyn calls this version of the stepmother a “stepmartyr”. Much of the thrill of The Lodge stems from demanding we try and identify precisely which cliché of stepmotherism Grace is aligned with. Because, as the film plays out, she at times demonstrates the behaviour of both the wannabe hip, young stepmother-as-friend who is misunderstood by traumatised children, and that good old-fashioned chestnut, the ‘evil’ stepmother. Trying to anticipate which one will win out is where the film’s pleasures lie.
While the former stereotype is a relatively new phenomenon, as noted previously, the ‘evil’ stepmother figure riddles not just horror film history but global folklore traditions more broadly. Yet the same riddle Franz and Fiala use to create tension in The Lodge—that ‘is-she-evil-or-isn’t-she’ question—is far from new. Indeed, questions surrounding the moral status of a stepmother and her assumed ‘evilness’ have proven to be rich terrain in horror and thriller film history for creating a similar sense of tension and suspense. While these certainly are not rare in number, this article focuses on five films made between 1953 and 1973 that—like The Lodge—take particularly perverse delight in manipulating and subverting our assumptions about the moral status of a central stepmother character: A Blueprint for Murder (Andrew L. Stone, 1953), Taste of Fear (Seth Holt , 1961), Picture Mommy Dead (Bert I. Gordon , 1966), Home for the Holidays (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1972) and La corrupción de Chris Miller (The Corruption of Chris Miller, Juan Antonio Bardem, 1973).
Made in the same year as his film noir The Night Holds Terror with a young John Cassavetes and in the same decade as his 1958 thriller Cry Terror! and Oscar-nominated, Doris Day-fronted noir Julie in 1956, American director and screenwriter Andrew L. Stone was on a roll when he made A Blueprint for Murder in 1953.
Starring Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters (who would appear in Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street this same year), the film follows Peters’ widowed character Lynne as her brother-in-law Cam (played by Cotten) wrestles with an undeniably growing romantic affection for her, while at the same time becoming increasingly convinced by his friends Maggie (Catherine McLeod) and Fred (Gary Merrill) that Lynne possibly murdered Cam’s brother and her late husband and her step-daughter Polly in the hope of knocking off all those who stand between her and a large inheritance. The final person in her way is her young stepson Doug (Freddy Ridgeway), for whom Cam has deep affection, which—on the surface at least—is a feeling shared by Lynne also.
Much of A Blueprint for Murder follows the precise is-she-evil-or-isn’t-she model outlined above; often through voiceover, Cam makes explicit his confusion as his romantic interest in Lynne and fundamental belief of her good character stands in opposition to the coincidences laid out by Maggie and Fred. After an exhumation finds the source of Polly’s death to be strychnine poisoning, Cam’s predicament becomes even more compelling as he plots his own plan of action, riddled as he is by real doubts as to Lynne’s guilt.
For us as spectators, Lynne’s ethical status is equally hard to decipher; an extremely glamourous woman, she has in many ways all the iconographic accoutrements required by the text-book femme fatale in terms of fashion, gesture and verbal expression. And yet—like Cam—we see nothing of her but excellent (step)mothering; more importantly, perhaps, is the total absence of any suspicion on Doug’s part himself. He clearly adores his stepmother, and during the undoubtedly traumatic experience of losing his sister so soon after the death of his father, Lynne’s support is clearly central to his recovery.
A similar ambivalence regarding the moral status of Ann Todd’s Jane, the middle-aged stepmother of the young, beautiful wheelchair-bound Penny Appelby (Susan Strasberg), protagonist of Seth Holt’s 1961 British thriller Taste of Fear. Clearly a young woman with a chip on her shoulder, Penny is regardless a sympathetic figure as she struggles with the recent dual shocks of the death of her mother and that of her long-time nurse and friend shortly after.
Returning to the home of her father on the French Riviera, she is conscious of the long period of time that has elapsed since she last saw him, and despite Jane’s efforts to make Penny feel at home, Penny’s discomfort at her father’s inexplicable absence escalate into what we struggle to identify as paranoia and hallucinations, or evidence of ‘evil’ stepmother fiendishness of the most traditional kind. With her father’s chauffeur Bob (Ronald Lewis) as her only ally, as Penny tries to unravel the mystery of her father’s whereabouts, we try and grasp who exactly has spiralled out of control here; the unstable Penny herself, or Jane, the stepmother who appears to so eagerly wish to help her.
Although very different stories, there is a shared tension in Taste of Fear and A Blueprint for Murder (and, for that matter, The Lodge) where the moral legibility of the stepmother figure—marked across history by her propensity for wickedness—is called into question. By doing so, our own biases based on stereotypes we learn from Snow White and Cinderella onwards are placed under the microscope: do these films challenge that cliché, or do they uphold them? In this sense, the endings of these films—their twists and resolutions—almost pale in comparison next to the fact that the moral status of the stepmother figure is called into question at all; in these films, she’s not always necessarily evil, and this in itself is notable.
Directed by the legendary Bert I. Gordon of The Amazing Colossal Man and Food of the Gods fame, 1966’s Picture Mommy Dead is a masterclass in the gleeful excess of that decade’s horror output. Starring Gordon’s teenage daughter Susan as the central character (coincidentally also called Susan), while the father-daughter team had collaborated elsewhere on films such as 1958’s Attack of the Puppet People and 1960’s Tormented, Picture Mommy Dead stands as their crowning achievement together.
The film follows Susan as she returns home after a three-year stint in a mental health facility for children after the gruesome death of her mother Jessica (played in flashbacks by no less than Zsa Zsa Gabor) in a house fire. Still clearly unstable, Susan’s suspicions around the circumstances of her mother’s death grow in the face of the undisguised viciousness of her father’s vain, greedy new wife Francene (Martha Hyer); having spent all of her new husband Edward’s (Don Ameche) money, Francene knows that the bulk of Jessica’s estate is bequeathed to Susan: for Edward to access that money, Susan must either die or be deemed incapable, returning to psychiatric care.
Yet what appears to be a straightforward case of the ‘evil’ stepmother doing her ‘evil’ stepmother thing—there’s no question in this film that Francene is a pretty repellent human being—Gordon uses those assumptions and expectations to craft a surprisingly fun twist on the orthodox trope. Throwing in a mystery about a bird-shaped diamond necklace that Jessica wears in a portrait that looms large both symbolically and literally over the delicate young Susan, just which character is aligned with what particular moral status is a reveal kept for the film’s final, thoroughly over the top, moments.
One of the great made-for-television slasher films of the 1970s, John Llewellyn Moxey’s Aaron Spelling-produced 1972 movie Home for the Holidays is a star-studded affair that also manipulates expectations about the ethical status of its stepmother figure as its central narrative conceit. The film begins as a bedridden, paranoid Benjamin Morgan (Walter Brennan) begs his daughter Alex (Eleanor Parker) for help; having married a woman widely rumoured to have poisoned her first husband, he is convinced she is doing the same to him.
Played by a wonderfully unflinching Julie Harris, that woman is Elizabeth, and on Benjamin’s behest Alex has organised for her fractured family to—as the title suggests—return to the family home for Christmas to get to the bottom of her father’s allegations. Along with Jessica Walter as the morose, substance-abuse riddled Freddie, Jill Haworth as social butterfly Joanna, and the youngest of the sisters, a wide-eyed innocent Sally Field as Christine, the body count slasher structure takes over as the siblings begin to be knocked off one by one by a killer identifiable only through a bright yellow raincoat (famously brought to life again as an ominous motif in Albert Sole’s Alice Sweet Alice in 1976)
In many ways, Harris is the text-book ‘evil’ stepmother in Home for the Holidays, switching with incomprehensible randomness between coldness, desperation and a seeming inescapable sense of guilt and paranoia. But it is precisely this run-of-the-mill ‘evil’ stepmother behaviour that the film plays with; is Field’s Christine intuitively aware that all might not be as it seems with Elizabeth, or is she simply the naive (almost to the point of dysfunctional) ingénue her family believe her to be? Again, like The Lodge, A Blueprint for Murder, Taste of Fear and Picture Mommy Dead, our assumptions and expectations of the stepmother figure to automatically be ‘evil’ lie at the heart of what makes Home for the Holidays tick.
Made the following year, the moral legibility of the stepmother figure is complicated even further in Juan Antonio Bardem’s classic Spanish quasi-giallo The Corruption of Chris Miller. Starring Jean Seberg as Ruth, she is the abandoned second wife of her stepdaughter and the film’s eponymous Chris Miller, played by one-time child star and Spanish cinema icon Marisol. Left to their own devices in an opulent, isolated home, the two women live in what is clearly less than ideal circumstances, but despite their hot-and-cold (and at times, oddly sexual) relationship, it is still on the surface at least vaguely functional.
This is, at least, until horny drifter Barney Webster (Barry Stokes) turns up, seducing Ruth and turning his eye—with Ruth’s encouragement—towards Chris, a rape survivor with a propensity for violence when in the throws of traumatic flashbacks. Added to this is a parallel story about a rampaging serial killer on the run whose story bares striking similarities to Barney’s background, and all the ingredients are there for the necessary exploitative thrills Eurothrillers of this ilk can offer.
The “corruption” of the title is a curious word to ponder, however; does this “corruption” refer to the sexual assault in Chris’s background, the ambiguous pursuits and seductive game-play or Barney, Ruth herself, or a combination of all three? There is no denying that Ruth is far from a caring and nurturing traditional maternal figure from the outset of the film, and yet there’s something slippery about her when trying to define the level of her possible malignancy and ill-intentions—her corruption—of Chris. But in relation to The Lodge, Chris—like Grace—right up to the film’s final moments aligns just as ambiguously with the stepmother-as-friend stereotype, the stepmartyr who stays with her traumatised, abandoned stepdaughter who awaits the return of a father Ruth tells the young girl will never return, while voicing the opposite belief elsewhere.
What remains virtually invisible across all these films (bar, perhaps, a brief appearance by Alicia Silverstone in The Lodge and the kooky Zsa Zsa Gabor flashbacks in Picture Mommy Dead) is the absence of the birth mother. But while not necessarily visible on screen, her presence is also inescapable, be it made explicit or merely implied by the supposed ‘interloper’ status of the ‘evil’ stepmother. As noted in the The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales, there’s a distinct social function why the ‘evil’ stepmother stereotype endures: her job is to “exemplify the ‘bad’ mother who allows the fantasy of the ‘good’ mother to remain”. Along with The Lodge, these films attempt (with varying degrees of success) to force us to question the ubiquity of the binary of the good and bad mother, revealing our own biases and enduring susceptibility to outdated, harmful clichés about motherhood and women’s roles as caregivers.