Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama is frequently over the top and sinister. It tells the story of the Barker family, a tight-knit unit of sadistically fiendish outcasts. Rape, incest, murder, drug use, hookers, car chases, shootouts, and of course, bank robberies; this family does it all, but to no avail. What could have been a grotesquely fascinating foray into the depths of insanity instead turns out to be a toneless, motionless series of anti-climactic vignettes. Fortunately, the off-the-wall performances stand out as the film’s saving grace.

The film starts off by establishing that “Blood is thicker than water.” Ma Barker’s father utters this pronouncement as he bears witness to her raping. The scene is wonky and lacks any tension, but it at least delineates the rest of the story. Flash-forward to the Depression-era, and this tagline manifests itself into a slap-happy scene involving a familial bath. Blood runs thick, but with this family, it’s damn near congealed. Ma Barker (Shelley Winters) is washing her son Herman (Don Stroud) while his brothers laugh sardonically, pouring cold water all over him. The scene isn’t particularly funny or enlightening, but is effective in establishing that this family knows no bounds.

The family soon leaves home under allegations of rape, and it’s at this point that the film loses cohesion. What follows is a series of vignettes, and though they are curiously interesting, they occur so quickly that it comes at the expense of character development. It’s not a deal breaker for a campy film such as this, but it’s disheartening we never truly get to the source of what drives these individuals.

Though drawn thin, the characters are all quirky in their idiosyncratic ways. Robert De Niro plays the drug-addled and psychologically unstable son, sniffing glue to his heart’s content. Had this film been shot later in his career, it’s unlikely he would have taken the role but its nonetheless refreshing to see him play such a loose cannon. Robert Walden plays the homosexual, and though he brings his cellmate boyfriend on the lam with him, he generally keeps his sexual orientation covert. Stroud is most impressive as Herman Barker, the sadist of the bunch. He shows no remorse when it comes to rape or murder, and sheds no tears when he hears of a family member’s death. He exudes no allusions to sanity, and his obsession with the eyes of his victims makes for an interesting trait.

The film gathers focus during the third act when they plot to take hostage a wealthy cotton broker, played by the seminal Pat Hingle. He’s given few lines, has little space to work in (he’s tied up for most of his scenes), and is seldom onscreen, yet he still manages to shine through as the most compelling character. He has a cool calm about him, as if he’s got the jump on his captors. We learn later that’s not the case, but his scenes are by far the most interesting. Winters as Ma Barker is second best in her portrayal of a mother gone mad, and her closing scenes are memorably visceral.

Overall, the film is interesting without ever being good. It’s not something you should rush out to the local video store to purchase, but it’s unique because it handles a ubiquitous genre in an unfamiliar way. This film is a true paradox: It left an empty feeling in my throat, but it’s a feeling worth exploring.

Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.

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