I blame E.T. Steven Spielberg’s 1982 tale of a kid and his new friend the alien was one of the biggest box office hits of all time when it came out, and it’s most likely where any non-genre fan will be familiar with Dee Wallace. As Joe Dante tells it, Spielberg had been so impressed with Dee in THE HOWLING, he cast her as Elliot’s mom. Playing a character type in a massively popular film can lead to typecasting, and I surmise that the director chosen someone who wasn’t Dee for the role, Dee wouldn’t end up playing so many mothers in horror flicks. Fortunately, it’s impossible for her ever to phone in a performance, and even though many directors relegate her to a character type, Dee’s the best mom any horror flick could hope to have.
What many fans may forget is that her first real genre role was as a mother. In Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, Dee played a part of that poor middle American clan driving across the desert when all Hell breaks loose. She’s very natural in the role, acting as a real mother would in defense of her baby, and terrorized at the prospect of anything evil happening to the child. This movie planted the seed that E.T. cultivated.
Playing Elliot’s mom is quite a change from the scenario in HILLS. Dee’s a single mom, struggling as many single moms do to provide a stable upbringing for her children. The film also plays to the very real idea that parents aren’t aware of what’s going on with their children, under their own roofs. Elliot and his sister are able to keep an alien within the house, under her nose, and she’s oblivious to it. Sure, you can say it’s only a fantasy, but it’s one grounded in real world problems.
Perhaps her most spectacular work as a mom is in CUJO. Playing a mother stuck in a car with a young child could have made for a disastrous film with a lesser actress, but Dee pulls it off. So well, in fact, that Stephen King thinks she should have received an Oscar for her portrayal. High praise from America’s most popular horror author.
I could go on and on about specific roles. If you read some of the reviews I’ve written recently about her films, you’re likely to come across some variation of “Dee plays a mother again in this one,” or in the rare opposite case, “Surprisingly, Dee’s not playing a mom here.” Even in Rob Zombie’s remake of HALLOWEEN, roughly 30 years after THE HILLS HAVE EYES, she’s playing a mom. What really interests me is why she’s horror’s go-to mom.
Throw out typecasting for a moment. Dee’s a middle American herself, from Kansas, the heartland of family values. She portrays said values in every one of her mom roles, and I would speculate she felt rather at home in CRITTERS, which takes place in a farm town. There’s something pure about her, and don’t we all want our moms to be pure? She’s also got an incredible set of acting tools that get audiences to relate to her as mother. Dee throws herself into her film work, and no two moms are quite the same, yet they all carry that sense of warmth that’s vital to any actress playing a mom. It works because this is either how our own moms are, or how we wish they would be.
She’s also able to play strong yet vulnerable women within the same character. I always looked to my mother to be caring and sensitive, yet to have the power to face any situation, not only for herself, but on my behalf as well. It’s a wholly unrealistic expectation, but Mom always pulled it off. And Dee does so in all her mother roles. I’ve seen plenty of one-note mothers in horror flicks, but I’ve never see Dee Wallace play one. The counterbalance of strength and vulnerability makes for character depth, and she knows just how to plumb it for all it’s worth.
It’s been nearly four years since my mother died of cancer. It would be impossible to write any piece about moms without reflecting on my own. What I appreciate most about Dee as Mom is that her characters act much the same way Mom would have. The kindest compliment I can give is that every time I see Dee playing a mother, my thoughts always go momentarily to my own Mom. Dee’s an admirable actress, and I certainly admire her for sending me down that path in the course of a horror film.
My favorite of Dee Wallace’s films has always been THE HOWLING. She doesn’t play a mom in that one, but she’s created a cottage industry for herself portraying them. She’s been horror’s go-to mom for a long time, with very good reason.