Misleading Marketing: The “Mother!” of Failed “Horror” Films

“‘Mother!’ is not a horror film at all….It is tense, uncomfortable, and thought-provoking, but never scary.”

By Eric-Antonio Guzman

Perhaps the most divisive film of the year, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is a box office bomb not because of polarizing content, but because of horrifying marketing and distribution by Paramount Pictures. 

Mother! is not a horror film at all. At least not in the traditional sense as seen in recent horror films such as The ConjuringInsidious, and Lights Out. It is tense, uncomfortable, and thought-provoking, but never scary. Yet, Paramount sold the film as a horror film to mass audiences through its promotional material, including choppily-edited trailers, disturbing posters, and cakes resembling a bleeding heart sent out to several journalists. In fact, Mother! was originally scheduled to be released on Friday, October 13.  

Like Aronofsky’s other works (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream), Mother! is not an easily digestible film. It should not have been distributed widely across thousands of theaters because it was never intended to entertain a general audience. Instead, mother! would have been better suited for a limited release, as its conceptual and metaphorical narrative is more apt for an awards season audience.  Yet, Paramount believing that Mother! would shock audiences with its grand “twist” reveal, set the film up for a grand disaster.  

Mother! is no Rosemary’s Baby. Contrary to the trailer that advertised, “You will never forget where you were the first time you saw Mother!,” Aronofsky’s film doesn’t have any secrets up its sleeve to later reveal to the audience in a great flourish. Leading up to the release of the film, Paramount was determined to ensure no spoilers would leak. This led to rampant speculation about the film’s “twists” since very few people were allowed to see it prior to its release. During the ensuing backlash, one of the major criticisms was the lack of a shocking reveal. However, even if the film’s symbolism was spoiled for the audience, it would not detract from the viewing experience of the film. Mother! is an experiential film that, regardless of one’s awareness of the film’s narrative, is unapologetically unsettling. There are no false leads in Mother!, only those that are presented in Paramount’s marketing which promoted it as something that it is not.  

If Mother! is not a widely accessible horror film with a shocking twist, then what type of film is it? Simply put, it’s an allegory. One that explores various biblical and environmental themes which compel viewers to question long-standing narratives regarded as a fact or a truth; and for Paramount, that is a hard film to sell. There is no “Allegory” section on Netflix that could accommodate it. Rather, through its promotional material, Paramount manufactured a horror film that it could more easily sell to larger audiences. To make matters worse, Paramount bet big on Mother!,  but received the infamous “F” CinemaScore. The fact of the matter is that this film is much more than just “horror,” as are most of the films labeled as horror. It is a heartwarming coming-of-age drama, Get Out is a twisted social satire, and Mother! is a nerve-wracking romance. Each of these films defy convention differently, and yet, they are all confined within the same horror genre. Hollywood is a business, and as such, major production studios do what they can to sell tickets. It’s just how the system works. So, don’t condemn a horror film for not being a “horror” film. It is not the film’s fault it was sold as something it never intended to be. Mother! did not fail; Paramount did.