Murder In Law (1989)

Our story begins in an insane asylum where a woman with dark, stringy hair rocks back and forth in a dingy room. The walls are covered in crude scrawlings; there are stick figures, spiderwebs, cats, and sad, angry, and vomiting faces. There are also upside down crosses and—the true symbols of anarchy—upside down peace signs. All of this is done in crayon, so it looks less like the scrawlings of a crazed mind and more like the work of a seven-year-old kid whose parents are going through a “rough patch.” 

Milly packs her bag and breaks out of the hospital, which has some of the worst security I’ve ever seen. Not a single door is locked, or even closed. She does manage to kill an orderly unceremoniously. 

Free at last! She’s finally headed home, to her son!

Meanwhile, Bill (played by everyone’s favorite chronically disheveled uncle who got you drunk at a BBQ when you were twelve, Joe Estevez) is sitting down to dinner with the whole family. There’s Arlene, the working mother; Melissa, the teenage daughter whose boyfriend doesn’t own a shirt; and Todd, the teenage son who really wants to go fishing with Dad—a detail that clearly signals that this movie is not a documentary. There’s also Carmen, the housekeeper and cook. She wears a very tight skirt and her ample bosoms are hiked up to her chin. Todd approves.

Suddenly the doorbell rings. Guess who it is! Gasp! It’s the mother-in-law!

Bill is flummoxed. Where has she been for the past ten years? She says she was in Paris and that’s the end of that conversation.

She glares at Carmen and wonders if she has diseases. Then she glares at Arlene and tells her she should stay home and raise the kids. Then she cuts her pancakes into tiny, tiny bits. 

Mothers-in-law, amirite?

At some point, Milly comes down to breakfast wearing a scandalously sheer nightgown. The kids snicker behind her back.

“I mean what was she doing wearing that négligé? Who does she think she is—Christie Brinkley?”
“More like Christie Wrinkley!”

Call 911 because someone just got burned!

After endless minutes watching Milly harass the family cat, pose in front of a mirror, eat stew, and twirl around San Francisco in an evening gown, she finally does the unthinkable: she throws four pieces of toast at Carmen. Neither Carmen nor the toast is harmed.

Mothers-in-law, amirite?

Eventually there is actual murder and mayhem, but the build-up is far too great and far too time-consuming for the payoff. Death is limited, as is gore. The kills are mostly uninventive and the pacing is uneven. The best scene might be where Todd rinses his junk with rubbing alcohol. There’s far too much time spent showing Milly do mildly insane things than her doing incredibly insane things. 

But, the most unforgivable aspect of this movie is the lack of Joe Estevez. In the middle of the movie, he dons pink slacks and literally goes golfing. Then, later he goes fishing. He’s absence is sorely felt. It is unconscionable to cast Joe Estevez and push him to the sidelines. He’s the raison d’être, certainly when it comes to this movie. While nothing will top his brief but explosive performances in The Catcher or DeckerEstevez does deliver what he can with the nonfat plain yogurt that is his role in Murder In Law. He does all of his signature moves—he barks all his lines, furrows his brow, flings his arms spastically, and runs his hands through his hair in disbelief. I love this man, but even he was not able to lift this movie out of forgettable mediocrity.

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