In its struggle for respectability over the past decade or so, Lifetime has made a bunch of movies that sound terribly campy in concept but are actually lukewarm in execution. That’s not the case with Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, which, to put it bluntly, is bat-shit crazy in all the best ways. It’s that moment when Lindsay Lohan screams, “I’m so bored!” in Liz & Dick, but after a trip to Hot Topic and half a semester of Queer Theory 101. It’s A Deadly Adoption, except it’s unclear whether everyone involved is in on the joke. It’s the surprisingly bloody TV edit of a ’90s Cinemax lesbian vampire thriller, but with better acting. (With a few exceptions, the acting isn’t that bad, further evidence that this movie knows exactly what it’s doing.) It’s going to confuse, and possibly offend, the suburban mom segment of Lifetime’s audience, and delight the ironic segment. (Hi, Lifetime.) It’s high camp, and whoever at the network green-lit it—assuming, of course, they were in on the joke—is brilliant. And James Franco, of all people, is behind it.
Early reports implied that Franco would direct, but the credits list Melanie Aitkenhead—which sounds like a pseudonym but isn’t—as the director of the project. Instead, executive producer Franco serves as sort of the Greek chorus of the piece, playing a drama teacher supervising (quite passively, it must be noted) a college production of Macbeth, which serves as a microcosm of all the dangerous slumber going on among its cast. Franco just sits there in the back of the auditorium, bemused as always, as his students perform seductive same-sex dances and throw buckets of fake blood on each other. At one point, he leans back in his seat and just says, “Wow,” and it’s hard to disagree.
Technically, college thespian Leah (Leila George) isn’t sleeping with danger—it’s more danger’s clique of mean-girl vampire friends that are the problem. See, Leah’s girlfriend, Pearl (Emily Meade), an appropriately emaciated photographer with a Goth sensibility and great hair, was turned into a “nightwalker” by an ex-lover. She’s deeply conflicted about killing, while her trio of undead gal pals revel in the bloodshed. But there’s no escape, not until Pearl finds her one true love and turns her into a vampire, so the two can codependently feed off of each other forever. Leah has great hair, too, along with a coltish beauty, strong opinions on the subversive nature of Twilight (only the first book though), and a podcast. It’s not clear how Pearl and Leah met, but they’re way into each other. (Yes, of course they make out in a graveyard. That’s a silly question.)
But, completing the other half of the title, Leah does seek the approval of her mom, uptight country-club member Julie (Tori Spelling, who played the teen in peril in the original movie). She does so at an awkward dinner—“It’s so cute you all want to be artists,” Julie says at one point—that starts with Julie hastily unboxing some takeout (one detail carried over from the original) and ends with Leah coming out to her mom with Pearl sitting next to her. The sexual politics of this movie are baffling: Leah’s lesbianism isn’t the thing that puts her in danger per se, but it sort of is, because she’s the only queer character in the movie who isn’t a literal vampire. But the vampires are feminist vigilantes who only feed on rapists and abusers. And that’s good. But they want Pearl to turn Leah into one of them, and that’s bad. Or is it? They are pretty sexy. Look at them suggestively licking blood off their fingers!
Anyway, it’s complicated. (Granted, it doesn’t take much to be more thematically complex than the original Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, whose message was, “Abusive boyfriends are bad.”) Thankfully, we have a college professor played by Ivan Sergei, who was the abusive boyfriend in the original movie, to explain it to us. Here, he’s teaching a class called “Vampires And Sexuality”—it’s right there on the chalkboard!—that clarifies that this is, in fact, all terribly subversive. Like everything else about this movie, this message is unsubtle, particularly in the scene where Pearl and company stroll into a packed frat party in slow motion à la American Horror Story: Coven, resplendent in their mall-goth finery, while Sergei recites spoken-word poetry, in voice-over on top of trip-hop beats, about the vampire as a queer symbol. If you doubted for a second that the ’90s were really coming all the way back, this movie will put that doubt to rest.
Just look at the fashion: From the very first scene, the vampires are dressed like they’re auditioning for The Craft, in crimped hair, low-cut pleather pants, vinyl waist cinchers, long black skirts, heeled granny boots, spiked chokers, and black nail polish. And when Franco and friends’ production of Macbeth finally opens, the costumes go full-on Rob Zombie, all bondage pants and cyberpunk dreadlocks, while visual references to Heath Ledger’s Joker and The Purge give the younger food-court misanthropes something to relate to.
Aitkenhead embraces a kitschy aesthetic for Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?’s camerawork as well, presumably aiming for dangerous and sexy but landing in camp. She uses pretty much every trick at her disposal, including photo-shoot montages (complete with flashbulb wipes), helicopter shots of L.A. sprawl, slow motion, fast motion, tinted lighting, and kaleidoscope effects, all set to the languid pedal-steel noir sound popular in the late ’90s. It’s uncertain whether James Iha’s much-hyped score is really terrible or predicting the next wave of goth nostalgia; what is certain is that it incorporates spooky sound effects off of one of those 99-cent Halloween CDs.
It’s all enough to convince you that this has to be a joke, though poor Tori Spelling doesn’t always seem to realize it. She spends much of the movie following her daughter around like an Ann Taylor Loft-clad Sam Spade, literally popping out from behind a bush every once in a while to gaze in horror at the undead angst unfolding before her eyes. In those moments, she seems to come from another movie entirely, a deus ex mom-china here to save her baby. Are we laughing with her or at her? Does it matter?