Friday, November 4, 2016

Review: Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? (2016)

Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? (2016)

Not rated

Score: 3 out of 5

This is one of those things that you simply cannot make up. 1996 saw the release of one of the all-time great "bastard boyfriend" flicks, the NBC telefilm Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, about a teenage girl who falls for a hot guy who turns out to be a murderous, abusive psychopath. The film became a cult classic almost purely on the strength of its title, its trashiness, and its tsunami of mid-'90s camp, exemplifying every stereotype about Lifetime Channel original movies taken to ridiculous extremes (despite the fact that it aired on NBC). As such, it was given a DVD release with plenty of bonus features, something that you rarely see for a made-for-TV movie, and in 2016, just in time for the film's twentieth anniversary, James Franco announced that he and -- of course -- Lifetime were producing a remake of the film. The original stars, Tori Spelling and Ivan Sergei, would even return in new roles, while Franco would cameo as a theater director.

There was just one little change in Franco's version, though. This time, it would be about vampires. Lesbian vampires.

I repeat: not a word of that was made up.

Given the success of Twilight, I'm not at all surprised that a movie like this was made. It's the prevailing opinion nowadays that Stephenie Meyer's book series glamorized an abusive relationship, with even Robert Pattinson himself describing Edward as a creepy stalker; in a sense, it can be seen as a subversion of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, one where the boyfriend turns out to be not so bad once you get to know him. (And while we're on that subject, I'm also not at all surprised that Fifty Shades of Grey began life as a Twilight fanfic.) And if nothing else, this film delivers on the promise of feminist B-movie schlock, in a Russ-Meyer-meets-gender-studies-101 way. It is incredibly uneven, with hokey dialogue delivered by extremely over-the-top actors, a message that seems to be at war with itself, and the fact that its vampire villains aren't particularly threatening and don't have any clearly-defined motivations beyond "turn this girl here into one of us for... reasons." But it's fully aware of what it is, and it just runs with it, throwing logic to the wind and going all-in.

The film follows the basic story beats of the original and virtually nothing else. We open with a teenage lesbian named Pearl finding out the hard way that her girlfriend is a vampire -- namely, when she tries to suck her blood in the bedroom. Pearl stakes her vampire lover with a big shard of glass, but too late to avoid getting bitten and turning into one herself, at which point she is inducted into her now ex-girlfriend's vampire coven. Cut to five years later, and we meet Leah, a theater major in college who's taking part in a stage production of Macbeth. She meets Pearl, now an attractive, raven-haired, ivory-skinned photography student who's also taking part in the play, as are some "friends" of hers. The two fall in love almost immediately, but Leah's mother Julie, as well as a friend of hers named Bob who has a crush on her, notice that something's up with Pearl... especially once they find out who Pearl's "friends" are.

The biggest problem in this film has to do mostly with those friends of Pearl's. We're informed that the vampires (or "nightwalkers" as the film prefers to call them) are evil, and that they are responsible for Pearl's worst actions. However, when we see them act evil... I couldn't help but root for them, and it's largely to do with their choice of targets. We see them going to a frat party and killing a guy who's trying to rape a girl. They attack Bob, but only after he's started displaying stalkerish "nice guy" overtones towards Leah. At the same time, however, the ending clearly wants us to think of the other vampires as evil, as they finally go on a rampage and start attacking the unambiguously heroic characters in the film. So which is it? In a sense, it's almost like the reverse of the problem that Twilight had in how it portrayed its "vegetarian" vampires. The Cullens were, to all appearances, a respectable upper-middle-class family who don't indulge in the vices of their vampire peers, and when we get a closer look at them, they really are just stand-up guys and gals, which (pardon the pun) defanged all their threat and edge. Here, the vampires are supposed to be evil, and they are shown unambiguously murdering people in cold blood, but until the end, the film also goes out of its way to show that their victims all had it coming. The Russ Meyer comparison above was deliberate, and not just for the softcore erotica that permeates the whole thing -- the vampires feel more like anti-heroes than anything, going after rapists and abusers and otherwise coming across as less evil than badass.

Look, if you're watching a Lifetime movie for sensible plotting, you deserve ninety minutes of cinematic agony. No, where this film excels is when it's embracing the camp factor. The acting from everybody who has more than a bit part is uniformly terrible, but in some strange way, it works. Everybody is overacting to an operatic degree, so at least it's never boring. It's about as steamy as you're gonna get on basic cable, up to and including not shying away from its lesbian sex scene (even if no naughty bits are shown). If you want action... well, it's really low-budget, but the film at least tries to deliver, even if it doesn't stick the landing. Its portrayal of its villains' evil may have inadvertently made me root for them, but its message about women not letting men control them comes through loud and clear, especially as Bob, the "nice guy" pining for Leah who's initially set up as the guy that she ought to be with instead of the "bad girl" Pearl (in true Lifetime movie tradition), takes a much darker turn as the film goes on. It is trashy as all get out, but it was fun trash, and I never had anything less than a good time watching it.

The Bottom Line:

It appears that Lifetime's learned to laugh at themselves, and this film demonstrates it. It is not a good movie by any stretch, but it definitely fits the bill of "so bad it's good", a film that's all over the place but means well and delivers on all the cheap thrills it promised. The audience for this one is gonna be very limited, but I assure you, it's not as bad as it sounds.

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