Tania Darlington Reviews: Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? (2016)

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It is difficult to pinpoint the intended audience for James Franco's reworking of Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?. Is it regular Lifetime viewers? Fans of B-movie vampire sex romps? Academics interested in the gender politics of horror? By remaking perhaps the most quintessential of all Lifetime offerings as a lesbian vampire horror melodrama complete with metatextual voiceovers about the functions of gender and sexuality in genre films, Franco attempts to accomplish too much and, as a consequence, actually accomplishes very little.

The 1996 made-for-TV movie Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? (Danger), starring Tori Spelling as the beleaguered daughter and Ivan Sergei as the titular dangerous boyfriend, has practically become shorthand for the trite, melodramatic fare that characterized most of Lifetime's history. However, since its purchase by A&E Television Networks in 2010, Lifetime has been gradually rebranding itself as a smarter, sassier, and more self-aware network, and recent offerings like the critically-acclaimed series UnREAL and the humorous but uneven Will Ferrell/Kristen Wiig Lifetime parody movie A Deadly Adoption have been making successful inroads in that direction. As such, a remake of a Lifetime classic like Danger seems a logical extension of the network's new embrace of its kitschy history.

The original Danger presented a fairly straightforward, if worn, premise. College freshman Laurel (Spelling) becomes involved with a seemingly perfect boyfriend, Kevin (Sergei). As Kevin increasingly isolates Laurel from her friends and family, her mother, Jessica (Lisa Banes), discovers his dangerous and deadly past just in time to save her daughter from his clutches. The backbone of the original is the mother-daughter bond between Laurel and Jessica, the health of which allows them to overcome the dangers of Laurel's abusive relationship with Kevin. Franco's Danger retains the slimmest outline of the original production. Here, Tori Spelling is cast in the mother role, and her relationship with her daughter Leah (Leila George) is fraught after Leah brings home a girlfriend, Pearl (Emily Meade). Aside from one conversation between Leah and her mother that is replicated word-for-word from the original, there is little likeness between the two films. Pearl is not the danger here. The true danger lies in the many threats to Leah's relationship with Pearl, which take the shape of a stalking would-be date rapist, the latent homophobia of Leah's mother, and Pearl's vampire coven who threaten to do away with Leah if Pearl refuses to turn her. Voiceover narration in the form of lectures on the horror film's function in society by one of Leah's professors (Sergei) punctuate key points in the narrative. Franco's Danger, then, is a pastiche of genre clichés with an overlay of academic discourse.

In Danger, James Franco pays tribute to the most popular cult objects from the mid-90s (in addition to the original Danger, the remake is clearly influenced by other 1996 films like The Craft and Scream). Franco's Danger is, in fact, less a remake than it is an homage to common film tropes found in both horror and classic Lifetime melodramas and an active critique of those tropes that aligns with another 1996 work, Laura Mulvey's collection Fetishism and Curiosity. In fact, by capturing the cultural and academic conversation of the year Danger was released and demonstrating how relevant it remains twenty years later, James Franco constructs a relatively clever commentary on the ongoing obsessions with gender roles and sexuality that permeate popular film and television. Where his commentary fails, though, is in the heavy-handedness of its execution. An audience that appreciates the academic and genre arguments of Franco's film is likely to find them rather predictable and find being lectured on them both overbearing and condescending. At the same time, a more general audience watching the film for its camp value is unlikely to be interested in an ongoing commentary about the queerness inherent in the horror genre. Ultimately, Franco undermines what could be a fun, campy observation by beating viewers over the head with his argument to prove his own cleverness.