The James Franco Pansexual Art-Prank Tour continues unabated on Lifetime this Sunday with the debut of Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?, a remake of the “classic” 1996 TV movie that the actor/director/producer/weirdo has concocted with original headliners Tori Spelling and Ivan Sergei. Of course, this being a Franco Joint, it’s hardly a straight (pun intended!) do-over, with the original’s tale of a girl preyed upon by an abusive boyfriend here warped into a lesbian vampire romance full of titillating bloodshed, sensual drum-and-bass female crooning (courtesy of a score by former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha), and amateur-hour acting. It is, to be blunt, a tedious homoeroticized goof, and one that can be blamed, at least in part, on Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig.
That’s because Mother, May I Sleep with Danger shares less with its source material than it does with A Deadly Adoption, last year’s Ferrell-Wiig vehicle in which the duo delivered deadpan turns in a conventional Lifetime-style melodrama. A Deadly Adoption’s central joke was its premise—namely, the absurdity of A-list comedians giving poker-faced performances in a stilted tale about, well, a misguided adoption. There was no winking to the audience, no fourth wall-breaking moments that showed that its stars were poking fun at their material; rather, it was simply another broad, obvious, lame soap saga cut from the Lifetime cloth.
Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? similarly hews to conventions without ever indulging in this-is-all-a-stunt self-consciousness. Though its 1996 predecessor initially aired on NBC, its marriage of teen sex (and male predator) hysteria, dreary exposition, and leaden plotting helped set the clichéd Lifetime template. Franco’s updated version is marked by those very qualities—except that calling this work “Franco’s” is a serious stretch, since despite his name and face featuring prominently on advertisements, Franco is merely credited for the story idea (not the script, which is by Amber Coney) and as a producer. As for his in-front-of-the-camera duties, Franco does show up intermittently as a college theater director, but even then, he only shares the screen with other main cast members in one shot—indicating that he was hardly a regular on-set presence.
With Franco confined to a few half-hearted line readings and smirks (after watching a bloodbath Macbeth scene: “That was…amazing. You should probably get cleaned up”), the majority of Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? focuses its attention on Leah (Leila George), a standout student who’s introduced taking a class taught by Ivan Sergei’s professor about—wouldn’t you know!—vampires and sexuality. This prompts Leah to expound upon the greatness of the first Twilight novel for making teen sex dangerous, which naturally impresses Sergei’s instructor, considering that he’s the sort of theme-articulating mouthpiece who lectures, “The monster is often used in horror films and literature to portray ‘the other.’ The queer. THE QUEER THAT NEEDS REFORMING.”
Such Horror Cinema 101 blather is the foundation of Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?, which soon reveals that Leah wants to star in the school’s production of Macbeth as the Scottish general—holy gender role-reversals, Franco!—and is in love with a girl named Pearl (Emily Meade) who, as we learned via a prologue, is a bloodsucking creature of the night. Like the ex-girlfriend who turned her into a “night walker,” Pearl loves to photograph the object of her desire—snapshots in which Leah poses with the sort of Cinemax-grade sensuality that defines her trysts with Pearl. Still, despite the forced awkwardness of their lovey-do interactions, their amour is a source of great dismay for Leah’s mom Julie (Spelling), who’s perplexingly known around campus for throwing parties, and Leah’s doting stalker Bob (Nick Eversman), whose jealousy is rooted in homophobic intolerance.
Pearl’s trio of undead comrades resemble second-rate The Craft cosplayers, and they want Pearl to make Leah a vampire. But because Pearl truly, madly, deeply luuuuves Leah, she balks at this assignment. This doesn’t make any sense, given that Pearl believes the only salvation available to her (you know, as an immortal killer who feeds on the living) is to find someone with whom she shares “an eternal bond”—and then to turn them into a vampire so they can feed off each other forever. Caught between refusing to turn Leah into a “night walker” and really, really wanting to turn Leah into a “night walker,” Pearl becomes emblematic of the film itself—which is to say, hopelessly confused and laughably self-serious.
“The monster’s victims are not really victims, but are hyper-exaggerated examples of virile, misguided heterosexuality,” states Sergei’s educator. Yet it’s soon clear that the only real victims here are those who unquestionably deserve it—specifically, misogynistic Bob and other date-raping frat guy—as well as anyone unfortunate enough to endure this lifeless nonsense. No matter its Franco-esque gender-dissertation embellishments, director Melanie Aitkenhead’s blandly staged film serves up the same old thing, and in a manner that’s as transparent and one-dimensional as possible. It’s interested in nothing more than providing nostalgia-infused triteness, and judged by those low standards, it’s a “success,” replete with the sight of Spelling emoting with the wide-eyed mechanical unnaturalness that’s typified her entire career
What it’s not, however, is engaging, either on its own narrative or subtextual terms—unless, of course, you’re unfamiliar with the fact that vampire tales are inherently sexualized—or as an experimental revisionist-Lifetime project. Like A Deadly Adoption (or Franco’s 2010 stint on General Hospital), Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is the sort of endeavor that’s funniest to describe to, and talk about with, others. As an actual 85-minute feature going through its predictably dreary motions, all of which, statements to the contrary, seem to take place at a low-rent high school rather than a legitimate university, it’s just a leaden grab bag of clichés masquerading as one of Franco’s off-kilter larks. Talking about her oh-so-burdensome vampirism, Pearl inadvertently and aptly sums up the film itself: “Most of the time, it’s torture.”