James Franco makes “art” at the rate most people eat breakfast — he has over 20 projects (no exaggeration) in various stages of production this year — and so exactly where Lifetime’s remake of the 1996 telepic “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?” rates among his priorities is hard to guess. Franco executive produced, has a minor supporting role, and is credited with the “story” for this subversively desperate (or maybe desperately subversive?) reimagining that takes a shopworn woman-in-peril story and turns it into a slightly less shopworn lesbian vampire romance.
Franco’s vision for “Mother” isn’t so much influenced by the kitschy appeal of the original movie (or the novel by Claire Rainwater Jacobs, which no doubt has zero overlap with what’s here beyond the title), as it is by “Twilight,” queer theory, college theater, and Smashing Pumpkins music videos. We know this because all of these things are directly referenced on camera (except Smashing Pumpkins, though band member James Iha provides an atmospheric score that quickly becomes monotonous from overuse).
Our heroine, Leah (Leila George), loves the first “Twilight” because it “made teen sex dangerous again” in an era of “Teen Mom” when “everyone can use condoms.” Although it sounds like something Ted Cruz would say, Leah isn’t afraid to embrace her sexuality. She’s happily involved in a very physical relationship with goth photographer Pearl (Emily Meade), and decides to take the big step of introducing Pearl to her mother (Tori Spelling, who played the young woman in peril the first time around).
Leah’s mom doesn’t exactly take it well, having always assumed her daughter would bring home a boyfriend, but her concerns morph into outright fear when she gets a call from one of Leah’s classmates (Nick Eversman) warning her that Pearl is bad news. And this is right around the time Pearl drops the bomb on Leah that she’s actually a “nightwalker” who feeds on blood to survive.
Although Franco has story credit, and his influence feels like it permeates every frame, the project is actually written by Amber Coney (an actress on Freeform’s new series “Dead of Summer” who also has a small role here as part of the pack of female vamps who shadow Pearl and feed off rapists and abusive men) and directed by Melanie Aitkenhead. It’s a female-driven production — the producer, cinematographer, editor, production designer and casting director are all women too — and female empowerment is unsurprisingly one of the themes brought forth in the film’s jumbled stew of talking points and sex scenes and slow motion.
But it’s hard not to feel that the movie is just an ironic spin on exactly the trope Leah accuses the “Twilight” sequels of perpetuating: They “cash in on teen sexuality while seeming morally responsible.”
Ivan Sergei (who co-starred with Spelling in the original) is on hand as a college professor to deliver convenient lectures on “vampires and sexuality” and the way the “monster is often used in literature to represent the other, the queer,” in order to ensure that every single viewer knows that the movie they’re watching understands exactly what it’s serving up. And then the movie serves up a softcore sex scene that’s just a few stray bits of flesh away from premium cable territory.
“Mother” is simultaneously high-minded and lowbrow, and you get the sense that’s exactly what Franco wanted. Whether or not the result is something anyone else wants to see is another question. Unlike last year’s Lifetime lark, “A Deadly Adoption” starring Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig, “Mother” doesn’t play like a straight-faced satire. It simply plays straight-faced. That works at first, but the narrative is so slack — and the budget so painfully low — that the minimal intrigue becomes impossible to sustain. All aspirations to trash-art aside, it’s ultimately repetitive and dull — padded with even more overhead shots of L.A. roadways than “True Detective” season two.
“Leftovers” veteran Meade is solid as the soulfully seductive vamp (she splits the difference between Robert Pattinson’s Edward Cullen from “Twilight” and Jason Patric’s Michael Emerson from “The Lost Boys”), and George (the daughter of Vincent D’Onofrio and Greta Scacchi) asserts herself well enough in her film debut. Franco probably shot his handful of scenes in a single day, but does fine work. Spelling can’t help but stand out as the awkward fit — she and George look more like complete strangers than mother and daughter, and she brings a light comic touch to a role clearly intended to be played for straight melodrama.
It’s a bold choice to devote a solid minute of the running time to the famed “Macbeth” monologue including the line, “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Bold, and like the rest of the movie, a little too self-aware.