Although we often hear about how mainstream cinema and television is driven by the male gaze – an equation of patriarchal values with the act of watching – it’s often harder to conceive what it might take to escape this situation. On the one hand, experimental or avant-garde releases will often explicitly and abrasively reject the kinds of visual assumptions and patterns that go into making up our everyday cinematic and televisual experience. On the other hand, there is the approach taken by the Lifetime universe, which over-identifies with the male gaze so as to denature and undermine it from within, while retaining a mass audience in the process. Rather than trying to rid themselves of a patriarchal optic, Lifetime films tend to foreground and exaggerate it, to the point where the sheer existence of the male gaze tends to take on a predatory quality that subsumes and absorbs whatever particular form of predation is taking place at any particular moment. If part of the success of the male gaze involves concealing its agenda within an ostensibly general, humanist and gender-neutral appeal – apologising for itself in the same breath that it promulgates itself – then the Lifetime aesthetic simply removes the apology, making for a series of films about women in which the camera is so clearly designed for men that that disconnect often becomes the driving source of horror and melodrama in whatever particular scenario happens to be unfolding. As a result, the Lifetime camera gravitates quite naturally towards the perspectives of the voyeur, stalker and predator, as well as – almost inevitably – preying upon women with a frankness and intensity that prevents it ever offering anything in the way of an apology for its actions and presence, let alone any attempt to naturalise or “neutralise” the male gaze into a more ostensibly general address. Defamiliarising patriarchal values by simply drawing attention to them and allowing them to flourish without any kind of judicious concealment, Lifetime films inhabit the most conventional characters, tropes and scenarios imaginable as a kind of melodramatic or tortuous prison, resulting in films so “mainstream” that they make it impossible to enjoy the experience of being a mainstream viewer in a regular fashion.
It’s no surprise, then, that in its natural gravitation towards the eye of the stalker the Lifetime camera also frequently recalls the openly and gleefully voyeuristic camera of slasher films, a convergence that became particularly clear in the mid-1990s, thanks in part to a new wave of slasher horror that was peculiarly interested in the figure of the stalker as a harbinger of new digital horizons, but also thanks to an increasing experimentation on the part of the Lifetime universe with the fluid space between suburban melodrama and suburban horror, especially in the magnificent Moments of Truth series. While Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? may not be a bona fide Moments of Truth film, it nevertheless belongs entirely to this moment, just as its star Tori Spelling often feels like a bridge between the teen generation ushered in by 90210 and the teen generation ushered in by Scream. In a perfect summary of that transitional position, Mother ends with a nested series of quotations from the Friday the 13th before ending with a double twist that had to have been the inspiration for Urban Legend a couple of years later.
Of course, Mother never plays as a slasher film, nor does it play as straight horror, but that ability to bring melodrama as close to possible to horror is one of its great strengths, imbuing it with a tipsy and unsettling intensity that pervades every scene and moment. Although that’s clear in the iconic prologue, in which we meet Billy Jones (Ivan Sergei) – soon to be Kevin Shane – as he murders his ex-girlfriend, it’s the opening proper that really sets the tone, as we’re introduced to Laurel Lewisohn (Tori Spelling) in the midst of a runner’s high that never seems to stop across the course of the entire film. At first, she’s running away from an annoying wanna-be boyfriend, then she’s running to athletics, then she’s running on the spot while making a case for her inclusion on the squad, but whatever the pretext it never feels as if she breaks this perpetual flight, imbuing the entire film with an obsessive aerobic hyperactivity that seems to be enjoining its female demographic to the same rigour: at every moment, the underlying message is to stay alert, stay vigilant and stay safe. While that prompts a wonderfully plastic and hyperbolic performance from Spelling, it also generates an extraordinary appetite and lust for life that is only heightened by the fact of Laurel’s eating disorder, which means that she has to find other outlets for her joie de vivre, even as the film is suffused with scene after scene of food being prepared and served, all shot through with the strange aura that such spectacles must hold for the anorexic. Yet anorexia is not the main focus here, and is rapidly deflected into Laurel’s relationship with her mother Jessica Lewisohn (Lisa Banes) and her new boyfriend Kevin (Sergei), with her absent father inevitably resonating with the relationship between Tori and Aaron Spelling, as occurs in so many of her Lifetime appearances. On the one hand, Jessica is presented as a quintessentially “liberal” mother who nevertheless comes to discover the important of gut maternal instinct; on the other hand, Kevin only plays the role of the adoring beau in the most cursory fashion before migrating immediately to the stalker phase.
In fact, so rapid is that movement from lover to stalker that – for all Spelling’s hyperbolic acting style – most of the extravagant melodramatic gestures are reserved for Kevin, whose freakouts, jealous fits, paranoid rages and escalating domestic violence makes him more and more unmanageable. Unlike many Lifetime stalkers and proto-slashers, all his past crimes are acts of passion, but that just makes it all the more suspenseful to see how premeditated he can and will become in this particular instance, not just in his treatment of Laurel but of all the other men in her life, with some of the most spectacular scenes dedicated to his disposal of potential romantic rivals. While these scenes aren’t exactly or emphatically homoerotic, they don’t really bother to take the edge off the inevitable homoeroticism in the same way as a mainstream film either, with a pair of particularly steamy scenes in a shower and urinal almost seeming to remind us that the male gaze naturally gravitates towards naked or semi-naked men without the tactful and naturalised objectification of women to distract it from itself. In contrast to that whole can of worms, mother and daughter are comparatively level-headed – especially Jessica, who takes on the role of a private eye once Kevin abducts Laurel, following clue after clue in a paper trail that takes her all the way from Seattle to Colorado, where she starts to piece together the puzzle with the help of the female detective who investigated the disappearance of Kevin’s first victim. Meanwhile, Kevin’s scheme works brilliantly to undermine the bucolic whiteness of the Pacific Northwest – Lifetime has a real knack for seeking out the whitest regions of the United States – as he sequesters Laurel in a remote and beautiful cabin and only cutting her off from civilisation as gradually and tactfully as might be expected from a high-end pastoral retreat.
In many ways, this abduction arc – and the accompanying investigative arc is the highlight of the film, as well as the moment where this cusp between suburban melodrama and horror is most poised and powerful. Among other things, it made me realise how precious telephones are as a vehicle for female agency in the Lifetime universe, not least because these films were presumably made to be discussed on the phone during their daytime screening hours. Not only does Kevin’s first violation revolve around playing and erasing Laurel’s answering machine – a critical moment in turning her against her mother – but his major game plan involves using a mobile phone to lure her to the cabin only to cut off the landline once she arrives. From the perspective of the 2010s, mobile phones immediately suggest scrutiny, trackability and a digital footprint, but just as this particular mobile call plays a critical role in Kevin’s plans to drag Laurel off the grid, so it’s clear that speaking from a mobile is also meant to place him off the grid as well, or at least beyond the reach of the grid, especially because the phone isn’t even his to start with, but that of his last victim. When he finishes the call to by throwing the mobile into the lake where he disposed of his victim’s car, there’s not the slightest thought that the last dialled number might play any kind of forensic role, nor that it could even be accessible remotely – and this is born out investigative plot, which never seeks to examine phone records even as it increasingly occurs through and around phone communication.
Combined with Kevin’s own histrionics, this particular fixation on the phone often makes it feel as if Mother is anxious about the co-option of melodramatic mechanisms of communication by the very male agendas that they are designed to articulate – and the slasher film is ultimately presented as one of those agendas, which is perhaps why the final bathetic nod in the direction of Friday the 13th seems designed to deflate the franchise as much as bear homage to it. While Mother anticipates the influence of Lifetime horror on the slasher craze of the 90s, it is even more prescient in anticipating that this influence was destined to be disavowed by even the trashiest of slasher fans, opening up the language of Lifetime to a new slasher movement even as it fears being collapsed into that movement at the same time. Like so many great melodramas, then, it feels as if it is fighting for its existence as melodrama, and that gives it an incredible visceral pull some twenty years later, as well as inflecting the recent horror adaptation in fascinating and not altogether flattering ways, although I’ll leave those to my next review.