While Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? may be billed as an adaptation of the 1996 Lifetime cult classic, the real adaptation actually happened several years ago. At a critical moment in the original film, Laurel Lewisohn’s (Tori Spelling) mother Jessica (Lisa Banes) tells her that “we need to talk about Kevin,” an utterance that gave its name to Lionel Shriver’s 2004 novel and Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 film, both of which are arguably truer to the looming dread and morbid fixations of the original film than this recent adaptation, which feels more aligned with the general revision of the Lifetime universe that has occurred in the last couple of years. In the general move to reclaim and appropriate even the most marginal and disavowed of 80s and 90s texts, it was inevitable that the Lifetime effect would become a subject for emulation and parody, so it’s not surprising that meta-Lifetime films have arisen along the lines of Will Ferrell’s A Deadly Adoption, nor that mainstream films such as the Anchorman sequel have tended to equate the Lifetime effect with a fetishistically “authentic” depiction of the early 80s. At the same time, Lifetime itself has accommodated the rise of quality television with a series of more high-profile features, particularly biopics such as The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe and Liz and Dick, which both mimic the quality HBO biopic (think Hemingway and Gellhorn or Phil Spector), but also highlight HBO’s own kernel of trashiness and continuity with non-quality or post-quality television as well. At the same time, the recent rise of true crime as a quality experience has tended to give the Lifetime universe – much of which is based on actual criminals – a new kind of cache, while adaptations such as Flowers in the Attic and Petals on the Wind both emulate and parody the literary aspirations of quality television as well.
Within that context, the adaptation of Mother is placed in a bit of an unusual position – a celebration of Lifetime trashiness, but also a bid for that very celebration as a quality experience – that syncs up perfectly with James Franco’s involvement in the project. While Franco is neither billed as director, writer or even a main actor, he is very much the auteur of this project, not least because it feels suffused with his particular version of academia: as in the original, the action is interspersed with scenes in which a lecturer explains and exposits upon the action, and for anyone who has read any of Franco’s academic or pedagogical writing, the style is immediately recognisable. It feels somewhat appropriate, then, that this lecturer is played by Ivan Sergei, who played Kevin Shane, Laurel’s love interest and stalker in the first film. Before I was even aware of Franco’s role in the remake, I was astonished by how much Sergei looks like him in the 1996 version, to the point where it feels entirely plausible that this might have been the film where Franco made his screen debut, just as Lifetime has functioned a springboard for a plethora of other actors during its thirty-year lifespan, including Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, Kristen Dunst, Keri Russell and Kristen Stewart. Indeed, so uncanny is the similarity between Sergei and Franco that I found myself wondering whether Franco would find a way to play the young love interest in the 2016 version. While he doesn’t, it’s only because as storyrunner, Franco replaces the predatory boyfriend of the original with a lesbian vampire, which – among other things – allows him to absorb most of the sex appeal attached to Sergei the first time around, despite his fairly intermittent presence as the director of the college production of Macbeth that occurs in the background of the story.
As a result, Franco is now the best looking male character in the film just as Sergei was the best looking male character in the 1996 version, which allows him to settle into the role that he plays most comfortably: the alluring male teacher who is so absorbed in his craft that he remains somewhat unaware of his charms. Given how many times Franco has rehearsed this role, in virtually every one of his endeavours, it’s no surprise that his part feels the most expansive and lived-in, even if he only appears every twenty minutes or so and virtually never leaves the stately position at the back of the theatre from which he surveys the action on the stage. If there were ever a writer, director and actor who got off on the sexual allure of auteurism, it’s Franco, and to his credit it feels as if every scene is orchestrated by him, just as the film finally feels like a Franco vehicle and a Franco joint. In that sense, it culminates – or perhaps just exemplifies – a trend towards trashiness, marginalia and camp that has been particularly prominent in Franco’s own work over the last half-decade as well. For a moment there, it really felt as if Franco was aiming for the canon in the most serious way possible – as a director, he was elaborating something like a filmed version of the American literary corpus; as an actor, he was working with every established auteur he could find; and as a poet and writer, he was composing commemorative verses for Barack Obama that invoked the Black Mountain School even as they aspired to the anaphoric and panoramic sweep of Whitman. Over the last couple of years, however, that self-appointment seems to have been qualified and mitigated a little, not simply because its aspirations were preposterous for even the most talented of writers, directors or actors, but also because the cultural tide has turned against the particular brand of canonicity that Franco was invoking, and which was so in vogue in the list-driven, 1000-texts-you-must-experience-before-you-die furore of the 2000s backdrop against which he came of age. In the most pragmatic sense, digital culture has rendered that kind of omniscient cultural authority somewhat implausible, which has meant that Franco has been at risk of becoming implausible himself.
As a result, Franco has moved to colonise the fringes just as he initially moved to colonise the centre, identifying himself with almost every subcultural or disavowed impulse possible, from remaking an iconic missing scene from William Friedkin’s Cruising as Interior. Leather Bar., to writing, directing and starring in a biopic about Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, to producing a documentary about the BDSM website Kink.com, to writing, directing and starring in the biopic Bukowski, the natural convergence of these canonical and subcultural tendencies. When writing about his novels, D.H. Lawrence once observed that he wished he was homosexual – or could perceive the world as a homosexual – a statement that rings true with the weird fringe sexualities of his novels and characters, all of whom feel they are rubbing up against queerness without actually being of it. While, as a gay man, I don’t want to overstate the exoticism or particularity of simply being gay – in some ways, it is more pronounced than you might expect, and in other ways less pronounced – it often feels to me as if Franco’s recent filmography is in some sense an act of trying to be queer, or trying to inhabit a queer subject position, on the part of someone whose attitude towards cinematic, literature and art is really quite conservative (and whose literary adaptations, in particular, somehow manage to feel slavishly derivative even as they acknowledge their source material at every possible instance). Indeed, Franco himself has stated as much, observing that he is “straight in his private life, but gay in his working life,” surrounding himself with a tactful discretion about his sexuality that may have once suggested closeting but in the case of Franco suggests more a yearning to inhabit the peculiar media fixation that attaches to people who are closeted, even as that very idealisation of the experience of ongoing concealment and deception makes it clear just how far he is from the queer perspective that he is bent on attaining.
In many ways, then, the 2016 version of Mother plays as a climactic moment in this bid for queer credibility, since it is at once Franco’s “queerest” film but also his most denuded in its queerness as well. As intimated earlier, this time around we’re not presented with a vulnerable college student and her stalker boyfriend, but a confident college student, Leah (Leila George) and her girlfriend, Pearl (Emily Meade), who turns out to be part of a coven of lesbian vampires. Splitting the difference between the two films is Tori Spelling as Pearl’s mother, Julie, and in many ways it is her performance that anchors the film, since her acting style is as twitchy and jerky now as it was in 1996, and the only part of the overall project that really feels true in any way to the Lifetime universe. At some level, that’s because the whole lesbian vampire angle clearly marks an interest in opening up the Lifetime effect to other kinds of disavowed trash culture, especially those cultural phenomena – Poison Ivy, The Craft, Twilight – that might be expected to have siphoned off young teenagers who would otherwise have been absorbed into prime Lifetime demographics in turn. More critically, however, the lesbian vampire stuff works to remove the predatory cameras that are so critical to the Lifetime aesthetic, most directly because there is no predatory male protagonist here – not only is the stalker boyfriend out of the picture, but virtually every other male character is either lovably avuncular or himself a tragic victim of circumstances. While Lifetime has certainly opened itself up to fragile male adolescence with features like Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life, this largely sentimental treatment of patriarchy is nevertheless quite anomalous for the channel, and works to take much of the edge off the original 1996 vision.
That in itself wouldn’t necessarily be enough to prevent the camera preying on its subject – and this is possibly one of the most lascivious cameras that the Lifetime channel has ever seen, unfolding one spectacle of violent sex and sexual violence after another. What makes the Lifetime camera so powerful, however, is the way in which it both adopts this male gaze and refuses to apologise for it, or to cloak in the pretence of a more generalist, gender-neutral appeal. While at first glance it may appear as if Franco’s camera – I think it is right to call it that – isn’t offering any excuses or apologies for itself, the fact that lesbian vampirism is such a tried-and-tested source of camp knowingness gradually comes to take on the role of apology: in effect, this version of Mother apologises for the male gaze by offering it as a camp effect, or even a period effect, cancelling out that disconnect between female-oriented subject matter and male-oriented camera that made the original film, and the Lifetime universe, so powerful and dynamic in the first place. It’s not surprising, then, that with the camera dissociated from this predatory, voyeuristic, stalkery imperative – or at least with the camera apologising for it with every breath – the film plays as a reflexively impotent series of efforts to invoke this male gaze in the same instance with which it deflects it, devolving the plot into a series of escalating montage sequences that grow ever more graphically violent and sexually explicit while always moving further away from the visceral and volatile kernel at the heart of the original film. To a certain extent, Franco compensates by increasingly inflecting the action through the college production of Macbeth where Pearl first – unknowingly – encounters the lesbian coven (here playing the Weird Sisters), leading to an onstage denouement that recalls the finale of Scream 2. At the same time, the film is also prescient that the natural conclusion of this approach is music video, with the montage sequences quickly stretching out to the length of a song, and turning into something like a medley or video music mix tape by the final act.
Nevertheless, for all that the 2016 adaptation makes the best of Franco’s premise, it ultimately feels more like an apology for the original film – and an apology for the unapologetically predatory cameras that make the Lifetime aesthetic so galvanising and so powerful in the first place. In doing so, it offers a fairly convenient parody of the Lifetime channel for viewers who may not have actually experienced many Lifetime movies. After all, one of the most striking elements of the 1996 version was the investigative arc, which is entirely omitted here, leaving Tori Spelling with little to do in the second half of the film, and making it something of a foregone conclusion when she is peremptorily taken down by the coven, even though we never actually find out what happens to her after that. For all that this is clearly designed to be quite a shocking revision of the original film, one of the great strengths of Lifetime movies is the way they manage to affix the keenest trauma to the mere act of living – of just keeping on keeping on – and Spelling’s harrowing “survival” at the end of the original Mother still feels much more disturbing and resonant than her supposedly shocking demise here. Part of me wants to say that this is all just what is to be expected from an ironic, hyper-aware, hyper-literate revision of the Lifetime canon, but at the same time Will Ferrell’s A Deadly Adoption proves that it can be done another way. Whether it’s the fact of revising Lifetime, or whether it’s the fact of Franco revising lifetime, then, something about the 2016 Mother doesn’t add up. In some ways, it’s strongest when it’s parodying other texts – with the change in location to Los Angeles and the addition of flamboyantly vampiric drone shots, it often feels like a comic riff on the second season of True Detective – since there is something about the Lifetime universe that already pre-empts and contains parody, leaving parodies of this kind fairly deflated and impotent when they push the comedy too hard.