A Lifetime Roundup

It’s the week of Comic-Con and I’ve got stuff to do. It sounds to me like it’s time for everyone to learn a few lessons about life, taught by the network who took that as their name. That’s right. It’s time for Lifetime Theater.

An Amish Murder: Two great tastes that taste great together.

Anna Nicole: A tawdry sex symbol extends her 15 minutes of fame.

On Strike for Christmas: A passive aggressive protest is the best way to celebrate.

Playdate: New neighbors signal trouble for the perfect family.

Flowers in the Attic: The first installment of the Dollanganger saga lacks an identity.

Lizzie Borden Took an Ax: and might or might not have given her mother forty whacks.

The Bad Son: He doesn’t call, he doesn’t write, he murders redheads…

Death Clique: Lesbians are the biggest dangers facing today’s teens.

Petals on the Wind: The second installment of the Dollanganger saga ramps up the crazy.

Blue-Eyed Butcher: Lifetime subverts every trope in this insane true crime story.

The Craigslist Killer: That title is only barely accurate.

Talhotblond: One of the best Lifetime movies out there.

Drew Peterson: Untouchable: Rob Lowe is the King of Lifetime.

PopFan: Lifetime does Stephen King.

The Assault: The cheerleader, the cheerleader, the cheerleader’s on fire!

Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever: We’re through the looking glass here, people.

Big Driver: Lifetime does Stephen King, only this time with royalties.

Foreclosed: Jamie Kennedy vs. Marlee Matlin.

Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy: This whole country’s out of order!

Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret: Everyone is a jerk!

If There Be Thorns: The third installment of the Dollanganger saga gets weird.

The Nightmare Nanny: The middle-aged middle-class bogeyman.

A Deadly Adoption: Some of the funniest people on the planet get serious.

Seeds of Yesterday: The Dollanganger saga concludes.

Gone Missing: Sure, we’re just having unexplained psychic powers now.

A Sister’s Nightmare: Lifetime pulls off a halfway decent twist.

Liz & Dick: Lindsay Lohan is Liz Taylor.

Amish Grace: Not as much fun as the title implies.

No One Would Tell: A story from Lifetime’s Mesozoic Era.

Jim Henson’s Turkey Hollow: Thanksgiving is saved by a monster Voltron.

Beautiful & Twisted: Rob Lowe vs. Paz Vega

Virtual Lies: This HotStuff26 might be trouble.

Into Dangerous Territory: Meth bears. You heard me.

Driven Underground: Kristy Swanson flees the mob.

Killing Daddy: Gotta get that sweet insurance money somehow.

In God’s Country: Maybe knock it off with the child brides?

The Wife He Met Online: Oh no, internet dating!

Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?: The classic gets remade with lesbian vampires.

Blue Seduction: The fuck did I just watch?

Enjoy!

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Lifetime Theater: Blue Seduction

The fuck did I just watch?

No, seriously. The fuck did I just watch?

Watch enough Lifetime and your garden variety insanity washes right over you like a soothing summer rain. It takes something truly bananas to even register. In some ways, this ill-advised project has turned me into a junkie, only instead of that sweet horse, I’m in alleyways sucking dick for another hit of some harried scribe’s night terrors. “C’mon, give me a story about catfishing that’s also about anesthesiologists that go broke playing online poker against stray dogs. You know I’m good for it.” What would a Lifetime junkie even wear? A sensible pantsuit and a stained #ImWithHer t-shirt?

Good god, I’ve got problems.

Well, if something like Driven Underground and Killing Daddy is the kind of H you buy from Eric Stoltz when suddenly the drug deal turns weirdly racist for no reason, then Blue Seduction is pure, uncut, black tar heroin. This is the kind of stuff you only get if you’re a warlord. Or it would be if Lifetime movies were a controlled substance, which at this point I think they kind of should be. No, you can get this thing on TV where anyone can watch it, and fall into the delirious rabbit hole that is Billy Zane’s waning career.

The Phantom

Somehow not this.

That was mean. Here’s the thing, I kind of love Billy Zane. I know that’s not something that should be a thing outside of his immediate family, and maybe his buddies from way back. But Billy Zane is secretly one of the best things about any bad movie he’s in, which, unfortunately is most of them. There is a movie so bad that I will never review it, because doing so would make me watch it again, the Adam Sandler “comedy” Going Overboard, which is proof positive that Adam Sandler didn’t suddenly get terrible. It’s more like he accidentally made a couple funny movies in the mid-‘90s. In that interminable film, which is only slightly less funny than puppies with terminal cancer, Zane shows up playing Neptune, the god of the sea, and for a moment, this comedy was actually funny.

That shouldn’t be an achievement, but believe me, it was. It was just as surprising if suddenly Mike Huckabee, out of nowhere, dunked on Lebron James. Nothing in his previous public persona prepared you for that, just like nothing in Going Overboard prepared you for the existence of laughter. Zane hilariously underplays the role as the Roman god of the oceans. He’s Neptune, but he’s not going to make a big deal about it. He kind of realizes how ridiculous he looks, too, but he’s cool with it. Zane exudes this aura that not just is he too cool for what’s happening, so too is the audience. He’s inviting us to laugh with him at him. Long story short, that’s why I’ll get arrested for trespassing on the Zane compound.

He lives on a compound, right? He seems like he’d have to. Or like an emu ranch or something.

Zane brings that same sense of conspiratorial fun to his role as aging rock star Mikey Taylor in Blue Seduction. Zane, whose biggest role was a decade behind him when this aired, had to see the queasy irony of casting him as a has-been. He lurches around the movie, looking slightly puffy in his laying around clothes, a wispy wig poking out of the beanie that might well be surgically attached to his head. He’s the kind of guy that gets recognized only when the muzak version of one of his songs is playing in a supermarket.

Mikey Taylor is under contract to write some new songs, but he can’t, because, you know, has-been. He’s a reformed bad boy now, on the wagon for drugs and alcohol, and married to a former fan who now supports him with her realtor business. In a normal Lifetime movie, she’d be the protagonist too, but she’s not. Why? Because this fucking thing is insane, that’s why.

Anyway, his producer brings in a new singer to help out, and it’s Estella Warren, who was briefly famous around the same time Zane was at his zenith (Zane-ith?). I think she’s supposed to be playing about ten years younger than she actually is, too. I mean, who cares. The point is, she’s a brilliant songwriter, and she’s totally willing to give him the songs. Just as long as he sleeps with her a lot, which they both can do fully clothed. I suspect witchcraft of some kind. Honestly, if the twist had been that she was an honest-to-god broomstick-riding witch with dick-permeable underpants, it would be less batshit than what we got.

She also gets him back on booze and drugs too, which lets Zane do some incredible drunk acting. There’s a scene where Matty (Warren’s character) breaks into his house and puts his hands on her breasts, and Zane mutters, “Boobies.” I’m not saying he’s a comedic genius, but I laughed. It’s funnier than his co-star Adam Sandler’s been in a long time.

So Mikey spirals out of control, and Matty starts fucking other people in his group to get her singing career off the ground. She’s also using Mikey’s wife as a realtor. Oh yeah, and Mikey’s mom — whose acting is so bad she looks like she’s reading off cue cards written by a dyslexic — has a stroke for no reason. Look, I don’t know. I’m just repeating what happened.

The story looks like a slightly deranged version of the Lifetime standard — the other woman tries to replace the wife in the heart of a damaged man. And side note, this thing was made in 2009, so it would help with the modern aesthetic a bit. The locations, though are actually lovely, these stark northern wetlands, and Zane’s house has more character than the later ubiquitous McMansions. Just want to shout out some quality when I see it.

Right, so eventually Matty kidnaps the wife and says she’s going to kill her, and Mikey flips out and goes to rescue her. But it turns out Matty is actually a hitman hired by the wife. Why? Why did she spend half the movie getting him back on drugs and fucking her? Why is she a musical genius? Why? Why?

Who the fuck knows? They stab Mikey to death — in the back! — then tell the cops that it was self defense. And the cops buy it because Estella Warren I guess? Well, all three of them are riding back to the hospital in the ambulance, because those are just noisy taxis now, and Mikey comes back to life. That’s the end. This fucking thing ends with zombies. Zane-bies?

Okay, not really, but it would make more sense. If you’re wondering about the twist, thinking I didn’t set it up enough, well, that’s the movie. This looks like it was written by O. Henry after a bad fall. Or else some harried scribe had to turn it in on Monday and couldn’t think of an ending. Or Zane shrugged and made it up. “Fuck you, I’m a zombie now. Zane, out.”

So what did we learn? If your hit song is called “Flash in the Pan,” you might not be around long. When hiring an assassin for your spouse, maybe pick one who doesn’t have a plan that takes months and months. And if possible, get some of those penis-permeable underpants. Those seem efficient.

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Now Fear This: Angel Heart

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Mickey Rourke, fresh from escaping De Niro’s crotch.

Nowadays, all it takes for a film to be controversial is for the leads to have an insufficient amount of penises. But back before the internet became an outlet for the collective ids of every man who has ever owned or thought about owning a Sailor Moon body pillow, a movie had to do something pretty darn shocking to be considered controversial before anyone had seen a single second of it. While at the time, 1987’s Angel Heart was a Kick Me sign for controversy, it has been largely forgotten today, and that’s a damn shame.

It seems a little quaint now that we might fret over one of the stars of The Cosby Show being seen in a new, disturbingly sexual light. Shit’s changed, now that we know what kind of monster Bill was. At the time, casting Lisa Bonet, known for her role as family-friendly bohemian Denise Huxtable, as a seventeen-year-old frequently topless voodoo priestess who has a rather lengthy, explicit, and blood-splattered sex scene with Mickey Rourke, was not only asking for controversy, it was angrily demanding it.

This scene, in which Rourke — who, we all sort of collectively figured, had this kind of sex anyway — was what Angel Heart was primarily famous for. For good reason too: it’s an operatic performance, something that looks drawn from an Argento picture, a vibrant splash of color against a grimy noir’s grays and blacks. The scene starts out as a relatively standard, if long, sex scene for the day, and remember, in the far more permissive ‘80s, sex scenes were practically required and the fact that one of the participants was seventeen was only brought up in the context that her character was a young single mom. It was with the juxtaposition of violence, first a rain of blood, then an escalation I won’t spoil, that earned it the dreaded X rating from the MPAA. The director cut it down and turned the most extreme act of violence to implication (an improvement), but the damage had been done. This was the movie that was almost X.

While sex scenes are often dismissed as gratuitous (often by people who don’t really know what gratuitous means), this one was definitely not. It was an apotheosis for both characters involved, a moment that damned them both without either understanding how or why. Bonet’s character, the improbably and awesomely named Epiphany Proudfoot, is consistently depicted as an extremely sensual person. She’s also, oddly, an innocent. The character is a paradox, straddling worlds like they were Mickey Rourke or something. She has a frank attitude toward sex, but is always garbed in light colors — often virgin white. Bonet herself is biracial, another two worlds her character has a foot in without being truly accepted by either. She’s a voodoo priestess, but is also the sweetest and gentlest person in the movie, the only one who truly does nothing to deserve the fate that awaits every doomed character in this world.

Angel Heart has an appropriately jaded attitude toward faith. Without exception, religion is depicted as a home for empty promises. Christians are shown as either slack-jawed swamp people or fainting histrionic performers, more concerned with the form of their faith than the function, while the voodoo practitioners are tampering with forces beyond their understanding. In the world of Angel Heart, God might be dead. Probably not, but he isn’t, he definitely doesn’t give a single, solitary fuck about you. The Devil, though… he’s interested. And he’s got stuff that’s priced to move.

The film is structured as a lean noir, taking place in 1955. All noir has twists, and Angel Heart shows its twist up front. In fact, the twist is so painfully, thuddingly obvious, it’s almost a dare to the audience. It’ll make the unwary viewer think he has the film outsmarted, so when the true twist is sprung, it becomes that much more shocking.

What’s the first, obvious twist? Rourke’s beat up PI Harry Angel gets hired on a missing persons case by De Niro playing a long-nailed unblinking freak calling himself Louis Cyphre. Yeah. There’s like one person who didn’t figure that out and had to pick their jaw off the floor with a backhoe. The assignment seems easy at first, but pretty soon the bodies start piling up, and Angel knows he’s dealing with more than he bargained for. The action shifts as well, from the gray-brown streets of New York to the verdant greens of the Louisiana bayou.

Getting back to the pervasive presence, but impotence of Christianity: Cyphre’s preferred meeting spaces are in churches. Oddly, he never appears in any voodoo ritual. The implication then, is that all the power has been stripped out of the Christian church, leaving only a hollow place where the Devil can relax unimpeded. Voodoo is perhaps too alien for even the Devil himself. Or else he knows better than to shit where he eats.

The best horror films featuring Satan as the antagonist always have to set up his involvement with strange and uncanny images. Angel Heart might be at its best when it laying the groundwork in the first act, having Harry run across eerie situations that, while not obviously supernatural, are weird in a way designed to sit in the middle of the uncanny valley: a hooded figure who first appears cleaning up the blood from a suicide, silent nuts who move in unison, vicious dogs at every turn. Images like this help conceal the film’s true twist, which is foreshadowed relentlessly enough — most brilliantly in the form of a pun — that it makes you wonder why you never saw it to begin with. Of course not; a clever soul like you knows Cyphre is the Devil.

While Bonet was the showiest casting (and perhaps ironically, the most dated), the movie belongs to Rourke and De Niro. These days Rourke is known as the comeback kid, taking a body ravaged by an ill-advised combat sports career and disastrous plastic surgery, and using it to craft grotesque protagonists with the pain of the world in every weary movement. Rourke still has his looks here, a combination of the chiseled ideal ‘50s greaser profile with the hangdog character of an old New York bloodline. His charm makes Harry Angel a likable guy, even when he’s doing things like shaking down an old junkie or having rough sex with a seventeen-year-old girl.

De Niro had the opposite career trajectory, and this was before he devolved into lazy self-parody. While the design of his character might be flirting with over the top, De Niro underplays Satan. He sees the Devil has faintly amused by the games mortals play, but also weary of their attempts to outsmart him. De Niro’s Devil always wins his games and doesn’t understand why people don’t understand that. Incidentally, if you were ever wondering who was better, De Niro or Pacino, they both played Satan. Have a look at their diametrically opposed interpretations of the role.

Angel Heart started its life as a controversy in search of a movie. The controversy is gone, leaving only an excellent occult horror noir that deserves to be rediscovered by fans of either genre.

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Yakmala: Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?

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Hang on. Which one’s Danger?

No one movie exemplifies the Lifetime brand in the popular imagination more than the 1996 thriller/melodrama/Tori Spelling vehicle Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? But like any great story, the facts have gotten muddled along the way. The most important being that this wasn’t even a Lifetime movie. Sorry if I rendered any of you unable to trust anymore. If this thing is any indicator, it means you’re all rushing off to sleep with danger.

Tagline: Alone. In love. Afraid. She gave him her heart. Now he wants her life.

More Accurate Tagline: Row for your life, Tori Spelling!

Guilty Party: The early ‘90s featured a spate of horror movies where the monster was ostensibly a normal person. They generally followed the same pattern: main character (often a young woman) meets a new person, and this new person grows steadily more and more insane until they attempt to kill our hero in a blue-tinged apartment building. They were pretty cheap to make and people seemed to like them. Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? was an attempt to make one of those as a vehicle for noted Aaron Spelling relative Tori. When the arguable pinnacle of these is the mediocre Single White Female, you’d think they couldn’t really do that bad. Well, they did. This thing was passed over for distribution and aired on NBC, who is no doubt relieved that while their network is primarily famous for being run by chimpanzees, it at least has pawned of responsibility for this one on Lifetime.

Synopsis: A girl gets dropped off by a handsome guy in a jeep (Lochlyn Munro). She gets on the phone immediately, because its the ‘90s, and tells her friend she’s going to break up with her boyfriend because he’s so dramatic. Yeah, I guess that’s one way to describe it. So about halfway through the conversation, her boyfriend (Ivan Sergei) comes by to give her a gift. Just a heads up: his name is Billy, but I’m calling him Danger. Why? I’m in charge here. You don’t like it, you can… I guess there’s a ton of stuff you can do. Man. That’s a hollow threat.

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“Did you know there’s porn on this thing?!”

So Billy flips out and beats her to death with a cutting board. It really is that sudden. The whole time Danger’s got this look on his face like he just ate a bad taco, and he’s not sure if he has time to finish up with this murder before taking care of that.

With murder out of the way, it’s time to meet the protagonist. Sorry, it’s not the girlfriend-murderer. Somewhere, a guy in a fedora just got super upset. It’s Laurel Lewisohn (Tori Spelling) who is your standard movie college overachiever. She offers brilliant book analyses in her lit class, she’s on the track team, she’s doing something that’ll get her sent to China (not as a political prisoner, even!), and she maintains sixpack abs. She’s also falling apart, quitting the track team and still haunted by an eating disorder for like a scene and a half. Pretty sure Tommy Wiseau did uncredited punch-ups of the script.

She’s also dating Kevin Shane, a.k.a. Danger. Danger never learned the difference between a romantic relationship and a hostage situation. Which would be funny if, after every time they had sex, he called the local police with a list of demands. Really, he’s just all about keeping her in a box away from the world. Which you may recognize from the Buffalo Bill School of Romance.

Buffalo Bill

Not a real school.

Mother sniffs this weirdo out within seconds. She picks at a couple inconsistencies in his story and becomes an amateur sleuth. Look, it’s the plot of every Lifetime movie, but we’re watching those tropes be born. Only this is when you realize birth is nothing but an unremitting horrorshow of blood and feces pouring like Immortan Joe just opened up the floodgates. Really, it’s a great metaphor for existence.

Where was I? Right. Danger gets a cabin, locks Laurel away in it. To keep her up there, he lies about getting a phone hooked up and disables her car. If that breaking of her car thing sounds familiar, it’s because it happened in the third Twilight movie. Only that was marketed as a fucking romance.

Eventually, Mother uncovers the murder from the cold open and figures out that Danger is actually Billy Jones. She tries to warn Laurel about it, but Laurel’s like, “Thanks, already figured that out when he tried to put a hatchet in my fucking head.” Laurel attempts to escape via canoe, but Danger can swim. Or possibly even just walk along the shallow pond.

Well, she bops him with an oar, and when he doesn’t come up super obviously for air, she and Mother leave. Oh yeah, your job is done. No way he could hold his breath for two minutes. Or surface under that dock you’re standing on and wait for you to leave.

Which is what happens. The end is him in a new identity (a hilarious mid-‘90s rocker douchebag) getting his new lady, who presumably will start the sleeping-with-danger cycle anew. Like the turning of the seasons.

Life-Changing Subtext: Once you drop a bad guy into water, he is officially someone else’s problem.

Defining Quote: “Where are the car keys?” — Laurel. It looks pretty innocuous, but you really need the acting of Tori Spelling to sell this line. First off, she says this to him after she knows he’s keeping her locked in a cabin without a phone. She knows he’s crazy. Spelling delivers this piece of dialogue like she’s been hanging around with a dead guy and is worried he won’t be considered “the funny one.”

Standout Performance: This movie would not work without Tori Spelling and Ivan Sergei in the lead roles, by which I mean it wouldn’t be fucking hilarious. These two deliver every line as though they memorized them phonetically with looks on their faces like the director is a hungry bear that might attack at any second.

What’s Wrong: It’s a quibble, but Tori Spelling never once asks her mother if she can sleep with danger.

Flash of Competence: This is a bit of a cheat, but I loved how it looks like a Lifetime movie. It’s even shot in British Columbia for that extra level of whatever the opposite of verisimilitude is.

Best Scenes: Really, this whole thing is one best scene after another, but I’ll try to pare the list down.

The real Kevin Shane (Lochlyn Munro, who dropped off the murdered girl in the beginning) returns to town. Danger, who has stolen this guy’s identity — including credit cards, and how has Kevin not worked that out? — “runs into” him at a motel. They get to talking, and because this is suddenly gay porn, Kevin wants to take a shower. So he just sorta does, and Danger follows him in to keep talking. You can probably figure out the end of this scene. And no, he doesn’t fix the cable.

Yeah, Danger kills Kevin and somehow gets the body and jeep out to the wilderness or something. It’s hard to tell since this borrows the Lifetime trick (well, invents it) of shooting everything on someone’s perfectly coiffed lawn. The best part is that Danger has decided what his super-secret body disposal needs is a fucking bonfire. Seriously? Why not shoot off some fireworks? Get yourself one of those flailing tube sock guys!

Later on, when Danger is trying to get back with Laurel, he finds her out dancing with Jax the Nice Guy. He already hates Jax because occasionally Laurel will accidentally hug him, and yeah, that’s as awkward as it sounds. First, Danger kicks the shit out of Jax in the bathroom (not literally, unfortunately), then gets into it with guys outside the club. The funniest part is that he pulls a knife, and I kept hoping it would escalate. Like he chases the one group off with the knife, then the next group he pulls a pistol, then a a shotgun, then a rocket launcher, and suddenly he’s running around with a nuke, being like, “I LOVE YOU 50 MEGATONS WORTH LAUREL!”

Transcendent Moment: Nothing will beat the climactic fight. I mean, she tries to escape in a canoe. Unless you’re Lewis and Clark, just don’t do that. It cheapens this for all of us. But Danger pops out of the water like little Jason Voorhees, and he’s just kind of gingerly shaking the canoe back and forth. And of course the whole thing ends after Laurel taps him with an oar like she’s trying get his attention. This whole thing could have been a fun game of tag and not been shot even slightly differently. It would actually make a little more sense.

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“No, Alice! Don’t sleep with Danger!”

Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? is a classic for a reason. Ironically, they were reaching for a forgettable thriller that might push the careers of the overmatched stars, but in being as inept as it is, the movie has found a lasting audience. Sometimes if you lose hard enough, you end up winning.

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Lifetime Theater: Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?

James Franco has spent his career defying easy classification. His conventionally handsome looks suggested a career as a marquee star, but he was always uneasy in those roles. He appears far more comfortable in comedies, often stealing scenes and sometimes entire movies from his more established comic brethren. He famously did a stint on a soap opera on what felt like a hideously condescending version of performance art, and starred in one of the most beloved one-season TV shows of all time. Maybe the answer is the obvious one: he’s a man with the looks of Hayden Christensen and the sense of humor of Andy Kaufman. This is why the idea of him producing and cameoing in a bizarre, postmodern remake of the UR-Lifetime movie Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? isn’t just logical, it’s almost expected.

If anyone has heard of a Lifetime flick, it’s that one. Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? has become shorthand for the entire Lifetime brand, and features a lot of the elements that are recognizable even to those only casually aware that this network called Lifetime likes to make movies about abused young women. The plot — an obsessive boyfriend insinuates himself into every corner of a woman’s life before turning abusive — sounds like it could be a Madlib for just about any of the network’s offerings. So, it might surprise people to learn it was intended for theatrical release, and originally shown on NBC.

James Franco came up with a highly-stylized adaptation of the story with several changes, the most notable of which was the addition of a bunch of lesbian vampires. It reads a lot like a terrible young adult book series. A specific one, as a matter of fact. The film draws this link directly in the beginning when college professor Ivan Sergei (who played “Danger” in the first and serves as the Greek Chorus for this one) lectures about the mythology of vampires, and young college student Leah comes up with a weirdly feminist, sex-positive (and entirely incorrect, but what are you gonna do?) reading of the first Twilight novel.

Professor Danger’s lecture (fuck you, he’s never named), is more batshittery as he posits Dracula as a queer icon. This completely ignores not only the text of the novel — where Dracula lives with a harem of women and moves to London to prey on more women — but the historical, nativist, and viral underpinnings of the subtext. Sorry, people. Dracula is about racism and tuberculosis, and modern readers should crack a fucking history text before they try any temporal appropriation. Still, it’s an agreeably insane interpretation that dovetails nicely with the modern take on vampires.

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You know, “Dracula.”

“Danger” in this version is young vampire Pearl (yeah, don’t have to read too deeply for the homoerotic subtext there) who we see turned in the very first scene by her girlfriend. Getting turned into a vampire (or nightwalker — the film uses the term, only immediately to follow it up with “vampire,” making me wonder what the point of the term was to begin with) also makes you goth. Which is just one of the excellent flourishes that lets you know nobody is taking this too seriously. Pearl killed the vampire who turned her, and now her three strong coven of vampires wants her to turn a replacement. Otherwise they’ll never get to participate in vampire basketball or something. Pearl is steadily grooming her girlfriend Leah, but has second thoughts when she realizes she’s in love.

Mother (Tori Spelling, also never named) initially objects to the relationship on the grounds of homophobia, but alters her objections when creepy stalker Bob tells her Pearl has dangerous friends. Bob is obsessed with Leah, following her around, asking her out, and eventually drugging and attempting to rape her. He’s an emerging archetype of a modern feminist villain, the Nice Guy, whose toxic entitlement is masked behind a disarming nerdy exterior. Oh yeah, and after that attempted rape, he becomes the Vampire Bob, which is kind of the best thing ever.

Initially, this looked like a campy veneer for one of Lifetime’s most odious of subgenres, the lesbian panic flick. Uh oh, my daughter likes a vagina on her dates, and now she’s going to kill or get killed. I was wary of that from the start, thinking that Franco’s devotion to exploitation would devolve into that. Instead, what I found was a deconstruction of that subgenre, and a precise enough one that says that while they never looked at Dracula, they’ve watched their share of Lifetime. Initially, Pearl is scary and threatening, but her love is ultimately presented as a good thing. The villains are the peers, the homophobic mom (who is depicted as misguided, but ultimately good-hearted), and of course, Bob the Nice Guy. The solution for Leah’s happiness is not to reject being a super gay vampire (or a warning to those who fail to do so), but to go for it. The happy ending is Leah and Pearl ending up as vampires with each other, able to feed on one another without killing humans because of true love.

That’s not to say this isn’t campy. It’s campy as balls (or as ovaries, I should say), reveling in the whole lesbian vampire schtick. The movie features more blood and orgasms than all five Twilight films put together… not hard, since those feature none of either. If this was a theatrical release, Leah’s frank enjoyment of, um, fingersmithing and the gore in the feeding scenes is at least an NC-17. The homoeroticism is happily pervasive throughout. In the play-within-a-play MacBeth, where Leah “stole” the role of MacBeth from Bob (there’s that entitlement again, and appropriately he’s MacDuff), the vampire coven play the witches, because fuck it, why not. In a ridiculously erotically charged prophecy scene, it cuts to the director — played by Franco in his cameo — saying “I didn’t direct that.” It’s a nice wink to the audience, and in point of fact, he didn’t direct any of it. The network was savvy enough to hire a woman to do the honors. Might be why the sex scene had a woman, you know, enjoying herself.

The final scene is a stinger. While Pearl grievously injured all four bad vampires (Bob plus the coven), she didn’t stake them. So when they roll up to a Halloween party dressed like the Purge to hide their scars, they’re continuing their predation. It’s such a weird, audacious ending, you kind of have to love it.

Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? looks like a practical joke. It looks like a ratings stunt, or an ironic hipster foray into the low entertainment of the masses. It might be these things. But it’s also a feminist, sex-positive, and gay-friendly deconstruction of a brand that often flirts with all three. It’s not great cinema, but it’s damn entertaining, sexy, and surprisingly thoughtful

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Now Fear This: What We Do in the Shadows

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We… pose for group pictures, apparently.

I’m kind of done with vampires. They’re the “Stairway to Heaven” of monsters, overplayed until you don’t even register them as anything but ambient noise. They’ve been stripmined for symbolism and fracked for frights. There’s really nothing left even remotely interesting to say about them, partially because they don’t really mean much anymore. They’ve been adapted and re-adapted so many times, you can almost give them any traits you want. Only the blood-drinking is necessary, and even that changes with every interpretation. Vampires have gone from the defining marquee monster of Hollywood’s Golden Age to the exclusive domain of the hack.

Pop culture has entirely defanged the vampire. They’re about as scary as baby bunnies dressed in tuxedos and about as likely to cause squees in the same demographic. So what’s left? Should we lock them up in the coffin and wait a hundred years for them to become relevant? After all, we should be in the midst of the never ending resource wars that will tear the planet apart by then. Makes sense we’d be scared of creatures who would drink our precious, precious veinwater. That’s what we’ll call blood then. You just watch.

The last stop for any former bogeyman still lingering in a room whose metaphorical lights have been turned on is parody. The same ubiquity that’s robbed vampires of their power to frighten has also made the tropes that built them common knowledge for even the most cave-bound among us. Everyone’s seen at least one vampire movie, even if it was an entry of Twilight, when the understanding of vampires is sort of like what you thought ninjas were back when you were a tyke. The language of the vampire is universal enough for comedy to dwell in the cracks. It’s not like you’re joking about the themes in a few of Virgil’s minor works. You’re talking about vampires, the things that at least one person in your life masturbates to. That shit’s known.

Granted, it helps if the people behind it know comedy. Taika Waititi, owner of my favorite name and director of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok for some reason, is one half of the writer/director/star duo. The other is Jemaine Clement, familiar to most from Flight of the Conchords and any other time you need a perfect delivery of a deadpan joke in a loopy Kiwi drawl. They play two of four roommates living in contemporary Wellington, New Zealand. And as you probably guessed from the extensive introduction, all four roomies are vampires.

The roommates, cleverly, are from the various eras of vampire entertainment. The oldest is basement-dwelling Petyr, who looks like Count Orlock, spends all his time in a stone crypt and communicates entirely in hisses. Oh, and he refuses to sweep up the skeletons of his victims that accumulate down there. Clement plays Vladislav, the 800 year old Dracula stand-in, but diminished from a run-in with another vampire known as The Beast. Waititi plays the fussy, frilly Lestat equivalent Viago, who really is a sweet, decent guy once you get past the mass murder. Lastly, there’s Deacon, the young (not even 200!) vampire who feels like he could have stepped out of Buffy’s rogues gallery.

The roomies have your standard roommate problems, exposed in a meandering mockumentary format. They argue about chores, who made messes, whose turn it is to bring virgins in to be killed and drained of blood. They also suffer with uniquely undead-related issues. Because they have no reflections, they resort to sketching one another when it’s time to try on outfits to go out. And getting into nightclubs is hell because they have to be specifically invited in. The first half hour is the film’s best: a shaggy, meandering wander through the nightly unlives of four mismatched friends.

Like many comedies, it slows a bit as the machinations of plot take over. Petyr turns a man meant as a meal into a vampire, and this new vampire, Nick, promptly goes around town telling everyone what he is (specifically, the guy from Twilight). In the film’s most inspired running gag, he also introduces the gang to Stu, his mortal pal who teaches the vampires all about the modern world. They all fucking love Stu, a man so pleasant, soft-spoken, and mild you can’t help but love him too.

Okay, maybe the second-best running gag. The werewolves are pretty great as well, with their catchphrase being one of the most inspired pieces of wordplay I’ve heard in a long while. They’re supposedly getting their own spinoff, We’re Wolves, and if it’s half as fun as this one, you’ll be reading about it here. Waititi and Clement are both good enough that I can’t wait to see whatever else the two of them plan to do.

One of my favorite aspects of the film is how intentionally shabby it is. The vampires are lurking in Wellington. Not one of the great, gothic cities of old Europe, or the neon-drenched postmodern hellscape of New York or Macau. The Unholy Masquerade, the event of the year (featuring not just vampires but witches, zombies, and possibly demons… and this year, Stu) takes place in a bland ‘70s-decorated boxy meeting hall with scratched linoleum floors and plastic chairs. The house the vampires live in is large but dilapidated, with water-stained walls, piles of filthy dishes, and the odd collection of old newspapers. It’s never over-decorated in that Rob Zombie way, where a house that should feel accessible is instead a near parody of a haunted house, but a believable dwelling for a group of ageless bachelors whose idea of sweeping is dragging a body down a hallway.

The impressive thing about the film is that we spend ninety minutes with a group of unrepentant murderers and end up kind of loving all of them. Deacon spent the ‘40s as a Nazi. Vladislav thinks the solution to all his problems are slaves and torture. Even sweet Viago can’t eat without turning a room into something out of Kill Bill. But we don’t hate these characters. We’re not rooting for their deaths. Mostly because of how goddamned funny they all are.

What We Do in the Shadows is a worthy companion piece to the similarly-themed Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. While it’s billed as a horror comedy, it’s more accurate to call it a comedy designed specifically to appeal to horror fans. There’s nothing scary about it, but the portrayal of the vampires is reminiscent of the time when vampires were supposed to be frightening. We might not get vampires back as proper monsters, but in this context, they’ll more than do.

 

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Yakmala: Vampire Dentist

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I’ve seen ransom notes with better graphic design.

As with any movie, there’s always a debate over precisely how bad a bad movie is. Was it truly garbage, or was it merely terrible? A far more fascinating question was raised in the wake of Vampire Dentist’s screening. Was it even technically a movie?

Tagline: Open To Both Teeth And Fangs

More Accurate Tagline: You Maniacs! You Did It! You [made Vampire Dentist]! AH, DAMN YOU! DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!

Guilty Party: Writer/Director/Producer/Auteur/War Criminal Christine Whitlock. I’m pretty sure this whole thing happened because her Vampire: the Masquerade LARP got wildly out of control, and everyone involved was too hopped up on Manic Panic fumes to raise some reasonable objections. You know, objections like “the fuck are we doing?” The alternative is that this woman sat down, write this… thing, then got people to “act” in it. There’s no scenario where that doesn’t involve human trafficking.

Synopsis: Okay, right there we have a fucking problem. “Synopsis” implies a plot, and Vampire Dentist doesn’t have one of those. It’s like trying to write a synopsis of those visions you had after that fat guy hit you with a hammer at Burger King. All you’re going to remember is pillowing flesh and the smell of grease.

The movie opens with two sexual predators getting their start as dentists. First, they rent some abandoned warehouse space where the Ukrainian mob used to shoot the kind of snuff that snuff connoisseurs think is “too out there for me, man.” Then they attempt to lure unsuspecting people into their practice. For some reason, no one wants to go to a murder dungeon to get their teeth looked at, so they’re having trouble drumming up business.

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#NotAllDentists

Oh yeah, and their names? Dr. Moe Lars and Dr. Pierce Able. Just in case you didn’t get those awesome puns, don’t worry! They will be addressed by their full names throughout the interminable running time. When the universe finally suffers heat death, the last sound you hear before your soul mercifully winks out of existence will be “Dr. Moe Lars.”

Because they attempt to sexually assault every one of their clients, they have a tough time getting the practice going, so they sub-let the office at night to Dr. Drek Vam Dent. Yeah. That name might be the most honest thing happening here. He’s a vampire, and meanwhile, the local vampires are just going apeshit attacking people in a park. So they need dentists.

Everybody following that?

Vam Dent (get it? Get it?! FUCKING GET IT?!) gets a talisman that scares off other vampires, but not him for some reason. And he’s having a feud with the local vampires. Vam Dent and Moe Lars both fall in love with the same blind woman, and it’s essentially a race over who can sexually assault her first.

Look, I didn’t write the fucking thing, okay?

Then Vam Dent makes peace with Moe Lars and Pierce Able. And the whole thing just kind of stops. They hit ninety minutes of runtime, and the Ukrainian mob really needed the space. Gimp Party Massacre wasn’t going to shoot itself.

Life-Changing Subtext: Sexual assault is an important part of dentistry. Maybe the single most important part.

Defining Quote: “Here’s a copy of our fee structure for when you come back! The first visit’s free.” This line is uttered by Aunt May Lars who serves as the practice’s receptionist, usually called after a fleeing patient, wondering why they decided go to the dentist in the middle of I Spit on Your Grave. This line happens enough that it qualifies as a running gag, in the same way that John Wayne Gacy is technically a child’s birthday party entertainer.

Standout Performance: This movie features a narrator. Normally, to justify a narrator, you’d need a plot, or maybe some character motivation. But this is Vampire Dentist. They had a guy, Allen Swerling, and decided periodically, they’d cut to him saying something maybe tangentially related to the plot. He’s dressed up as a vampire, so he fits. I like to think he was cast solely because he’s never not dressed as a vampire.

Anyway, the whole thing is lit like a train going through a tunnel. After a certain point, they give up on even the limp commentary he’s been doing thus far, and he just starts shouting “Bite!” at the camera.

And he’s the best actor in the whole thing.

What’s Wrong: Somehow, this movie regards the “Dentist” part of the title as more mysterious and terrifying than the “Vampire” part.

Oh yeah, and the entire soundtrack features soulful indie guitar strummin’, sometimes at the same time as a cartoon sound effect. This happens during a scene where Dr. Pierce Able takes a new patient to his corner of the office and exposes himself to her. It’s like if you crossed an episode of H.R. Pufnstuf with one of those videos where they catch a pervert in the act, then got Iron and Wine to score the whole thing.

…and then there are the fart gags.

Flash of Competence: Ahahahahahahaha. No.

Best Scenes: The nice thing is, if you like a scene, you’ll get to see it ten more times.

Transcendent Moment: Vampire Dentist ends with what can only be called a terrorist threat. After ninety minutes of torture it closes with the promise of a sequel: Vampire Dentist 2: The Bloody Vial, calling it “the ongoing saga of the Vam Dent family.” This is the most egregious misuse of the word “saga” since it was used to describe the process of crushing candy in order to bilk bored people out of their money.

Also, who watched this thing and was like, “Man, I wonder what Vam Dent’s nephews are up to?”

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Say Ah! Ah! Ah!

Don’t watch this. Don’t even consider watching this. Don’t even speak to anyone who’s watched it. In fact, whatever device you just read this review on, burn it. Phone, computer, tablet, whatever. You can’t let Vampire Dentist out on this world.

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