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.
“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