James Franco’s 2016 remake of the Tori Spelling Lifetime Original Movie Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is a biting sociopolitical commentary on pervasive homophobia, sexism, and rape culture issues that plague college campuses in the 2010s. That’s a half-truth. The film is also a shameless, leering camp fest about lesbian vampires that sometimes borders on the less-than-prestigious realm of dime store erotica. Either way you look at it, the film is easily the most outrageously entertaining work I’ve seen from Lifetime in decades (unless you include those Mommie Dearest marathons they do on Mother’s Day; those are hilarious). It’s funny, it’s trashy, it’s dirt cheap, and it’s more than a little bit sleazy: pretty much the perfect calibration for an instant Lifetime classic. Better yet, its penchant for cheesy sleaze feels 100% earnest, never truly crossing into the winking parody of an Asylum mockbuster or a ZAZ-style spoof, despite what you may assume from its pedigree. If this vampiric “re-imagining” is an indication of where Lifetime programming is currently headed, we’re in for some tawdry good fun in the years to come, a second golden age of made-for-television schlock.
In the mid-90s version of Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?, Tori Spelling plays a perfect teen daughter who falls head over heels for a bad seed her mother suspects to be a thug & a murderer. It was a fairly standard rehashing of the classic “road to ruin” B-pictures of the 1950s, which was essentially Lifetime’s bread & butter in its heyday and the exact kind of crap that made that channel’s original content memorable in the first place. Franco’s remake finds a way to blow all that to hell while still paying respect to its source material’s basic aesthetic appeal. The essential plot overview is still the same here –an overly nosy mother (this time played by Spelling) worries that her teen daughter is falling for someone who could lead to her ruin; and she turns out to be right! — but the major details are replaced to heighten the absurdity of the scenario: the daughter’s dangerous love interest is a lesbian vampire and it’s her sapphic coven of undead “nightwalkers” that pose a threat,not her. What we have here is star-crossed lovers being torn apart because they’re from different worlds: box wine suburbia & bloodsucking lesbian murder covens, respectfully. Its tragic romance is something out of a Shakespearean play, an element Franco’s production plays up by centering the film around a Shakespearean play, specifically Macbeth. Life is but a stage & Franco seems intent on masturbating in every corner of that stage, an impulse that plays beautifully in the made-for-TV schlock landscape.
You’d be forgiven to find some James Franco projects a little insufferable for their artistic pretensions (you’d certainly have a lot of projects to choose from there; the man never sleeps). That pretension totally works in this garbage bin smut context, though. In the film Franco himself plays a college campus theater director staging a girl-on-girl erotica adaptation of Macbeth, with the film’s director, Melanie Aitkenhead, sitting at his right hand, nodding approvingly. The two cohorts gleefully eat up their own slash fiction filth from the comfortable distance of a theater audience. There’s a comment on the artificiality of the whole production built into that device, but it’s mostly a nod to Franco & Aitkenhead knowing & enjoying the exact kind of campy smut they’ve staged here. There’s also a couple college classroom lectures our danger-sleeper-wither protagonist attends titled “Vampires & Sexuality” and “Virginity & Sisterhood” that casually dig up thematic implications like homophobia & teen sexuality in titles like Dracula & Twilight with no intention of actually exploring those topics in any insightful way. Franco, who receives a “story by” credit here on top of being an executive producer, constantly reminds the audience that he knows how to make a smart, poignant vampire picture; he just happens to be more interested in making very softcore sapphic porn.
The one way Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? might be mistaken for something mildly insightful is in its depiction of college campuses as a dangerous hellscape for young women. Although it’s true that a gang of fanged lesbians dressed in Hot Topic lingerie are out to turn our troubled protagonist into a “nightwalker,” they are mostly treated as an afterthought in light of the film’s true villains: men. In order to ethically sustain themselves on human blood, our spooky The Craft knockoff vampire coven feeds on frat house rapists & dude bro Redditor types, of which its college campus setting has plenty. This moral center unravels under even the slightest scrutiny, though. They murder rapists, sure, but they leave their victims’ drained bodies next to the girls they were going to assault, carelessly setting them up to take the blame. That’s hardly model vigilante behavior, but what’s even worse is that when they accidentally turn the film’s most egregious example of toxic rape culture into a nightwalker, they just accept him as one of their own and allow him to go about his usual predatory business. It’s probably not too smart to dissect this film’s thematic trajectory, honestly. It’s much less of a thoughtful, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night style of vampire flick than it is a trashy Jennifer’s Body-type. Despite what Franco’s play-within-a-play self reflection might invite you to believe, it’s most likely best to enjoy the film for its laughable melodrama and its purty pictures.
Speaking of purty pictures, Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? is damn ugly, just truly hideous stuff. Of course, due to its subject matter, it’s hopelessly buried under what I consider the absolute worst era of pop culture aesthetic: late 90s nu metal/mall goth. The film’s Charmed/Twilight/Disney’s Descendants Spirit Halloween Store cosplay was almost entirely unavoidable, though. What really stands out is its endless establishing shots of bland drone-POV cityscapes, its watery-purple stage blood, and its Dr. Phibes by way of a Halloween-themed T.A.T.U. music video masquerade parties, all just perfectly hideous in a way only television can get away with & not get called out for it. It’s tempting to assume that the film’s visual cheapness was an intentional means to point to its own artificiality, like the college lectures or the Macbethean play-within-a-play machinations. The truth is, though, that the film is naturally hideous because it’s so damn earnest. If it were a more ironic production it likely would’ve tried avoiding its television-ugly genre trappings, but this is one remake that stays true to its dirt cheap Lifetime roots, a shoddy authenticity that helps sell its intrinsic camp pleasures beautifully.
It’s a well-informed balance between heady subject matter & campily melodramatic execution that makes Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? such a riot, a formula that holds true for all of Lifetime’s most memorable features whether they focus on co-ed call-girls, wife-mother-murderers or, in this case, lesbian vampires. This film has the gall to approach topics as powerful as grieving over familial loss, coming out to your parents, and the horrors of date rape, but does so only as a means to a tawdry end, namely inane mother-daughter shouting matches & young, lingerie-clad girls making out in spooky graveyards. It’s wonderfully trashy in that way, the best possible prospect for made-for-TV dreck. If when you were watching Refn’s fashion world horror The Neon Demon you wished it were instead cheap & awful, this film’s fashion photography montages & horrendous pop music are going to blow your trashy mind (also, you are ridiculous). If you think Ren Faire goth never got its fair shake as an aesthetic turn-on, you are about to get all worked up by this TV-14 smut (with little to no payoff, of course). If when you were watching the Paul Rust/Gillian Jacobs romcom Love, you found yourself curious what the fictional show-within-a-show witchcraft drama Witchita might feel like instead, you are in luck, you silly thing.
Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? only appeals to the basest of your television pleasure zones, assuming that if you tuned in for a Lifetime movie, you’re in the mood for some really trashy shit. The one thing it changes up from the normal formula is that it mixes its awful Tori Spelling-brand acting (she really has not improved an inch in the last two decades; she’s impressively stubborn in that way) with some stubby-fanged, throat-tearing gore (it’s not called Mother, May I Sleep with Safety?, after all). Throw in some supernatural baloney about vampires never needing to feed if they find their one true love (no word on if that’s reversed if it winds up being just a college fling), some of the world’s sloppiest blood-eating, and a few stray howler lines like “I’m going to turn you into a nightwalker, bitch!” and you have one strange, campy delight. Again, Franco & company trust that if you show up for this picture in the first place, you’re going to be down for some tawdry smut along the way. They’re not wrong. I had a lot of shameful, lowbrow fun.