Monday, December 26, 2016

Mother May I Sleep with Danger – review

Director: Melanie Aitkenhead

Released: 2016

Contains spoilers

The original Mother May I Sleep with Danger (MMISWD) was a 1996 thriller starring Tori Spelling about a killer who targets, isolates, abuses and finally kills female targets and about his latest victim being saved by her mother. James Franco reimagined it twenty years on as a vampire film but also decided to take one of the potential subtexts of the vampire (and other monsters), the queer, and play with that as an overt theme.

This was not necessarily entirely successful – as I may not agree with some of the points made, especially around Dracula – but debate is always good and the fact that there was a conscious effort to hold a discussion through the medium of the film warms me to it in the very first place. As I intend to look at the points made I will, by necessity, spoil the film further than I normally would.

nightwalker attack
The film starts with a blonde girl (Emma Rigby) getting out of a car, entering a house and lighting candles. She receives a call and assures the caller that she will do it tonight. Pearl (Emily Meade) arrives and it is clear that the two are lovers. Pearl expects to go out but the other (she isn’t named in film or in credits) says her parents are out, gives Pearl a ring and suggests that Pearl photograph her – after she does they lie together and Pearl confirms she loves her. A confession follows, the girl is a nightwalker… kind of like a vampire (or exactly like, especially if you just take the fact that the character is credited as a vampire).

She shows her fangs and Pearl freaks, trying to run from the girl. They fight through the lounge, smashing a window and, eventually, the vampire bites Pearl. The deed done she sits back, suggesting she never wanted to hurt her but Pearl grabs a shard of glass and stakes her. We get some lore through this and a necessary story point. The vampire tells Pearl that they chose her to be a nightwalker – it was a direct attempt to victimise or empower (depending on viewpoint) Pearl. The fly in the ointment, so to speak, was the fact that the vampire fell in love with her. Nightwalker lore suggests that should a vampire find her one true love they can feed off each other for eternity, negating the need to kill humans. Pearl escapes the house, has a moment of pain and spasm, then turns and sees the three other vampires approach with a bound and gagged man.

Ivan Sergei as the teacher
So, the film has not only been transformed into a vampire movie but it has also directly focused on LGBTQ issues by making the focal cast members lesbians. This is less underscored and more shouted from the rooftops as the film jumps to five years later and a teacher (Ivan Sergei, Crossing Jordan: Revealed, Kindred: the Embraced & Vamps) talks about vampires and sexuality in class and how Dracula represented the queer. Note here that Ivan Sergei played the killer in the original MMISWD. The discussion suggests the vampire (and the monster) oft represents the queer and Van Helsing’s actions were to hetero-normalise the situation. That is a very 21st Century take on the situation. Despite the oft-quoted line “This man belongs to me”, Dracula preyed upon females. The three vampires in the castle represented a wanton aggressive female sexuality that rejected traditional female roles (they devoured the baby in the sack), Lucy became, post-mortem, sexually wanton and had to be symbolically gang-raped and killed to “free her” and Dracula cuckolded Jonathon Harker as he shared fluids with New Woman Mina and presumably would have ultimately inspired the same sexual wantonness. Dracula was not killed to establish hetero-normality but to re-impose Victorian patriarchal misogyny and put the women back in their collective place.

Leah in class
In the class is Leah (Leila George). Unlike Laurel (from the original MMISWD) who was a track star but suffered from an eating disorder, Leah seems together. She is clearly a favourite of the teacher, she has a podcast and she seems popular. There is a darkness in her past – her father was murdered six years before – but she seems well adjusted when it comes to that. In the class discussion, as someone disses Twilight, she is quick to defend the first book suggesting that it made teen sexuality dangerous again. That Edward possessed a danger to Bella that had been lost in a more sexually open and condom savvy generation – she does dislike the further books however. There is an irony inherent in this, given the danger she will face from the guy who waits behind for her after class. Bob (Nick Eversman, Vampires Suck & Hellraiser: Revelations) is infatuated with her (she later dismisses him as “just this guy that has a crush on me”) and is trying for Macbeth in the college play – assuming Leah is trying for Lady Macbeth.

Macbeth audition
When it comes to the audition Leah actually tries for Macbeth – with a girl playing Lady Macbeth with her. The display not only gender swaps the character but also is played with a lesbian eroticism that clearly interests the director (James Franco). Leah may have a dorm room but does laundry at home (actually she seems to spend more time there than at college). Her Mom (Tori Spelling) is disturbed about her taking on Macbeth (she deems the play as bloody and references obliquely her husband’s murder) but soon is distracted when Leah says she wants to bring someone special home to dinner. We later discover that she has assumed Bob (she knows Bob’s parents). We meet her someone special and it is Pearl, whilst Leah is with her she discovers she has been cast as Macbeth. The scene where we meet Pearl again takes the form of a photoshoot and reminded me a little of Embrace of the Vampire (1995).

Tori Spelling as the mom
So the basic story now goes that Leah has been chosen to be a nightwalker and the other three (unnamed) vampires have decreed that Pearl owes them (a new nightwalker to replace the one she killed). Bob, of course, sees Leah with Pearl and is jealous (and humiliated as his friends are there and they spot the girls kissing). Pearl has fallen in love with Leah (the one true love bit seems a bit twee, especially as she loved the previous vampire). Leah’s mom has a conservative American reaction to the idea that her daughter is gay – starting with denial and moving on to anger and forbidding them to be together.

on the hunt
The vampires are interesting in that they predate on men who have done women wrong. Whilst there is indication that their sisterhood has a Sapphic baseline (one of them kisses Pearl in a passive aggressive way), we get a clue to what they actually represent in film when they are cast as the witches in Macbeth. The witches have been said to represent many things including the external force that tempts humans and also the darkness that lies in the heart both of Macbeth and mankind generally. The rehearsal with the witches is, again, highly sexualised and yet the characters – depicted as attractive young women – are gender swapped, in a way, as in Macbeth they are described as bearded. “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so.” When we see them hunting, they attack a jock clearly about to rape a drunk/drugged girl – a foreshadowing of events later in the film and quite topical at the time of release of the film.

Bob dressed as a vampire
Leah’s mom works on the annual Country Club Halloween bash, a club Bob’s parents attend. He has already made Leah’s relationship with Pearl all about himself, told Leah’s mom that Pearl is part of a bad crowd and attends the party dressed as a traditional (Lugosi-esque) vampire. He spikes Leah’s drink, watches her with Pearl and, when the drug kicks in, gets her outside where he intends to rape her. This is interrupted by the vampires (who are wanting to forcibly transform Leah at this point, a form of rape itself) who attack Bob. Their feed is interrupted by Leah’s mom who finds her daughter – Bob has vanished.

Nightwalker Bob
Bob turns and, on the surface, it does seem strange that the nightwalkers (bar Pearl) would now side with him, but they do. He tries to kill Leah on stage (during the Macbeth and Macduff combat) and they run from the theatre. The female vampires also give chase, flank him as they march upon her and pin her down for him to attack. Bob announces “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time!” (at which point her mom enters the scene and Bob turns from Leah to attack her). The statement, when he has been a vampire for one day, underscores the fact that the bite is a penetration and a surrogate for sex. Pearl will only do it if Leah is willing (especially as she was forcibly turned) but Bob has no such qualms. Why are the nightwalkers helping, given their normal hunting pattern? Probably because they are distinct from Pearl as a group (none of them are named as individuals) and primarily symbolic. They are the darkness that the witches represent and, with Pearl, that darkness is directed into a vigilantism against sexual predators but with Bob it becomes the dark heart of the sexual predator.

Día de Muertos
There isn’t a lot of lore available in this (other than the true love and feeding). Staking kills but otherwise vampires heal but do not regenerate, and so the healing might be ugly. Pearl and Leah, between them, damage the three nightwalkers and Bob in various ways (plucking eyes out, ripping a throat out, smashing a head with masonry) but at the end we see them, a dark force majeure, entering a party a year later. They are initially dressed as skeletons (reminiscent of the Día de Muertos) and then revelling amongst the party goers who are oblivious to their (revealed) injured faces. The danger was still present, mirroring the coda of the original MMISWD. As for pearl and Leah; Leah willingly submits to the turning as Pearl’s one true love. The turning process seems painful – more so than for Pearl it would seem (and much more than for Bob, who turned off screen and, presumably close to the attack, soundlessly) – and perhaps the pain in some way represented labour as the turning led to rebirth.

So the film played with gender reversal and made the lesbian relationship positive and love based but also played a definite card of teen sexuality can still be dangerous. It made that danger the male misogynist who forces himself upon the unwilling, resorting to drugging to have his way if need be (and given certain US court cases in 2016 this proves to be poignant). It rallied against conservative America as represented by the mother – a woman, yes, but white and affluent who misreads the danger and where it sits (unlike the mother in the original MMISWD) due to her own prejudices. This prejudice was much like the prejudice that was at the core of Dracula (bowing to a patriarchal view) and so the opening discussion may have added a queer analysis of Stoker, which doesn’t wholly stand up for me, but was the ideal place to start this conversation.

And there I’ll park the analysis but it is great to have a movie that begs analysis. It wasn’t perfect, in some ways this was not the vehicle to have the discussion meaningfully – people would expect a camp, vampire flick along the stereotypical Lifetime style. There was some mixed signalling in the way the nightwalkers reacted to Bob. I did think, amongst everyone in the film, that Nick Eversman needs a mention as he shifted from smiling guy (at the very beginning he does almost seem harmless) to violent villain with ease and believability. I liked the film as anything that makes you think is worthwhile, but as a vampire story and film it wasn’t up there with the greats. 6 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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