'Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?' (2016): TV Review

Mother May I Sleep With Danger Still H 2016
Trae Patton/Lifetime/Sony Pictures Television
The blood takes a while to start flowing.

The James Franco-produced Lifetime movie puts a vampire-lesbian twist on a trashy Tori Spelling favorite.

Around a third of the way through Lifetime's new version of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, a college production of Macbeth descends (or ascends) into kinkiness as the three weird sisters writhe around a female Macbeth (Leila George's Leah), groping and caressing in a way the Bard of Avon perhaps only imagined. As the play's director, who may not actually have a name, James Franco leers in appreciation and, as the scene concludes, he turns to his assistant.

Only one notch of hamminess from bellowing, "Spring break forever!" he whispers smugly, "I did not direct that."

Franco also did not direct Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, which you may not know from early promotion for the telefilm, which emphasizes its Franco connection aggressively. The effort, which premieres Saturday, was directed by Melanie Aitkenhead. Franco also didn't write Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, though he contributed a story outline that must've gone something along the lines of, "But what if there were lesbian vampires?" before turning things over to actual screenwriter Amber Coney. And although Franco's face is on the posters, he isn't the star or even a major co-star in Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? In fact, by my count there are only two shots in which Franco shares the frame with the main members of his supporting cast.

These points are important to clarify, because so many of the things that Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? is being billed as aren't exactly what fans are going to find if they tune in, right down to the title, repurposed from a trashy classic that has become synonymous with a certain breed of paranoia-laced Lifetime movies, but actually aired on NBC in the fall of 1996. Franco and company correctly assessed that when it comes to the original telepic, the title and the endearingly clunky ineptitude of stars Tori Spelling and Ivan Sergei are the only relevant attributes. So the title, Spelling and Sergei are all back, but everything else in this incarnation is new, though I hesitate to call it "original."

In the latest version, Leah is a college student with an interest in theater and photography. On the stage, she stuns everybody by beating out jealous friend Bob (Nick Eversman) for the lead in The Scottish Play, a snubbing that hurts him less than realizing that Leah isn't interested in his romantic advances. Leah's actually into soulful, semi-goth Pearl (Emily Meade), who we saw become a nightwalker — like a vampire, only stripped of specific powers, weaknesses and mythology and apparently cursed to travel mostly in slo-mo packs — in the movie's opening scene. Leah and Pearl are in love, which you can tell by the number of picture-taking montages, all accompanied by flash editing and sound effects, Aitkenhead inflicts on viewers by way of courtship. But their love challenges the status quo, or at least challenges Leah's conservative mother (Spelling), still haunted by the completely irrelevant death of her husband years earlier. Maternal disapproval is the other thing this Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? has in common with the original. But whereas Lisa Banes' character was darned right that her daughter's boyfriend was bad news, Spelling's character is just a backstory-deprived bigot who needs to take a college course in Vampires & Sexuality to learn about the eternal linkages between the supernatural and representations of "otherness."

Fortunately, just such a course is being taught at Leah's school and she's helpfully enrolled. Taught by Sergei, playing a professor who may not have a name, the course appears to working off of one of those handy fictional syllabi that mirrors the main character's emotional journey, bringing in discussion of Dracula, Twilight and, most ambitiously, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market. Do you ever stop and wonder what the other students in those classes manage to get out of the curriculum? The ones who aren't in the early stages of a vampiric lesbian dating situation themselves? Do they ever wonder, "Yo, why is the professor only calling on that one girl, and how does she seem to know exactly what every author was thinking?"

As with Will Ferrell's A Deadly Adoption last year — another Lifetime movie linked authorially to its stars, rather than to director Rachel Goldenberg and writer Andrew Steele — much of the enjoyment of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? comes from the puzzlement of trying to decipher intent and the unease of gradually realizing how seriously the creative team is taking the material. My diagnosis is that Aitkenhead, Coney and Franco are, most frequently, taking this fairly seriously indeed, returning to a Sergei lecture or a rehearsed scene from Macbeth whenever the threads of theme start to drift away. Much is made of vampires and their outsider status serving as proxies for homosexuality over the years, belying how uncomplicated the relationship between Pearl and Leah is, or at least as uncomplicated as any human-on-vampire relationship can be when the vampire's three bloodsucking cohorts are constantly skulking around demanding their buddy kill her new gal-pal.

Because Franco was born in Palo Alto, Calif., and has familial links to Stanford, Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? actually works best as a specifically unintended commentary on the recent Stanford swimmer rape scandal (general commentary on the epidemic of campus sexual assault is definitely intended), since the vampires are occasionally tasked as vicious saviors for sexually wronged women, responding to several attempted cases of acquaintance rape with bloody vengeance. The last five minutes of the telepic completely undermine this subtext, but that's one of several "Please don't look too closely" cases of thematic dissonance as it battles with being progressive and feminist, but also with embracing some exploitative genre conventions that ignore how frequently vampire films and television shows have been progressive and feminist without any confusing hypocrisy.

Sorry. Aitkenhead, Coney and Franco may care about depth, but viewers won't. Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? is designed for drunken Saturday night tweeting and the biggest question most audiences will have is, "Is this movie the guilty pleasure I crave?"

The answer is "Kinda."

In its first half, the seriousness of the production weighs it down. There's an actual earnest treatment of the relationship between Pearl and Leah, but it's an '80s-inspired earnestness full of an inordinate number of dissolves and wipes and those picture-taking montages that are wedged between scenes of class and rehearsal that go by with so little impact that it's only at the end that you realize you maybe know the names of three characters in the entire movie. This is thin stuff and the only actor I'd definitively say is giving a "performance" is Meade, also great in arcs on Boardwalk Empire and The Leftovers. Pearl is the only character in Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? who seems to be making choices, and Meade alternates between vampy and awkwardly uncertain in a way that imposes believability on a movie that probably doesn't deserve it. George, daughter of Vincent D'Onofrio and Greta Scacchi, is a relative neophyte and her inexperience at least matches her character's winsome attitude, though pretending Leah's interpretation of Shakespeare could blow anybody away is harder than believing in vampires. With Spelling and Sergei, there's no way of knowing if they're paying homage to the wooden performances of their youth or authoring fresh wooden performances for a new generation, but it probably doesn't matter.

In its last third, the telefilm finally kicks into gear. That's when you get the blood-spurting, face-battering, knock-down-drag-out cemetery brawling vampire action that you want. That's also when you get a love scene that actually blends erotic and raunchy in a way Lifetime movies so rarely approach, much less achieve. The sex naturally takes place in a cemetery as well, because after a while everything in Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? starts happening in cemeteries. Wondering if production fired the location scout is a better preoccupation than pondering a fairytale twist on vampire mythology that may be a parable for gay marriage, but probably isn't.

And this is more review than anybody needs or needed for Lifetime's Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?

Cast: Leila George, Emily Meade, Nick Eversman, Tori Spelling, Ivan Sergei, James Franco
Writer: Amber Coney (from a story by James Franco)
Director: Melanie Aitkenhead

Airs: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Lifetime)