Musings on James Franco’s bizarre lesbian vampire Lifetime movie
I have a rather nagging fixation on tawdry, leering, Lifetime movies; those television trash films that have long been pumped out of the once noble network to titillate audiences hungry for low-rent thrills. And there’s nothing wrong with this. And if there IS something wrong with this…well, I don’t give a flying fuck.
Apologies for the profanity, but I’m employing it to illustrate a point. Using the “F” word is infinitely more graphic than the stuff you see in Lifetime movies. These are most assuredly exploitation films, filled with sexual deviancy, murder and all manner of lurid transgression. And yet none of this sensationalism strays beyond the level of PG.
And that’s the appeal.
When the Hays office slammed down on Hollywood, enforcing the puritanical production code in the early 1930s, filmmakers and studios had to hide all their dirty stuff and scenes of potentially offensive material lest they get their movie yanked from theaters. But as we all know, when we bury base impulses they just get perverted and leak out in weird ways and part of the joy of 30’s and 40’s cinema is the fact that producers and directors invented clever ways to push unsavory aspects of their stories but sneak them through the back door, weaving them into the narrative using allusions, suggestions, body language and double entendres. And of course, that just made audiences feel even filthier, becoming willing accomplices working hard to read between the lines to win their kinky reward.
And so it goes with TV movies and in this case, Lifetime movies. The first wave “golden age” of tawdry small-screen melodrama cinema surged in the 1970s, with a glut of “women in jeopardy” thrillers that featured strong women characters as their heroines, a blatant attempt to lock their target demographic of female consumers. The seemingly endless spate of similarly constructed films made for the Lifetime Network are the heirs to that dynasty, with films often based on either pulp books or headline-ripped true crime tales and starring actors young and old that are either on the professional ascent or decline. Among the hundreds strong in the Lifetime cannon sits 1996’s MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER? starring BEVERLY HILLS 90210 actress Tori Spelling (the daughter of TV tycoon Aaron Spelling, who himself produced dozens of those original 70’s TV movies) as a girl who falls in love with a manipulative, murderous young man (Ivan Sergei) whose psychosis almost signals her death knell.
20 years later, Lifetime released a remake of that highly-rated tabloid trash gem. Sort of. The in-name successor once more stars Spelling, this time as the single mother of a teenage girl (Leila George) who in this case doesn’t fall prey to a brutal bad dude, rather she starts up a lesbian affair with a teenage Goth vampiress (Emily Meade)! That’s right: a remake of a trash TV movie that doubles as a trash TV horror sexploitation movie! Yow! And the kicker? It’s produced and co-written by Hollywood multi-hyphenate actor James Franco!
How? Why? Well, I have a theory. Read on…
Back in 2012 I conducted an interview with Franco, the purpose of which was to talk about his hyper-violent Cormac McCarthy shocker CHILD OF GOD for the magazine I was editing at the time, FANGORIA and honestly, it was a fantastic conversation. I found Franco intelligent, friendly, serious-minded yet self-deprecating and dedicated to pouring his energy into making as much art in as many mediums as humanly possible. I eventually turned the tete-a-tete to mention one of my heroes, Jess Franco and asked if James had heard of his surname namesake, who I mentioned he also shared a restless creative spirit with. He had not heard of Jess Franco, but when I mentioned he was well-known for a string of lesbian vampire movies lensed in the 60s and 70s, he was amused and interested and wrote down titles and promised to investigate.
So allow me to claim – or imagine – some responsibility for the fact that director Melanie Aitkenhead’s redux of MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER? even exists! I like to think that Franco did heed my words and either investigated the work of the notorious Spanish director or at least jumped at the opportunity to make a similar film. And making it for a network known for their covert perversion masquerading as socially relevant entertainment is a streak of bratty, transgressive genius. At least I think it is.
Is MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER? any good? Well, yes and no. It’s well acted and moves fast and is silly and surprisingly bloody and compelling throughout. It’s not scary. It’s not particularly artistically interesting. It’s kind of tacky. It’s a Lifetime movie, through and through. But it’s also the only lesbian vampire Lifetime movie and it’s the only James Franco-produced lesbian vampire Lifetime movie and it’s the only James Franco co-starring lesbian vampire Lifetime movie and it’s the very fact that Franco made it simply because he could that gives it such an almost punk rock feel. And yet it’s oddly reverent to its source. It’s probably the most unnecessary and unwanted remake in film history and yet Franco plays it straight (ahem) and respectful with the re-casting of Spelling (who, whatever you think of her, commits sincerely to the role) and even the original’s Sergei as a vampire obsessed college professor. It’s a callback to fans of the first film (all 3 of them) and it’s an admirable and commendably weird conceit.
Recently, Mill Creek Entertainment placed both versions of the story on a single DVD release. It’s the secret handshake, B-movie release of the year, I think; an arcane treasure for deep-drawer lovers of pop culture junk. And as for Franco (who chased this thing with his acclaimed and award-winning THE ROOM docudrama THE DISASTER ARTIST), love him or hate him (and I know many who subscribe faithfully to both camps)…who else is like him?