Lifetime movies are synonymous with two things: Women in peril and women who kick ass. Sometimes it’s both. Sometimes the woman at the center is the villain and the moral of the story seems to be she gets what’s coming to her. But what they all have in common is that women are in danger.
James Franco‘s remake of the classic 1996 Lifetime movie Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? shares in that theme, but doesn’t have much to do with the original at all. The cult classic starred Tori Spelling as a sweet teen, Laurel, whose mother (Lisa Banes) began to worry about her safety once her new boyfriend, Billy (Ivan Sergei), became obsessive. The new version, premiering on Lifetime this weekend, has very little in common outside of appearances from Tori Spelling, now in the mother role, and Ivan Sergei as a professor at the college where most of the movie takes place.
Oh yeah, and did I mention Laurel is now Leah (Leila George), a lesbian who is in love with a vampire?
Actually, Pearl (Emily Meade) identifies as a nightwalker, and at the beginning of the movie, she was reluctantly turned by a girl she was in love with. “Please, we have this eternal bond forever!” Pearl’s fang-bearing girlfriend pleads. “I’m tired of killing. If I turn you, we can feed off each other forever!” A fight ensues and Pearl ends up getting turned, being told, “You’re a nightwalker now and you’re gonna kill until you find your one true love.”
Enter Leah. It’s a year later at a small university where the professor is teaching the class about Dracula and the use of murderous monster figures as queer symbolism. (He actually uses the word queer several times, which has to be a Lifetime record.) Leah is really into this and starts talking at length about Twilight and how it depicted pre-marital sex and teen virginity.
Leah is also really into theater, and she auditions to play Macbeth in the school play. The audition is a sexually charged Sapphic scene with Leah’s midriff exposed and James Franco portraying the director, smiling from the audience like he’s pleased with himself, and you know he totally is.
Later, Leah goes to see Pearl at the school’s photography studio, where she makes sure to mention Pearl never leaves. Pearl is noticeably gother now, dark black hair, a leather jacket, a very monotone demeanor. A sensual lingerie photoshoot ensues, which plays out like a male fantasy. Then Leah says she wants Pearl to meet her mom, even though she’s “super conservative.” We all know how this will turn out.
Pearl’s nightwalker friends, all similarly dressed in Hot Topic steampunk gear and permanent menacing facial expressions, confront her about when she’s going to turn Leah. “You still owe us,” one says. “We’re waiting.” It seems they have chosen Leah, and it’s Pearl’s turn to make it happen. But she has fallen for Leah, which she didn’t expect to happen! A trope that has been a part of vampire tales and lore since the genre was invented.
And, predictably, Tori Spelling is not a fan of Pearl’s, nor is she into her daughter’s lesbianism. She wants Leah to bring home a “college boyfriend,” not a goth lesbian. But Leah isn’t swayed. She pours all of her energy into Macbeth, and the nightwalkers are also in the show as—you guessed it—the witches! There’s a hypersexual bloody scene that Shakespeare likely never intended, but he never met James Franco.
It’s all intended to be rather campy, but it comes off more cringe-worthy than anything else. While Leah and Pearl try to move past the roadblocks to a happy relationship—Pearl’s being a murderous vampire, Leah’s mom being a homophobe, the nightwalking lesbians demanding Leah becomes one of them, an obsessive guy named Bob who won’t leave Leah alone—they never delve into the issues at the heart of the original cult classic.
Sure, Bob is the worst and even sexually assaults Leah, but he doesn’t end up really suffering for it. (I won’t spoil the end for you, but he doesn’t pay his true penance.) And it’s a nice touch that the nightwalkers only feed off of douchey rapists and terrible men, but the aspect of the “forbidden love” at the center of Mother May I feels like an attempt at a metaphor that is actually quite blatant. The movie is uneven and plays more like a soft core porn at times (two women removing their lacy bras together while sexing on a gravesite!), while Tori Spelling’s whole schtick is a flat, one-note concern about her daughter who seem very disconnected despite the fact they lost their husband/father in a tragic accident not so long ago.
While Lifetime has gotten a tiny bit better at queer inclusion on their network (mostly care of UnReal) sadly, their movies are still very heteronormative (a word they clearly know, because it’s in this script), and if Mother May I is their attempt at lesbian visibility, it is not the best. It’s also something we’ve seen many times before, and done way better and with more depth (see: True Blood, Carmilla, etc.).
The moral of this movie might as well be: don’t send your daughters to college—she might meet a vampire and become a lesbian. It’s sadly not as campy as they intended, but rather outdated. Were James Franco and Lifetime actually interested in giving this idea a lesbian twist and maintaining the original message, they might have left out the vampires completely and focused on a relationship between two women that was unhealthy because of dominance and emotional manipulation, something rarely touched upon by Hollywood in any kind of nuanced way. But that’s probably expecting too much.
Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? airs Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime