Over the weekend, the Lifetime network continued their new commitment to honoring their splashy, campy roots by staking their claim to the vaunted tradition of lesbian vampire movies. The new Lifetime movie Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? borrows its name and not much else from a 1996 NBC TV movie in which Tori Spelling’s dream boyfriend turns out to be an abusive nightmare. James Franco wrote the script for this revamp, which follows Leah, a college student whose ambitions to play Macbeth are interrupted by the machinations of a jealous date rapist … and by her girlfriend’s obligations to the local cult of lesbian vampires.
The slick stylishness of the new Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? is a credit to director Melanie Aitkenhead, who approaches Franco’s script as if it were an episode of Pretty Little Liars — the complete opposite of one of Franco’s typically belabored art projects. Aitkenhead met Franco as a student in one of the master’s courses he taught at USC, and though her work background was in advertising, her ambitions lay in filmmaking. In Aitkenhead’s hands, no one in Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? mumbles or lingers, and the only person who performs ironically is Franco himself. There’s more emphasis on cool goths walking in slow motion than on Franco’s poorly interpreted and awkwardly inserted nods to highbrow fare like “Goblin Market,” but if Aitkenhead’s breeziness saves the movie from collapsing under the weight of Franco’s half-baked ideas, there’s not much she can do about a funhouse built on shaky foundations.
Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? was marketed as a part of Lifetime’s new “Fempire” rebranding campaign, which turns away from classic woman-in-peril narratives like the original Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? in favor of empowering stories aimed at a younger audience. The focus on edgier content probably explains the surprisingly frank sex scenes in the new Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, but the contradictions of Lifetime’s commitment are just as visible as their attempts to grow.
In a corporate ploy worthy of a subplot on Lifetime’s own UnREAL, “Fempire” was coined within Lifetime, after considerable debate, as an alternative to “feminist,” as the network feared alienating its older audience. "What we wanted is a word that [all ages] would hear and not have to fear it meant we'd be preachy or earnest with our fists in the air," offered Lifetime executive Sarah Gateley in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
What this non-politics-as-politics stance means in practice is that Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? is a mess of half-articulated and half-abandoned ideologies. Leah sits in on faux-profound lectures about desiring death and insatiable thirst, but her own romance is a promise of unthreatening eternal monogamy. Her girlfriend Pearl’s vampire cult starts the film out as a kind of vigilante girl justice group, feeding on rapists at college parties. But when the group’s attack on Leah’s wannabe rapist Bob is interrupted, he’s turned into a vampire and absorbed into the pack, and the suggestion of date-rape justice flies out the window. The movie ends with Bob as the leader of the vampires, this time choosing a partying girl to be the group’s next victim. Empowering!
It’s not as if the new Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? is betraying any political ambitions of the original 1996 movie, which mined its thrills from watching Tori Spelling run and hide from her stalker ex-boyfriend. But unlike its predecessor, the new movie is not content being an outright ode to conservative family values, and Lifetime’s focus on marrying traditional values to progressive talking points makes the new film’s conservatism feel insidious. Only complicating matters of creating progressive work in corporate settings is the involvement of Franco — in a way he’s the perfect partner for Lifetime on this project, as the magnitude of Franco’s confusion can only be matched by the magnitude of his opportunism.
Lifetime is looking to build its brand off of the new feminist movement without having to take the risk of actually contributing to that movement. Franco, in the meantime, has spent the last decade rebranding himself as a near-queer provocateur, with everything from short films to Instagram posts to photography shows. The new Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? marries the emptiness of the two products with gusto — maybe never more than in the film’s classroom scenes. While most of the movie is taken up with the lesbian vampire cult, Franco curiously stops the plot in its tracks at crucial moments to include scenes of Leah in seminar, taking in on-the-nose lectures about death wishes and true love. She’s the smartest girl in class! You can tell because her old white male teacher (played by Ivan Sergei, the stalker from the original Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?) always calls on her first. He is the master of all things queer, and she learns the value of eternal love from misinterpretations of Christina Rossetti. Meanwhile, the radical work of feminism and queerness — in undermining male authority, in finding value outside monogamy — I mean, for fuck’s sake, even in just repudiating Twilight — is completely erased.
Franco has bellyached in the past about how there is too much emphasis on his own sexuality when it comes to interpretations of his movies, as if it’s the press’s fixation on queerness, rather than his own, that fuels the reception of his work. But there are plenty of straight artists who have worked with queer themes, and I don’t see anyone scrambling to unravel the sexual history of figures like Douglas Sirk, David Cronenberg, Nicolas Roeg, Jane Campion, Sally Potter, Ang Lee, or Wong Kar Wai — though their films have done infinitely more to inspire queer artists than Franco’s have. (Franco even seems aware of the existence of these intermediate figures, since he steals from them almost as relentlessly as he steals from the queer artists who were inspired by them.)
If Franco wants to know why he isn’t treated as a neutral figure, he should maybe consider that Wong Kar Wai doesn’t stop his characters in the middle of their doomed tango in Argentina so they can have a tête-à-tête about how theorists would frame the radicality of the actions they’re already undertaking. Nor did David Cronenberg cast himself as The Fly. In Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, Franco’s found a role for himself as the director giving the go-ahead on Leah’s Macbeth — and his insistence on making himself an authoritative part of the story has been a persistent theme in his work. He’s Allen Ginsberg in Howl, he’s playing himself directing gay porn, he’s the one walking around with the Place in the Sun tattoo in the upcoming Zeroville. His fascination with his own image generally adds little to his films — though there are exceptions, especially in work directed by other artists — but because his films amount to little more than meta references to other artists' ideas, the only original territory left to explore is wondering why Franco is so desperate to be associated with queer culture in the first place.
Queer art has thrived on the margins of straight society for centuries and across cultures — crafting an outsider’s canon despite censorship, despite economic exclusion, and despite social marginalization. But as mainstream culture has begun the process of assimilating gay culture, queer art is facing the somewhat unprecedented problems that come from being included, as the eagerness of straight creators has made it increasingly possible for companies like Lifetime to feature gay content without having to commit to gay ideas or even gay artists. Projects like Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? offer a titillating look at gay romance that flatters straight audiences without having to answer to the desires, dreams, or anxieties of actual queer people. In one of this film's key story lines, Leah plays Macbeth, but she never gives a reason for why she wants the part, and she pointedly utters lines like “I dare do all that may become a man” while maintaining an entirely gender-normative and inoffensive physical presentation — even wearing a dress in the play’s performance. Beyond the risk-averse market, the United States has been eliminating the kind of public arts funding and distribution structure that fuels queer film in Canada and Europe, and so what often passes for queer in America is apolitically gay — not unapologetically queer.
Describing the results of audience research, Lifetime’s Sarah Gateley summarized the interests of the Lifetime audience, saying, "They want characters who exhibit those things that they don't feel the giddy-up to do every day.” A lesbian vampire movie where the gays are just like us!
I have no doubt of the earnestness of the many (presumably) straight people who put together Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? — but with friends like these, who needs enemies? As a director, James Franco has 9 films in post-production — that’s 9 more than Cheryl Dunye, Gregg Araki, John Waters, and Lisa Cholodenko combined. Where does the queer filmmaker go when straight artists feel content speaking for them? By the end of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, not even death can part Leah and Pearl, but even with true love attained, the most successful vampires are the ones behind the camera, not the ones in front of it.