By Elias Savada.
Nicolas Cage, like Bruce Willis, seems to be trying everything and anything to reinvent his career. Or find a wider audience, like the ones that once flocked to the back-to-back-to-back hits (The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off) which followed his Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas, a distant 23 years ago. Of late, Willis has done mostly straight-to-video or direct-to-cable fare, including the awful First Kill last year. He might get some traction from the reboot of Eli Roth’s Death Wish due March 2nd, or his return as David Dunn in M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass, currently set for release a year from now. Meanwhile, Cage churns out limited or internet releases, including last year’s stale popcorn flics Vengeance: A Love Story, Inconceivable, and Arsenal.
Which brings us to Mom & Dad, a dark horror comedy from writer-director Brian Taylor (his first solo outing), who teamed up with Cage and co-director Mark Neveldine in 2011’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, but helmed (also with Neveldine) the adrenaline-infused crime thriller Crank (2006) and its sequel Crank: High Voltage three years later. I am a huge fan of Taylor’s current television series, Happy, the SyFy network’s violently funny, crazed crime fantasy featuring a demented Christopher Meloni as a battered, bullied, and off-his-rocker father and disgraced ex-cop, and Patton Oswalt voicing the title character, a pint-sized, imaginary, blue-winged horse. The series is based on Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson’s graphic novel.
It’s a winner. The film is not.
For some reason, as I started watching Mom & Dad, which just opened in a handful of U.S. theatres (in the DC market at two, including the Alamo Winchester, about 75 miles from the White House), while also being available on Video On Demand and Digital HD platforms, my mind drifted to a song from my youth. For those of you old or savvy enough to recall the 1966 Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth,” most of the lyrics are a perfect set up for the film, including: Paranoia strikes deep / Into your life it will creep / It starts when you’re always afraid / You step out of line, the man come and take you away.
Seems that there’s an outbreak of paranoia (cause unknown) just as the film begins, although Taylor likes to playfully reveal its advancing roll out. A young mother leaves her car, with her young child secured in the back seat, at a railroad crossing, just as a train is approaching….
This unsettling news is greeted with indifference in the Ryan household, a boring middle-class household in an unidentified (filmed in Kentucky) suburbia, a “Little Boxes” enclave like ones made famous by Pete Seeger decades ago. In their home are middle-aged dad Brent (Cage), mom Kendall (Selma Blair), rebellious high school sophomore daughter Carly (Anne Winters), and rambunctious and ticklish son Josh (Zackary Arthur). Your average, bickering nuclear family. While there are amusing moments that project the terror that will soon engulf the film, there are also some scenes showing confusion, including one in surrounding road kill (dying, dead?) that Josh has rescued from a neighbor’s yard. The boy secrets it away in a shoe box to his dad’s nicely trimmed Trans Am and feeds it fruit loop cereal. The viewer doesn’t have a clue what it is or how it might fit into the plot.
While the film has plenty of gallows humor – easy to do when it involves one segment of the population (parents) taking on another (their kids) in a widespread, maniacal bloodbath – the by-the-numbers script never advances its murderous premise beyond one fish-out-of-water sequence to the next. Car keys, plastic bags, matches, knives, meat mallets, wire hangers, and other mundane utensils of modern day life take on more “useful” purpose in Taylor’s script. Yet the director-writer doesn’t build up the comedy enough to elevate it beyond the typical cat-and-mouse game that Mom & Dad plays out during its second half, in which the Ryan home is nearly demolished.
In a presumably unintended wink at Get Out, Carly’s boyfriend, Damon (Robert Cunningham) is black, a h.s. junior who gets decent screen time, including one of the more delicious moments while he’s taking a PSAT exam. Anxious, zombie-ish parents are waiting outside the room’s glass doors, causing the proctor to comment that “They look like they’re waiting for a buffet.” It’s got a nice flavor to it, even if there’s no evidence the parents are have become flesh-eating zombies. The fathers and mothers actually are portrayed as mostly normal outside of their now homicidal inclinations.
As absurdly nonsensical as the film’s concept is – perhaps the filial condition is hooked into a genetic pheromone driving the adults to off their offspring – it’s too tongue-in-cheek. There are no scientists trying to explain the phenomenon, just tv sets playing white noise. No commercials for Ancestry.com are playing in the background; maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to take that DNA test? Lance Hendrickson, obviously has, with a very brief cameo as Brett’s father, arriving at his son’s home just in time to dish out some dirt.
As for Cage, he’s in fine angry form, whether in 3-weeks-ago flashback (one of too many in the film) in which he demolishes a pool table, or, in his present unhinged state of mind, chasing after his unfortunate children. In a film that matches Team Parents and Team Kids against one another, no one wins, except maybe parentless children. This is not the return to favor that is going to get Nicolas Cage back on sound footing with his fans. Mom & Dad ends on one big false note, one that the filmmaker thinks is cute. (It’s not.) All that grunting and groaning you hear during the film? A good deal of it is coming from the audience.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).