Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair chew through scenery and sinew in this latest wannabe grindhouse exercise.
I’ve often struggled with the pretend grindhouse film. Some of my favorite movies ever produced are weirdo assaults on decency. The experience of witnessing David Carradine steer his Frankenstein-mobile into a herd of geriatric hospital patients in Death Race 2000 is one of astonishment and awe. These were movies made by maniacs, and the danger of seeing something truly deplorable was equally thrilling and disturbing. However, nostalgic gazes into the rear-view mirror of the charmingly slimy aesthetic have resulted in mixed bags at best (Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse double-bill) and the grotesquely boring at worst (Hostel). Theft as art has always been an essential element to the creative process. Its progression is the product of the consummation of existing art and ingenuity, but replication without contribution might as well be masturbation. Grindhouse cinema is so blatantly tied to a past era, and sometimes you just can’t go home again.
With Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage, directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor succeeded in recapturing the repugnant wonder of the grindhouse experience without drudging through a dull exercise of copycat style. Mounted on rollerblades and strapped with cheap Best Buy cameras, Neveldine /Taylor tore through audience’s senses of decency, thumbing their noses (and Jason Statham’s engorged member) against the moral code your parents failed to instill in your movie obsessing brain. Here were a pair of films that felt like the logical extension of Roger Corman’s exploitation house-style. Slap some sex, drugs, and violence on a poster and we’ll show up in droves to stomach the unforgettable. There’s no coming back from the inconceivable kaiju showdown.
Now, after the breakup of their partnership, Taylor attempts a more traditional approach to the desperately retro. From the start, Mom and Dad borrows heavily from the style of yesteryear. The opening credits revel in a copyright title card, heavy saturation, split screen, and a painfully reminiscent folk tune that juxtaposes the inevitable Last House on the Left horror. Taking a page out of Night of the Living Dead, via background news updates, we are slowly introduced to a deadly transmission that has infected the minds of parents across the city and maybe even the globe. Once under its spell the parent has the undeniable urge to slaughter their progeny. Just their kids. One is appalled when placed in the proximity of another parent bashing in their child’s brain but won’t hesitate to copy that violent action when their kiddie steps off the school bus.
A film of this ilk is only going to succeed based on the savagery of its villains. You really couldn’t select better than Nicolas Cage for the punishing patriarch. Taylor infuses his eventual psychotic breakdown with a midlife crisis yearning for those high school salad days in which girls were stampeding over each other to get motorboated. Squirreling himself away in the basement, Cage’s Brent Ryan spends his free time hiding from his bratty children while constructing the ultimate pool table. When the transmission penetrates his brain, you get the impression that he’s been waiting a lifetime for the excuse to chop up his kiddies. Bring on the Cage rage.
The real delight of the film is Selma Blair. As the titular Mom, Blair must strive to fight for the lives of her children while battling the poisonous desire to saw off their limbs. She can easily match Cage in his mania, but she’s also allotted the opportunity for warmth and downright heroism. If you’re looking to have a moment burned into your retina than Blair’s combat with her sister just moments after she’s given birth to a potential bouncing baby victim will deliver.
Mom and Dad is a film made by a madman. That’s the appeal. Writer/director Taylor deliciously antagonizes one of our great taboos, crafting filicide as popcorn entertainment, and its very nature will turn off most people. As such the film succeeds in imitating the glory days of an ugly 1970s production. The callback stylistic choices were not required, as Cage and Blair are certainly enough to sustain the necessary ring of danger.