If the 2014 scary movie The Babadook was a metaphor about the fear of being a bad parent, the bat shit crazy horror-comedy Mom and Dad can be its gnarly counterpoint: a grotesque fantasy about pent-up parental rage exploding into violence and carnage. Writer/director Brian Taylor explores mid-life crisis by way of George Romero-esque contagion, casting Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair as middle class American parents who – like their similarly white picket neighbours – transform from normal, disillusioned people into murderous maniacs intent on killing their children.
The ‘everybody’s gone crazy’ premise provides a refreshing justification for Cage’s over-the-top, shit-eating style. Ethan Hawke memorably described him as “the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting,” having “successfully taken us away from an obsession with naturalism.”
Regardless of what you make of that comment, or the extent to which Cage’s nostril flaring and eyebrow craning are underappreciated by the critical and general populace, there is no doubt the actor’s erratic flamboyance has a tendency to butt heads against the approach of his directors, particularly if the filmmaker in question strives for some kind of realism. All is fine if the premise of the film is ridiculous (Face/Off) or the execution batty (Adaptation) or the prevailing mood that of insanity (Wild at Heart).
Most films, however, do not have the high-wired energy necessary to counter Cage’s outré presentation style; he dances to his own beat while the artists around him invariably keep a different rhythm. When the script is bad to begin with (like the recent The Humanity Bureau) the star comes across more insane than inspired, and no amount of insight into our ‘obsession with naturalism’ will make that pill easier to swallow.
It is refreshing to report, then – in as much as films about suddenly and inexplicably satanic parents determined to slaughter their offspring can be refreshing – that Cage and Taylor are actually on the same page in Mom and Dad. This screwy, rambunctious midnight movie has some interesting philosophical sentiments, ultimately traded in for gore and jet-black comedy. The story is propelled by a ‘something funny in the water’ epidemic. Or rather, something funny radiating through television screens: like Poltergeist and The Ring, the film imagines technology as a kind of demonic plague, transforming all parents into possessed monsters.
There are the requisite OTW moments needed to cement the film as an out-there piece of work that Will Get People Talking, including a scene in which Cage attacks a pool table with a sledge hammer while singing Hokey Pokey.
In early scenes, rebellious teenager Carly (Annie Winters) unfairly snaps at her mother Kendall (Blair) and hectors her for having a lacklustre social life. The despondency Kendall and her husband Brent (Cage) feel, about the shape their lives have taken, gives the film’s high concept a ring of poignancy, before Taylor roars into overdrive and declares all bets are off. The story is loosely framed from Carly’s perspective, hitting second gear when a group of parents arrive at the local school, bursting through the gates to murder their children in various ways – involving unconventional use of car keys and garbage bags.
Mom and Dad has ‘cult curio’ – if not ‘cult classic’ – written all over it. There are the requisite off-the-wall moments destined, and perhaps designed to cement the film as an out-there experience that will Get People Talking, including a scene in which Cage attacks a pool table with a sledge hammer while singing The Hokey Pokey. Cinematographer Daniel Pearl’s framing is restless and spasmodic, as if his cameras are trying to escape their own lens. This messy energy creates a sense of chaos, feeding into a graphic novel-like atmosphere pumped up by a punchy soundtrack, which also provides another vessel for self-aware humour.
Another one-for-the-ages scene, depicting a baby’s birth in a hospital, has a mother viciously turning on their newborn bub, to the tune of Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love. The film’s core, and most interesting idea explores – and visualises – the darkest of parental fantasies: to exact revenge on children for any kind of damage they have caused. This is predicated on the unpopular (and in pop culture largely unexplored) idea that life gets worse, rather than better, in parenthood.
With these kinds of thoughts ping-ponging around the subtext, it’s a little deflating to see Mom and Dad opt for easy and sleazy thrills; Taylor seems to forget that his film is actually about something. On the other hand, what’s a gonzo work of art without a few self-sabotaging tendencies? If this energetic, gauche and graceless movie can be maddening at times, it is at least enjoyably so, with never too long before a fresh burst of weirdness. Cage going bonkers is hardly a rare event, but a movie that exceeds him in sheer bat shit craziness? That is, for better or worse, a sight to behold.