Brian Taylor is the former camera operator and guy who played “Young Man” in THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN who, with partner Mark Neveldine, wrote and directed CRANK, CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE, GAMER and GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE. The CRANKs are beloved by many, and feature some fun ideas and a game Jason Statham, but when I watched them a decade ago I could not abide their intentionally obnoxious why-are-you-hitting-yourself-why-are-you-hitting-yourself stylistic and comedic fart-in-the-face. GAMER I despised even more because it tried harder to work as a high concept action movie and tried less to make it possible to have any clue what you are ever even looking at. And GHOST RIDER I don’t think they were happy with and it’s not very good but I liked some of what they did.
But in 2017 Taylor made his solo directing debut with MOM AND DAD and for my money this is his best movie. (He has subsequently done two seasons of a SyFy series called Happy! which I’ve heard some good things about.) It’s not like he’s changed what he’s about. He’s still using gimmicky camera moves, cheeky needle drops and spastic cutaways, and you better believe he’s gonna repeatedly slap you across the face with bursts of rockin guitars and blip bloopin dubstep electro-burps (score by Australian DJ/producer Mr. Bill). But it feels more under his control, more like a storyteller strategically employing chaos in service of a story, less like a dude with no pants on blowing two airhorns in your face and uncontrollably giggling about how funny it is that he’s doing it.
The story centers on a suburban family unit, The Ryans. Carly (Anne Winters, The Fosters, NIGHT SCHOOL, 13 Reasons Why) is a sullen teen who can’t get along with her mother Kendall (Selma Blair, STORYTELLING), and her dad Brent (Nicolas Cage, DEADFALL) disapproves of her new boyfriend Damon (Robert Cunningham, KNIVES AND SKIN). She implies it’s because he’s black, but in Dad’s sort-of-defense it seems like he’d be an ass about anybody she was dating. Meanwhile, her little brother Josh (Zackary Arthur, THE 5TH WAVE) is kind of a weirdo who plays with dead birds and stuff.
The family dynamics are established with the standard bickering-over-breakfast scene and the commutes to school and work. They all seem kind of horrible at first. Kendall is maybe the most well-meaning, but she does goofy shit like supporting a claim that Brent’s dad (Lance Henriksen, HARD TARGET) is racist by repeating something horrible he said about killing the Viet Cong, then turning and apologizing to their maid Sun-Yi (Sharon Gee, ROXANNE ROXANNE), who responds by reminding her that she’s Chinese.
Later in the day some shit goes down. A real happening, a day of the dead, a village of the damned. For some reason all parents get the urge to murder their children. Only their own children.
Carly starts to realize something’s up when a mob of parents gather outside the school trying to pick up their children. They all act like it’s reasonable, but the security guards are hesitant and then some of the parents start freaking out and trying to climb the fence and stuff.
Kendall is at the hospital where her sister is giving birth around when it happens (that’s some kind of luck right there, huh?) so we first see her trying to protect her newborn niece, and we root for her to sense what’s happening and try not to give in. But no. She rushes to them to protect them and then starts getting other ideas.
Meanwhile, the daughter who can’t relate to her starts getting instincts to be guardian to her brother. She has to blockade herself and Josh in the basement, mom and dad try to stab and drill through the door and then pump gas in. Carly transfers from surly teen mode to big sister (and horror heroine) mode, protects her brother and tries to explain to him that they still love mom and dad but they have to stay away from them and/or violently fight them off.
Of course there’s some button pushing (little Josh stealing his dad’s gun and firing it at him) and some black humor (the tensions in the marriage seem to be healed by a shared urge to murder their children), but I found it all pretty appealing.
Maybe I should try CRANK again sometime, but I remember it feeling like a movie printed on film made out of memes and troll blood. It’s entirely about trying to poke and poke and poke until you react, and then laugh at you because you’re so dumb for reacting. Ha ha you didn’t like when he got that random Arab guy lynched by yelling “Al Qaeda,” you didn’t like when he Straw Dogged his girlfriend in front of a bus of tourists, you didn’t like the epileptic seizure all that flashing gave you, what a pussy lol. I think MOM AND DAD is different because it’s actually kind of about stuff. From a youth perspective it’s about that age where you think you hate your parents, thinking they don’t understand you at all, not wanting to share your life with them. And also not recognizing them when they turn on you. Damon seems to care about his dad, but his dad is an alcoholic, and it’s a major burden because he’s always having to take care of him, and sometimes he has to fear him. When he comes home during this disaster the line between drunk dad and evil dad is not easy to distinguish.
From the parents’ perspective it’s about a feeling that they gave up their cool youthful selves and their dreams of the future in order to have kids who now just see them as lame-os. I like the title MOM AND DAD because it’s a phrase that represents to the parents the robbery of their identities as Kendall and Brent, but to the kids it represents the people they love who have been taken away from them and turned into ghouls.
I had long intended to see this movie due to the hype around Cage’s performance, which was strong until MANDY came along and usurped it. He’s good, of course, and gets set loose. It’s one of his comical personas, a dorky dad who still thinks he’s cool, wears a Misfits t-shirt and drives a Pontiac Firebird that he remembers getting laid in, accidentally brags to his son that it’s a “pussy magnet.” And then, more memorably, he spends much of the movie growling, roaring, bugging his eyes out, swinging an ax around, smashing things, chasing this little kid in his pajamas, and it seems genuinely dangerous because who knows when mega-acting could turn into accidentally smacking the little dude into a table or something. Jeez.
There’s a flashback to a tearful relationship talk they once had, where Kendall pours her heart out about what a hard time she’s having. One thing that impressed me is that much of her monologue is shot with Cage visible over her shoulder listening, not shot separately. So even though it’s a movie where he isn’t on screen the whole time here is a scene that he ordinarily wouldn’t have had to show up for, but there he is.
But really I think this is Blair’s movie. Mom and dad have both been sort of having mid-life crises and Brent’s is closer to a cliche, obsessing over that car because it makes him feel like he’s still that cocky young lothario he was when he first got the car. But Kendall is struggling to find a sense of self she seems to have lost over the years, and knowing Brent’s attachment to the thing he fucked so many girls in isn’t helping. She’s fighting for her relationship with her daughter and for the one with her husband and trying to find herself and also trying to murder her kids. I really like Blair and it’s cool to see her get such a meaty role.
And it’s a pretty nice looking movie. Legendary cinematographer Daniel Pearl (THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE! The good one! As well as the bad one!) does a great job of combining Taylor’s hyperactive style with his specialty of gorgeous magic hour sunbeams.
I also appreciate the quick 86 minute running time. Doesn’t overcomplicate things or wear out its welcome. And there’s a great little turn at the end, one of those “oh, of course, I should’ve known this would happen” kind of satisfying plot developments. But there is one problem that makes me slightly hesitate to recommend MOM AND DAD as a fun little movie. Part of the joy is the craziness of the premise, the impossibility of the situation. Just this idea of all the parents of the world wanting to kill their children, it’s a story that’s all about painting itself into a corner. How can it possibly be resolved? I don’t know that it can, and Taylor doesn’t seem to think it can, because it just abruptly ends. I know we don’t need to find out how the world recovers from this, or doesn’t, but where it ends feels awkward to me. It needs something more, or something else, leaving us with something to imagine or wonder or something. So for me it ended on a sour note.
No enough to ruin it though. I say add this to your Movies Worthy of Nic Cage’s Participation viewing list.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.