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James Franco’s Lifetime Movie Is a Piece of Trash

Which makes it good, we swear

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Mother May I Sleep with Danger — the 1996 Lifetime masterpiece about a college coed who falls in love with a mysterious man who turns out to be a murderer — is, after Showgirls, the peak of a particular brand of mid-’90s camp. (Or, at least: It is the peak of my particular experience of mid-’90s camp, and of anyone else who is invested in the ups and downs of Tori Spelling’s hair choices.) It has a ridiculously dramatic and irresistible title; it has Ivan “Broody Brows” Sergei in terrible knits. And in keeping with Susan Sontag’s 18th rule of camp, it has no idea how bad it is. “Listen … on some level you knew it wasn’t Shakespeare,” says Spelling now. “But at the same time, it wasn’t a comedy … I was obviously giving it all I had as an actress.”

God bless, but that didn’t really work. Mother May I Sleep With Danger was a genuine mess — with bad expository dialogue and inexplicable plot holes — and only after the fact did we realize how glorious that mess could be. Its unintentional badness is the point; it became cultish because of its embarassing silliness. (And because of Spelling. “If I had known then [that] this was going to be, like, my go-to TV movie of my career, I definitely would have had a longer bob,” she says.)

But the creators were never supposed to be in on the joke, which is why card-carrying members of the Lifetime movie club — myself included — were somewhat surprised to learn that the network was planning a remake, produced by none other than James Franco. Can you really re-create such a majestic, inadvertent disaster? More specifically: can James Franco?

No, not literally. But the real revelation of Franco’s remake, which debuts on Saturday, is that “good badness” doesn’t have to be an accident. The update features lesbian vampires, lots of gore, and a random B-plot involving a sexy school production directed by Franco as a pervy school teacher. It is by no means faithful to the original; it still somehow maintains its glorious mess of an aesthetic. I liked it, even though I was aware of why I liked it and what choices were being made — ridiculous sex, graveyard showdowns — to persuade me to like it. It’s both a knowing study of Lifetime camp and an updated execution of it.

“There is a self-awareness to it,” explains Amber Coney, the remake’s screenwriter. “You can tell that we’re aware of what we’re doing. And we’re using camp, we’re exploiting camp, and we’re not trying to re-create camp for camp’s sake.” In an extremely literal demonstration of that approach, Spelling’s character is brutally killed off. As for its expanded ambitions, “we got away with pretty much everything,” says Coney. “The only thing we couldn’t do was nudity.”

Getty Images/Ringer GIF
Getty Images/Ringer GIF

There are some through lines between the two films: belly shirts (“Like Donna!” says Spelling); overly obvious dramatic dialogue (“He’s dangerous!” “But I love him very much!!”); acting that consists of yelling or panting and nothing in between. And in the grand Lifetime tradition, there’s still a semiserious discussion of topical issues in the remake. But Franco’s version swaps the original trifecta: the dangers of sexual relationships (see also: Co-Ed Call Girl), eating disorders (see also: For the Love of Nancy), and abusive relationships (see also: No One Would Tell), for the more current homophobia, campus sexual assault, and Twilight being bad. (These vampires actually have sex.) Unlike the original, the added social commentary in the remake — female vampires feed only on campus rapists, for example — manages to avoid feeling like an after-school special, possibly because “after-school special” is a punch line in its universe. And also unlike the original, there is a bunch of sex. So much more sex. Like, there’s a gratitious and vigourous fingerbanging scene that looks like an outtake of Blue Is the Warmest Color, which explains director Melanie Aitkenhead (a former USC student of Franco) says was an inspiration for the project. This movie is basically semi-ironic, self-referential, pop-culturally relevant Cinemax soft-core porn.

“It’s always fun to play with people’s expectations,” says Aitkenhead. “And people already have such set expectations of what a Lifetime movie is.” Lifetime seems to have realized as much, and has ordered a whole host of rebrands that prioritize irony over cheese (examples include Unreal, the Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig Lifetime spoof A Deadly Adoption, and 2016 made-for-TV movies like Revenge Porn). It’s not an obvious transition — but so far, the plots are still nonsensical, the hair is still bad, and the sexual encounters still err on the side of disturbing. Watching them still lights up the same (guilty) pleasure centers, even if we’re hyperaware of the process. And in the case of Franco’s Mother May I Sleep With Danger, it still follows Sontag’s ultimate rule: It’s good because it’s bad. It’s still comforting. It just has more vampires.