One of the clichés of parenting is the phrase “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it’ll hurt you.” It’s said by those who feel guilty about spanking their unruly tots. In the new movie MOM AND DAD, those words could be the motto of a pair of harried parents who want to kill their bratty kids. Only here, it’s not their parental guilt that will hurt them more, it is their offspring who shrewdly defend themselves better than anyone could have imagined. It’s all part of the outrageous new horror-comedy that just opened, an obvious antidote to the gooey holiday excesses of last month.
Writer/director Brian Taylor knows how to go over-the-top. He did the CRANK action movies with star Jason Statham in 2006 and 2009, putting his star through a juggernaut of craziness as a professional assassin who is injected with a poison that will kill him if his heart rate drops. Taylor applies a lot of the same manic energy and stylized violence here, incorporating all kinds of off-kilter camera angles, kinetic edits, and grinding metal music to keep things pulsing with verve. It makes this the fastest-moving horror movie in many a moon. And it works as an imaginative counter to the most generic of middle-class neighborhoods that Taylor has set his story in. It’s a sleepy burg, with blocks of houses that all look the same, and everyone driving similar SUV's, but boy oh boy, is this sleepy suburb about to awaken to a new day. Before you can say, parent-teacher conference, the cadre of adults will be hunting down and butchering their offspring.
No one in the story knows quite why this sudden burst of carnage happens in such an unexpected place. Is it some sort of virus, as the news asks, or perhaps some buried form of psychosis? Taylor doesn’t explain its cause, and it makes it all the more unsettling. Eventually, the horrors will hit the home of the Ryan family, the story's main characters. And their tract house will become an ersatz battlefield between parent and child.
Carly (Anne Winters) is a surly teen who has little respect for anyone and brazenly steals money from her mother’s wallet. Her younger brother Joshua (Zackary Arthur) is no prize either. He’s loud and obnoxious, a careless brat who tends to leave his toys all over the place. Dad Brent (Nicolas Cage) is overworked, underappreciated, and frazzled. Meanwhile, mom Kendall (Selma Blair) is ignored by all of them. Such dynamics aren’t uncommon in many a family, only here these dynamics set up a powder keg about to blow.
After a tense morning together, all go their separate ways for the day. The kids head to school, Dad goes to work, and Mom attends an aerobics class. But then at school, news of parents murdering their children starts to spread through the school. Then, during the pick-up time at the end of the school day, parents go apeshit and start climbing over the gates to get at their children, chase them onto the football field and start pummeling them to death.
Carly escapes and rushes home as she's worried about Joshua's chances as he is at home for the day. She doesn't know if her parents have gone bonkers yet, but she doesn't want to take any chances. And indeed, her parents are not having a good day, and each starts to get more pent up and ready to burst.
Soon, these parents and their kids will meet at home and face off in a vicious fight to the finish. Here, Taylor satirizes family issues as well as "psycho in the house" tropes in the horror genre. And his visuals will become more and more savage and silly, as the fighting veers into the blackest of black comedy.
Characters will trip on toys, topple down the stairs, be sliced, diced, burned, stabbed, and even poked through the cheek with wire hangers. The nuclear family unit explodes all too quickly in the Ryan home, devolving into a dysfunction that would make the Jose Menendez family look like THE WALTONS. Taylor slyly suggests that there was very little love in the Ryan home before things go to hell in a handbasket. He seems to be saying that the carnage is inevitable, the natural outcome of this family's hateful dynamics. Indeed, Taylor never makes it clear that this mom and dad were affected by any virus at all. Instead, he insinuates that this battle to the death was a long time coming organically.
Both Winters and Arthur play their kid roles straight and mean, without any pleas for sympathy. Their canniness in how the two war with their parents is one of the film’s better jokes, suggesting that these physical battles aren't that far off the daily skirmishes. Cage, who’s been known to go big and broad in his career, verges on self-parody here with his shrieking line readings and flailing body, but he is utterly hilarious. This is a dad who completely loses his shit and bays at the moon, and Cage excels at playing such a cartoonish nutjob.
The one performance you sympathize with is Selma Blair’s mom character. Kendall is still concerned with her family’s welfare and tries desperately to connect with them. Unfortunately, their self-absorption only makes her feel more dehumanized. It’s easy to see why she’d crack and you almost root for her to triumph in her murder scheme. Blair underplays the vengeance, giving the film’s best performance.
In addition to satirizing the tension in families and how trying parenting can be, Taylor indicts casual racism as well. One of the secondary storylines is Dad's dislike of Carly’s black boyfriend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham), a smart and plucky kid who will turn out to be quite the ally to his girlfriend during the drama. Taylor also teases America’s war mentality and macho male posturing, as gruff Viet Nam vet Grandpa (Lance Henriksen) turns up late in the game ready to knife whatever opponent gets in his way.
And even though Taylor keeps the adrenaline pumping throughout, the filmmaker cleverly breaks up a lot of the intensity with humorous flashbacks that explain the backstory of the family dynamics. It turns out that all the elements were there for such havoc, virus or not. I do wish that he wouldn't have relied so heavily on irritating metal music to underscore his violence though. It's plenty tense and energetic without such underlining.
January tends to be a junkyard for new releases, as audiences concentrate on the recent Christmas releases from December, as well as all those films in the hunt for Oscars. Horror filmmakers have wisely realized for a few years now, however, that such a month is a great time to open films that go against the grain. Frights and fun are a fitting counter to the season, and a movie like MOM AND DAD excels vividly. It's mean, vicious and funny as hell. In fact, it contains so many belly laughs, it’s scary.