Even in the hardest of horror films, there’s still an understandable reticence to depict the graphic death of a child on screen. If it happens, it’s usually as the result of some unavoidable tragedy but rarely at the hands of a villainous force. It’s one of the many reasons that Stephen King’s It endures. As an audience, we’re gripped by a sick fascination and a staggering incredulity at seeing a clown rip the arm of a young child with its teeth, the knowledge that if this happens then nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
The first scene of nutty B-movie Mom and Dad sees a mother driving her baby onto train tracks before promptly walking away, car seat not in tow, as it all gets smashed to pieces by an oncoming train. It’s a very clear message that for the next 83 minutes, anything goes.
In an anonymous middle class community, something terrible is happening. A strange plague is affecting parents and it’s making them want to kill their offspring as soon as humanly possible. A bored housewife (Selma Blair) and her disillusioned husband (Nicolas Cage) slowly succumb to this bloodthirsty rage as their two children are forced into defending their lives from the two people they thought would always protect them.
There’s something refreshingly upfront about Mom and Dad. Not only is the nasty opener a clear indication of its amorality but there’s also a set of throwback credits to clue us in on the film’s grindhouse leanings. This is an unrepentant midnight movie, dirty and violent and best enjoyed with a steady supply of alcohol. Director Brian Taylor is entirely aware of what he’s making and who his audience is – and watched at just the right time, with just the right audience, it will prove to be a crowd-pleasing roof-raiser for many hardcore genre fetishists.
Taylor is the man behind both Crank movies and he has a well-trained eye for confidently staged chaos, an underappreciated skill. Taylor joyfully upends our deep-rooted expectation of parental protection with a number of wildly perverse sequences: the crowd of baying parents bloodlusting after their kids outside the school gates; the creepily eager fathers watching their newborns behind hospital glass; and the woman casually pushing her stroller into the path of an oncoming car. There’s also a jaw-dropper of a scene involving a mother in labor that will test the resilience of some (Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love playing in the background is a delicious touch).
Mom and Dad recalls the sadistic sourness of Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, a strange, grim pleasure in watching adults turn against kids, and also The Purge, a film which equally benefits from the concept of widespread murderous madness. But like the latter, after we’ve been given a brief peek at the ramifications for the world at large (there’s even a cameo for Dr. Oz, who compares the plague to the ethological practice of savaging), the film turns into a home invasion thriller. There are still pleasures to be had but they’re mixed up within more familiar territory. There’s a half-decent, if shallow, stab at satire too, with flashbacks revealing a couple bemoaning their dull suburban lives and wistfully remembering a time when opportunities seemed more fruitful. Kids have become an unwanted presence for many parents before the rage has even arrived, adding another sly layer of cruelty to the later violence.
Cage’s natural inclination to turn his performances all the way up to, and past, 11 is exploited here to its full extent. He relishes every nutso second, whether it be destroying a pool table with a sledgehammer while singing the Hokey Cokey, or barking at his son while swinging an electric saw. He’s almost neither good or bad but transfixing nonetheless.
Mom and Dad is a short, mean-spirited film, a toxic antidote to scrolling through the cooing Instagram feeds of child-obsessed friends. There’s a regrettably abrupt ending which feels rather like a cop-out but the infanticidal imagery will linger, whether you like it or not.
- Mom and Dad is screening at the Toronto film festival with a release date yet to be announced