Every now and then, audiences get a genre film so pitch black and bug nuts in concept that it takes a special kind of daring to deliver. If it leans too far one way or the other, it could fall off its proverbial tightrope and land as something completely devoid of humor or enjoyment. This is why Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad tries to so carefully balance between schlocky horror-thriller and schlocky horror-comedy. Alas, it comes out as merely schlock. The kind that plays it surprisingly safe for a movie that involves parents hunting their children down like it’s the third act of The Omen all across America.
Indeed, Mom and Dad is one doozy of a setup that will instantly ensnare the imaginations of some gore hounds and repel most others, even horror aficionados, who still enjoy a certain moral boundary in their bloodlust. What is most interesting, however, is where actual parents fall into either camp for a movie that ultimately involves Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair as a couple patiently waiting for their kids to suffocate in the basement—or come out so the elders can take work bench tools and kitchen utensils to the little brats. Trust me though, it sounds more hilarious and/or ghastly than how it actually plays.
A very simple premise that attempts to conjure some George Romero-styled dread—complete with a pretty nifty 1970s-inspired opening credits sequence—Mom and Dad captures the bored tedium felt by Brent and Kendall Ryan (Cage and Blair). For despite those names, they’re primarily viewed as put-upon Mom and Dad by the little ones dominating their house. While Mom continues her passive aggressive war with her teenage daughter Carly (Anne Winters), Dad does everything in his power not to snap his prepubescent son Josh (Zackary Arthur) in two for always leaving his toys about the house. Carly and Josh don’t even seem to care that their aunt is about to give birth to their first cousin today.
Still, such good news is forced to be buried by everyone due to bigger headlines: like what appears to be a foreign government releasing a broadcast throughout the United States that is flipping a switch in every parent who hears it. The biological instinct to protect their children at all costs has been inverted, and now they will slaughter the kiddies with all the naturalism of taking out the trash. This leads to an admittedly surreal and deviously bemusing scene in which childless teachers try to herd their students on buses away from their parents. But it will only get them so far as half of the PTA use car keys, grocery bags, and every other household item to quench their new bloodthirst. Soon enough Carly and Josh will likewise have to do everything in their power to hold off the parents.
Mom and Dad is a curious film because it clearly yearns to tap into likely every parent’s fantasy to just be rid of their children at their most annoying, and then attempts to exploit that impulse for maximum shock value. However, the picture is undercooked and underdeveloped after the initial terror, and perverse glee, of first seeing an army of parents chase their offspring across a high school football field. Even that scene is perhaps wisely a bit gun-shy about showing too much of the implied violence. But as such, it never really finds its footing as a giddy dark comedy or crude down-and-dirty B-chiller. Instead it basks in its wicked thoughts but doesn’t have the slightest idea or inclination of how to act on them.
Hence why even at barely over 80 minutes, Mom and Dad can at times feel as padded and perfunctory as Taylor’s previous Gamer, as opposed to his more charmingly warped Crank. Even Nicolas Cage, who previously worked with Taylor on the second Ghost Rider film, doesn’t seem invested in a narrative ripe for pure undiluted Cage-isms. Already missing a few screws before he is infected with the desire to see his children dead, Cage’s Brent is a static line of madness that should have sent his wife and children running for the hills years before this film begins.
The half-hearted quality of his performance is also a shame since Selma Blair does commit to playing a caring mother who shows as much grace and consideration for the slaughter of her children as she did in raising them during the film’s earliest scenes. So while Cage is off trying to yet again eject his pupils from his eye sockets, Blair can genuinely unnerve by portraying a good mother who’s become a good murderer.
Still, much of the third act which finally gets to the cat-and-mouse between the two generations of Ryan family members is even further exacerbated by unneeded flashbacks and a resistance to actually have the parents and children discuss the desire to kill them, and get to the root cause of this dark fantasy. Albeit, given much of the dialogue, this might be for the best. Thus the movie is merely content to coast on a few set-pieces, including when the grandparents visit, as well as a truly inspired birthing scene in a hospital that is the lone moment to make full use of the film’s perverse premise.
Otherwise, Mom and Dad is about as cool as anything else your parents do while trying hard to look hip. Which is to say not at all.
Mom and Dad opens on Friday, Jan. 19.