In Mom and Dad, Nicolas Cage whimpers, explodes, hollers, spasms, grins, gurns and weeps. Each line he lets escape from his mouth as if he’s exploring every crevice of every word, ultimately settling on an emotion or tone somehow slightly off from the way any typical person would use language. He brandishes power tools (“Sawzall…saws…all,” he repeats, mantra for no one) and breaks out in stab wounds like he’s solely composed of rubbery flesh and blood; he is an anthropomorphic double-take; he is finally embracing his male-pattern baldness. Though by now, in 2018, Cage’s appearance in a film is never as rare or as compelling as it was when last he worked with writer-director Brian Taylor on 2012’s Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance—he is a punchline to a good joke we’ve willingly forgotten—Cage is still an American (er, National) treasure, a Hollywood actor who no longer makes any sense as a Hollywood actor.
The same could be said for Taylor, who, with former partner Mark Neveldine, practically forged their own brand of auteurist filmmaking, expectorating Crank, its sequel, Gamer and the aforementioned Marvel sequel all over the faces of a moviegoing public seemingly begging for the kind of unadulterated barrage of stimuli in which the duo specialized. Successful despite all senses of taste or decency, Neveldine/Taylor operated apart from the studio machine by passing it by, carrying all of its indulgence, all of the shameless, soulless spectacle to which human beings continue to grow increasingly jaded, to a logical-—some might even say necessary—end without lapsing too readily into the obscene. That the two directors parted ways, perhaps maliciously, makes sense: One watches Ghost Rider 2 and knows it’s about as far as they could go.
Mom and Dad does nothing to refute that. About a case of mass hysteria breaking out in an upper class suburb, causing parents to viciously attack and murder their children, the film is surprisingly tame considering the pedigree it promises. Cage plays Brent Ryan, an office drone suffering a mid-life crisis, spending most of his time avoiding his wife Kendall (Selma Blair), falling asleep while watching porn at work and refusing to sell the Trans Am gathering dust in his garage. Their daughter, aimless rebel Carly (Anne Winters), steals money from her mom to buy designer drugs, generally hating everything about her family despite her mom’s pleas to be more thoughtful. Carly’s younger brother Josh (Zackary Arthur) is of indeterminate age, young enough to idolize his dad but old enough to seemingly understand that Brent is probably one beer away from snapping and murdering everyone at his office.
Which is the point, right: Brent and Kendall spend much of the film pre-rampage (and then via irrationally edited-in flashbacks) mourning the loss of their youth, trying to wriggle out from under the weight of domesticity while embracing it. “We were Brent and Kendall,” Brent huffs, sitting amongst the wreckage of the pool table he built and then, in a fit of childish rage, obliterated with a sledgehammer (while singing the “Hokey Pokey,” mind you, which is exactly the kind of Cage-like flourish that makes absolutely no sense and has no discernible symbolism or thematic purpose, but is still welcome, a vestige of a crazier movie). As the weird plague consumes more and more parents, Taylor offers up half-hearted explanations for what could be happening, catching news reports on various TVs speculating that it’s some sort of terrorist attack or form of biological warfare, while mysterious static (think The Ring) and corresponding foley work implies that the same TVs are the sickness’s vectors. Taylor’s worldbuilding never goes any further than that, instead satisfied that, of course, this aggression has always been stewing inside these people, that it was only a matter of time before they were pushed to the brink. Being a parent is hard: You love your kids, you hate your kids, you repress your dreams and desires so completely that they metastasize, primed to destroy your life from the inside out.
This idea Taylor sublimates through a Romero-esque aesthetic, at least at first, his opening credits beautifully retro, promising some sort of deliciously ’70s-like mixture of pulpy shock and genre schlock. As soon as the music of Mr. Bill—just…c’mon, what a goddamn stupid name—pipes up, a mélange of Fatboy Slim pastiche and IDM-powered techno blandness, Taylor’s abandoned all posturing and settled into the familiar style he pioneered with Neveldine, relishing in suffocatingly quick edits and a baseball-bat-to-the-face visual language. It’s something of a small miracle that an Oscar-caliber actor like Cage has so naturally aged into such a weird kind of cult filmmaking, but he’s gone HAM so much hammier before. Look only to Ghost Rider 2 to witness Cage operating on an entirely different plane from the rest of humanity regarding whatever it means to “act” in a “big budget” “movie.”
Comparatively, Taylor’s mania feels contrived in Mom and Dad—obvious, pointless and, most damnedly, afraid of its own batshit conceit. In a movie about killing children by one of the directors of Crank 2, we don’t actually see any kids getting killed. Not that I’m jonesing for infanticide or anything, but it’s near impossible to respect a director whose career is based on plying the boundaries of acceptable Hollywood-type movie-making go on to balk at the challenge of crafting a grindhouse kind of horror-comedy without plying the boundaries of what a movie with Nicolas Cage and child murder can be. Even Jon Watts, the now firmly established Hollywood director of Spider-Man: Homecoming, began his directorial career with Clown—a movie about a monster who eats children—by fearlessly featuring prepubescent corpses, because he chose to make a movie about a monster who eats children. Why make Mom and Dad if you’re not going to make that movie?
Still, Blair and Cage operate as if not being fully committed to their roles isn’t a choice, plus a late cameo care of Lance Henriksen brings the well-needed pain. And yet, none of it ever escalates past a baseline of digestible insanity, which isn’t really all that insane when the pasts of Cage and Taylor are littered with the skeletons of seedier films and more preposterous premises. The worst Mom and Dad can suffer is the memory of ballsier films; the best Mom and Dad can hope for is a short memory.
Director: Brian Taylor
Writer: Brian Taylor
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Lance Henriksen
Release Date: January 19, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.