Known for being one-half of filmmaking team Neveldine/Taylor, who made the hyperkinetic, stylishly gonzo Crank movies and directed Nicolas Cage before in 2011’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, writer-director Brian Taylor goes batshit-crazy all on his own in Mom & Dad. In this horror film with a subversive, gleefully mean spirit, the entire concept of parenthood—bringing life to a child and keeping them safe from harm’s way—gets completely reversed and taken to mighty extremes. Functioning as the flip side of 2015’s Cooties, where a viral outbreak turned bratty kids into blister-infested, teacher-eating zombies, Mom & Dad dares to just go for it, being every bit as depraved and bonkers as it sounds.
The Ryans only look like an All-American family. The patriarch, Brent (Nicolas Cage), is stuck in a soul-sucking job and his wife, Kendall (Selma Blair) left the workforce 16 years ago to devote her life to raising their two children: high school sophomore Carly (Anne Winters) and pre-teen Joshua (Zackary Arthur). Carly communicates more with her phone than she does with her parents when she’s not stealing cash from her mother’s purse, and Joshua sometimes annoys his father by keeping his toys out. Over the course of one afternoon around the time kids get out of school, something triggers inside all parents who find the insatiable desire to murder their offspring like primal savages in the animal kingdom. It’s only a matter of time before Carly and Joshua become victimized when Mom and Dad get home early.
Mom & Dad sets its darkly comic tone during the ’70s-influenced credit sequence, a succession of still images of the cast cued to a cover of Dusty Springfield’s “Yesterday When I Was Young,” along with a seemingly innocent moment where a mother buckles her young child in a car seat in the back and then exiting the vehicle, which is parked across the train tracks. Taylor imagines a B-movie premise set in cookie-cutter suburbia that sometimes feels like a short stretched to 83 minutes, but he delivers enough kinetic energy and wildly nutty mayhem to warrant the feature-length, while still knowing when to draw the line without taking the proceedings into complete tastelessness. The reason every parent has the desire to kill their children is treated as a virtual McGuffin—a static frequency on TVs and radio seems to be the trigger—and that’s probably for the best. As if they’re all on bath salts, parental units only go after their own children because harming another’s child would be crazy talk.
Taylor gets a lot of mileage out of his twisted premise, taking it as far as his R-rating will allow. There is the sinister sight of parents waiting at the school doors early to pick up their kids, and the use of Roxette’s earworm “It Must Have Been Love” when Kendall’s sister Jeanne (Rachel Melvin) gives birth to her first-born child in the hospital, only to turn on her pride and joy, is quite inspired. Also in the hospital’s maternity ward, a line of new fathers gazing through the glass at their newborn babies makes for an amusing, disturbing sight. There are also flashbacks that juxtapose the Kendalls’ love toward their kids, as well as Brent’s pent-up rage and memories of sowing his wild oats, although these moments tend to bring the breakneck momentum and lunatic fun to a halt.
At this stage in his career, Nicolas Cage is at his best when he just lets himself go “Full Cage.” The actor gets in his bug-eyed, loony-pants moments even before all parents lose their marbles (a flashback where he angrily bashes a pool table with a sledgehammer he’s just constructed in the basement while singing “The Hokey Pokey” comes to mind and will probably become the source of a meme in no time). Methinks “saw-all” will be become a new quote for Cage. Selma Blair is more subtle and grounded in her maternal weariness, receiving downtime to sell the pathos of a wife and mother struggling with aging, but once the switch gets flipped, the actress is nonetheless game to act alongside Cage (it is her idea after all to use the “Sawzall” and pump the gas from their stove into the basement where they are kids are holed up). Blair also nails a deadpan facial expression when the doorbell rings, having forgotten they invited Brent’s parents (Lance Henriksen, Marilyn Dodds Frank) over for dinner. The roles of the Ryan children are also well-played by Anne Winters and Zackary Arthur, the latter believably turning bad schoolgirl Carly into a survivor with a knack for booby-trapping the basement doors with a matchbox.
Given the abrupt conclusion, Taylor does end up in a corner with no way out, but up until then, Mom & Dad pulls out all the stops, power tools and Cage hysterics. For a January release, this is a cheerfully demented little surprise.