Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.
H.P. Lovecraft “The Outsider”
There’s nothing that would be considered Lovecraftian about writer/director Laurence Vannicelli’s (Vera, The Young Housefly) new film Mother, May I? But that quote leaped into my mind while I was watching it due to the backstories of the two leads, Emmet (Kyle Gallner, Scream, Ghosts of War) whose mother abandoned him as a child and his fiancee Anya’s (Holland Roden, Teen Wolf: The Movie, Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman) psychiatrist mother gave her a childhood that lacked warmth and affection.
As the film opens Emmet’s mother has just died and left her large house in the country to him, the closest thing to contact they’ve had in years. He plans on cleaning it up and selling it ASAP, the money will put them in a better position to start their own family.
She sees it as a way for him to work through his issues with his mother which will make him a better parent. Anyone whose seen more than a handful of genre films sees going near the place as a very bad idea.
And indeed it’s not long before the couple are snapping at each other and Anya is insisting that they play some psychological role reversal game she picked up from her mother, something he’s not happy about. But the real problems start when, after a night under the influence of mushrooms, he comes back from a run only to her acting not like her mother but like his. It’s not just in personality, she’s wearing her clothes and even spontaneously begun smoking, a habit Anya detests.
I was familiar with Vannicelli from his co-writing work on the horror comedy Porno, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from him as a director, or making a serious film. But based on that I certainly wasn’t expecting something this subtle or nuanced. And Mother, May I? Is low-key to the point that at times it’s hard to even call it horror.
The film flirts with the idea that Anya is possessed by the spirit of Emmet’s mother while also leaving open the possibility that she’s taking the psych games she thinks so much of a bit too far. Or that the situation, potentially with the help of the shrooms, has caused childhood issues to express themselves as a second personality.
But just because it’s not a possession film with exploding crosses and CGI demons doesn’t mean Mother, May I? isn’t an effective film. Whatever the explanation, Anya’s actions and Emmet’s response to them are distinctly unsettling if not actually frightening. Like The Untelling, which also involves a deceased relative and their house, this is more of a psychological mood piece than what we would usually classify as a horror film.
A lot of credit has to go to Gallner and Roden for given the performances that establish and maintain that mood without any overtly paranormal occurrences. That’s especially true of Roden who is in essence playing a dual role. They basically are the film, with the only other real character being Bill (Chris Mulkey, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, First Blood), a nearby farmer who turns up in a couple of important scenes.
And just as the cast is limited, so are Mother, May I?’s locations. Almost the entire film is set within the house itself and while it looks beautiful during the day with the sun streaming in, cinematographer Craig Harmer (Islanders, Burst Theory) makes it equally as menacing in the dark. Even though as mentioned, it’s not that kind of film, I almost expected something to come out of the house’s dark corners more than once.
Quietly creepy and with an ending that made me want to take a shower, Mother, May I? Wasn’t what I was expecting. But what it turned out to be was a welcome surprise.
Dark Sky Films will release Mother, May I? in theatres and to Digital Platforms on July 21st.