In 1812, brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published the first edition of “Children’s and Household Tales,” a scholarly history of old stories that included a sleeper hit called Snow White, where a young beauty is hunted by her own mother who wants to eat her lungs and liver with salt. Critics savaged the book, one Berlin professor decrying these ancient tales of child-murder as “the most pathetic and tasteless material imaginable.” The Brothers Grimm needed cash. So Wilhelm sanitized their next editions and swapped Snow White’s mother for a step-mom, a tweak that helped make them famous.
A parent killing their own child is our most grotesque taboo. Scandalized audiences claim these stories are repellent, but they’ve fascinated us for millennia, a dark blood that’s pumped through our legends ever since Abraham tied Isaac to an altar and hoped for a literal deus ex machine reprieve. The Bible surfaces again in “Sophie’s Choice” when the Nazi who forces Meryl Streep to pick which of her two children will be gassed at Auschwitz has the nerve to quote Jesus: “Did he not say, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me?’ ” More recently, tabloids made a fortune accusing mother Patsy Ramsey of bludgeoning her 6-year-old pageant queen daughter, JonBenét.
“There’s a great history of stuff like this,” writer-director Brian Taylor says, nodding to the ancient classics. “But I don’t know if it’s normally played for laughs.” The co-writer/director of the slapstick-thriller “Crank” franchise is known for being outrageous. He made Jason Statham electrocute his tongue with a jumper cable.
Yet, when he pitched his new horror-comedy, “Mom and Dad,” in which suburban parents Brent (Nicolas Cage) and Kendall (Selma Blair) are brain-zapped into wanting to murder their two children — “I’m a parent, so it’s kind of an obvious idea” — his agents tried to talk him out of it. A satire in which parents chase after their kids with baseball bats and broken whiskey bottles? Just the log line frightened people. Still, when Taylor described his script to friends, they’d grin and say, “Oh, I’d see that movie. I want to kill my kid 10 times a day.”
“With adults, there’s nothing you can see today that’s taboo,” Taylor says. In his films, grown-ups are stabbed, shot, poisoned, incinerated and impaled — and audiences cackle. “With kids, there is a line where, if you cross it, the audience is never coming back.” His character Kendall would agree. “Mom and Dad” opens with the housewife mainlining coffee as a newscaster on the kitchen TV chirps about the town’s brainwashed Patient Zero ditching her kid in front of a speeding train. “Before breakfast?” Kendall sighs. When her husband and young son, Josh (Zackary Arthur), reenact the death with a plastic truck and squeeze bottle of ketchup, she growls, “So not funny.”
But it is. At least, a little. Picture Nic Cage, Fruit Loops stuck to his blood-smeared face, hunting his two kids through the house, with Blair by his side clutching a meat tenderizer. Or a soundtrack blaring Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” as a pregnant mother pushes out her newborn and immediately reaches for a scalpel. Don’t worry, there’s no visible gore — the idea is plenty. Instead, Taylor has an eye for the cathartic violence in ordinary moments, even before the mind-scrambler takes over: a tickle attack taken too far, a harder-than-necessary ball to the back of the head. During filming, Taylor positioned himself as the “set parent,” checking in with rambunctious 10-year-old Arthur when his scenes with Cage got too intense. “To have those two guys in scenes together was a little volatile,” he says.
We’re used to movies where kids are ungrateful monsters, like the opening scene in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” in which Saiorse Ronan is so sick of her mother’s nagging that she flings herself out of a car. In the past decade, we’ve even had half-dozen movies starring killer children, such as “Logan,” “Hanna,” “Kick-Ass,” “The Orphan,” “Goodnight Mommy” and “Cooties,” in which an infected chicken nugget turns a fourth-grade class into cannibals. In “Mom and Dad,” the parents are in charge, or at least brandishing a weapon and claiming to be. After watching Kendall pathetically beg teen Carly (Anne Winters) to stop texting during their morning commute, the joy in her eyes when she grabs a handsaw is a delight. (“Lady Bird’s” aggrieved mother, take note.)
Something seems to be shifting in the zeitgeist. After more than a decade of hollow violence in which superheroes raze battlefields of generic CG goons, filmmakers are looking for a way to make their wounds hurt. In May, Yorgos Lanthimos scored a Cannes Palme D’Or nomination for “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” a wicked morality play in which Colin Farrell is ordered to murder one family member to save the others. Like Sophie, he can choose. But instead of breaking into sobs, he calmly debates whom to kill. His son is good at math, but his daughter is excellent at literature. Eventually, he asks a co-worker, “Which would you say is the best?”
The sacred deer in the title is a nod to the myth of King Agamemnon, who accidentally kills one of the goddess Artemis’s stags and, as punishment, is forced to decide between slaying his daughter Iphigenia, or flubbing the Trojan War. He chooses to murder the girl, spilling blood that will stain generations of his line.
The ancient myths used the taboo to explore questions of loyalty whose roots run even deeper than a family tree. Agamemnon, Abraham and even literature’s most famous child killer, Medea, agonize over their choice, and ultimately bow to their duty to country, God or love. Paradoxically, it’s Medea’s devotion to her children that gets them killed. She spends the last half of Euripides’s play talking herself into stabbing her children before her ex-husband’s new in-laws — a couple of whom she’s just set on fire — can murder them in revenge. “I shudder at the deed I must do next,” the heartbroken mother sobs, as does the chorus, which threatens to break the stage tradition of standing on the sidelines to stop the crime.
Greek theatergoers at the City Dionysia competition in 431 B.C. were equally outraged. They voted “Medea” last place. Will modern audiences enjoy the nasty joy of Brent and Kendall chasing their selfish, sloppy kids? Taylor’s toughest critic, his son, has seen “Mom and Dad” twice. “The first thing he said was, ‘Dad what’s wrong with you?’ ” Taylor laughs. “He’s in college—he’s much harder to catch.”
Mom and Dad (R, 123 minutes). AMC Hoffman Center 22 and on demand.