Over halfway through the year 2023 and a few themes have quietly emerged in horror. We’ve had the expected dose of sequels (Scream VI, Evil Dead Rise) alongside a handful of viral surrealist hits (Skinamarink, The Outwaters). But this year has seen a handful of horror movies with ‘mommy issues’ including Attachment and Bad Things. Now the latest psychological horror movie, Mother May I, looks to dig into mommy issues with what may be a supernatural horror movie. Or is it a psychosexual thriller? Whatever writer and director Laurence Vannicelli intended for his follow-up to Porno, critics have been impressed with the results.
Following the death of his mother, Emmett and his fiancée, Anya, arrive at her country house to fix and flip it quickly. For Emmett, the homecoming is bittersweet – his mother abandoned him at a young age and they’ve been estranged for years. During an evening experimenting with mushrooms, Anya tries out some radial therapy with Emmett, playing the role of his mother, to help him come to terms with her death. But Anya persists with the role-playing the next morning. Soon she’s acting and speaking like his mother. As Anya’s behaviour becomes increasingly strange, Emmett begins to question what’s real and what isn’t.
Mother May I Teases Supernatural Horror With Elements of Psychosexual Thriller
How much of Mother May I qualifies as ‘horror’ depends entirely on your own personal opinion. Certainly, writer and director Laurence Vanniceli borrows some supernatural tropes for his middle act. But his psychosexual thriller slow burns throughout largely as a character study of two individuals damaged and desperate for validation from mothers who shunned them in some way. Not surprisingly then, Vanniceli’s focus in on atmosphere and mood over jolts and roller-coaster like scares. In this regard, Mother May I works mildly well as it’s there’s always a feeling of unease lingering the background.
…Vanniceli’s focus in on atmosphere and mood over jolts and roller-coaster like scares.
By thriller’s middle act, Vanniceli more overtly borrows from supernatural horror tropes. As Anya takes on the physical and psychological qualities of Emmett’s mother, Mother May I teases that it’s a psychological horror movie. Both the tone and score tease horror elements without diving into full-fledged horror territory. Much of the horror arises from what’s teased and the uncomfortable dynamics that emerge between Emmett and Anya. Where Mother May I likely will divide audiences – aside from its quiet pacing – is its treatment of the teased supernatural elements. Whether Vanniceli haphazardly drops the supernatural elements or opts for a more nuanced approach to storytelling is open to interpretation.
Mother May I Finds Much of Its Horror In Its Complex Themes
In addition to its slow burn atmosphere, Mother May I largely benefits from Vannicelli’s deeper themes. Prior to this psychological thriller, Vannicelli’s big writing credit was for the 2020 horror comedy, Porno. While Porno was an underrated gem that flew under the radar during COVID, it’s a far cry from the emotion depth Vannicelli is mining here. One character mourns a relationship he never had with his mother; his fiancée wants to offer the love and affection she lacked from her own mother. It’s these character dynamics that fuel much of the thriller’s mystery. Is Anya possessed by Emmett’s mother? Does Emmett believe his fiancée is possessed or does he discount it as a manipulative game? The doubt emerging from these questions ultimately drives the discomfort you may feel.
While Porno was an underrated gem that flew under the radar during COVID, it’s a far cry from the emotion depth Vannicelli is mining here.
And Kyle Gallner’s quiet comeback tour continues. Early in his career, Gallner scored roles in television series like Big Love and the CW Network’s Smallville as well as supporting turns in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake and Kevin Smith’s underrated Red State. Last year, Gallner popped up in two big horror movies – Scream V and the surprise box office hit, Smile. As the emotionally cut-off ‘Emmett’, Mother May I offers Gallner the opportunity to show off an emotionally layered performance. And Holland Roden (Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, Follow Me) delivers a strong performance made all the more impressive if you consider she’s actually playing two characters.
Mother, May I is a Subtly Complex Psychological Horror
While Mother May I borrows some horror conventions, it’s more accurately classified as a psychosexual thriller. Whether its horror elements are intentionally laced into the story, or writer and director Laurence Vanniceli got a bit careless with the narrative is open to interpretation. Regardless Mother May I ultimately works better as an ambiguous thriller and subtly disturbing character study. Atmosphere and the implications of its characters’ past and current relationships drive whatever horror exists. Two compelling performances and and a consistently engaging mystery make this a worthwhile look for fans of quieter thrillers.