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Mum & Dad (Steven Sheil, 2008)
Mum & Dad is perhaps too unsubtle to be effective societal commentary. Indeed, the willful ignorance of Fritzl’s wife and the approximately one-hundred tenants who lived in his apartment building over the years was the most disturbing element of that sordid story. In Sheil’s universe, there’s little sense of the world outside, which diminishes the impact of the perversions inside Mum and Dad’s domestic domain. Nonetheless, there’s plenty in Mum & Dad to unsettle audiences.
Each member of this household is a sicko. Dad, wearing his wife beater, is first shown on screen as he’s hacking away at a victim. A more formal introduction is made later on, as he’s seen furiously masturbating into a hunk of severed flesh. Mum is more repressed, perhaps. She seems to have been somewhat defeated by her spouse. Nonetheless, she still finds time for play with her “adopted” children, in a ritual that involves scarring them with a scalpel and driving knitting needles through their skin. The adopted son is either mentally handicapped or a good faker. He’s defined mostly by his tendency toward voyeurism, playing with himself as he peers through peepholes, much like Norman Bates in Van Sant’s Psycho remake. Finally, the conniving sister, who lures the hapless heroine to the house, is the least overtly screwed up of the bunch. Still, it’s tough to tell if her competition for Mum and Dad’s affections comes about from a full-on absorption into the twisted family or emerges as some sort of survival instinct. In either case, the sibling rivalry that arises between her and the family’s newest member seems very real.
Sheil’s film is willfully perverse stuff, sure to turn off many viewers. It deliberately recalls Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (even the primal screams, drenched in lens flare, at the end of the movies are similar), playing like an extended riff on that classic’s famed dinner sequence. In Mum & Dad, we’re shown a scene in which hardcore pornography plays in the background, as the family gathers around the breakfast table. It, like many in the film, comes off like a sitcom gone wrong.
There’s not much to Mum & Dad, besides what needs to be there to achieve grisly effectiveness. What is most disturbing about it is the way that it captures and distorts the very dynamics that exist in any family. There are irrational guilt trips, unfair disciplinary structures, and a general sense of submission, supposedly enforced to preserve the family unit. One of the film’s most fundamentally transgressive sequences involves the heroine sneaking around the house, as she explores her would-be parents’ forbidden bedroom. Even as we’re fully aware that she’s the only sane one present, Shiel elicits the sensation that she’s the one who’s not following the rules. These moments, in which up becomes down and everything feels wrong, lend Mum & Dad a power to disturb that escapes most gore shows. It is in its willingness to cut close to home that the movie draws the most blood.