Director – Bob Balaban, Screenplay – Christopher Hawthorne, Producer – Bonnie Palef, Photography – Ernest Day & Robin Vidgeon, Orchestral Music – Angelo Badalamenti, Music – Jonathan Elias, Special Effects – Gord Smith, Art Direction – Andris Hansmanis. Production Company – Vestron Pictures/Great American Films Limited Partnership/Parents Productions.
Bryan Madorsky (Michael Laemle), Randy Quaid (Nick Laemle), Mary Beth Hurt (Lillian Laemle), Sandy Dennis (Milly Dew), Juno Mills-Cockell (Sheila Zellner), Kathryn Grody (Miss Baxter), Deborah Rush (Gladys Zellner), Graham Jarvis (Marty Zellner)
Michael Laemle’s parents have moved from Massachusetts to a new suburb where he starts a new term at school. However, Michael feels uncomfortable in his new home and refuses to eat the leftovers that his mother serves up. Increasingly, Michael comes to suspect that his family are cannibals and that they are eating human meat.
Parents was a decided oddity when it came out – one that the studio clearly had no idea how to market. When the film did eventually come out, it never did much business. Parents was the directorial debut of Bob Balaban best known as an actor in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Altered States (1980), 2010 (1984), Deconstructing Harry (1997) and as the film critic in Lady in the Water (2006), as well as most of Christopher Guest’s films. Balaban has also done a surprising amount of directing, including the flop zombie comedy My Boyfriend’s Back (1993) and most substantial dramatic work like The Last Good Time (1994), the anti-death penalty tv movie The Exonerated (2005), the acclaimed Bernard and Doris (2006) and the biopic Georgia O’Keeffe (2009), although few of these have raised Balaban’s profile any more than his acting work has.
Parents was one of a spate of films that came out in the latter half of the 1980s and into the early 1990s offering a dark undercurrent to Family Values, showing either weird families or inverting family/suburban life with a dark malice. This was perhaps a response to the creation of the idea of traditional Family Values as a political ideal during the Ronald Reagan election campaigns at the start of the 1980s. Efforts among this included the likes of The Stepfather (1987), The ‘Burbs (1989), Life on the Edge/Meet the Hollowheads (1989), Society (1989), The Addams Family (1991), Meet the Applegates (1991), while some of David Lynch’s works such as Blue Velvet (1986) and tv’s Twin Peaks (1990-1) also touch upon this territory – Bob Balaban even has David Lynch’s regular musician Angelo Badalamenti on board here conducting the score. Around this time, there also began tv’s The Simpsons (1989– ), which was originally construed as an alternative to the wholesome family togetherness of the 1980s No 1 series The Cosby Show (1984-92).
Bob Balaban directs Parents as a hyper-real parody of 1950s normalcy – where everything comes designed in giddy primary colours, the cars and clothes are period, the father plays golf, the mother hosts dinner parties where everybody sits around the table for a game of cards afterwards. Of course, Balaban plays everything with an exaggerated hyper-normalcy that arrives at a point of total weirdness, while lacing it with a darkly sinister undertow. You would swear that Parents is a film made by militant vegetarians – all the meat that is served up at the dinner table comes with a disturbing ugliness and there are surreal dream sequences of people being strangled by sausages.
Balaban punctuates the film with bizarre imagery – hands crawling up out of the garbage disposal, refrigerators bleeding. He generates some threat during the scenes where young Bryan Madorsky hides under the table at father Randy Quaid’s work and sees him cut up a body where we left with the impression that Quaid is taking parts home for dinner and when Madorsky then drops the scissors under the table during dinner; or where Sandy Dennis comes to visit and a body falls out from above while she is rooting around in the cellar for a rat and then she is pushed into the pantry as someone starts stabbing at her through the door with a knife, and in the next scene meat is served up for dinner where we cannot be sure if it is her or not. Parents is like a paranoid child’s view believing their parents are not who they are or are trying to kill them – one kept being reminded of the fearfully exaggerated world of Invaders from Mars (1953).
On the minus side, Parents feels like it is all sinister lurking threat beneath the patina of hyper-exaggerated middle-class 1950s lifestyle – this one gets clearly – but it is also hard to work out what it is actually about as a film. It takes some 30 minutes or more of the running time to grasp what Bob Balaban is trying to do. The sinister threat never coalesces into anything clear. Nothing is explained why the family happen to be cannibals. All that one is left with in the end is a peculiar film with an uneven tone that varies between the cartoonish and sinister but never makes its mind up what it is trying to do as a film.