Retro Review: Parents (1989)
Continuing our insight-filled journey through Hollywood’s depiction of cannibalism, we arrive at a lesser-known black comedy starring as a pair of possible suburban cannibals living in 1950’s America, entitled Parents. They play the parents as noted in the title. It’s nice when movies keep things nice and simple for us, isn’t it?
Meet the Cleavers
It is poodle skirts and formica kitchen sets galore in Bob Balaban’s quirky and nostalgic period horror piece. The production apparently went into intricate detail with the set, with extensive use of period decorations, products, and even soundtrack full of forgotten 50’s golden oldies (my personal favorite being the use of “Giant Purple People Eater” in a movie about murdering and devouring your neighbors…subtle.) All in all, the texture and feel of the settings are perfect, and perfectly creepy if you grew up in that era… or main-lined too many re-runs of Donna Reed.
The Laemle family relocates to the ‘burbs (no, not The ‘Burbs…though that movie also was a macabre comedy about the seamy and dark underbelly of suburban bliss that came out in 1989…I guess we were having issues as a country) in an idyllic little community, where Nick (Quaid) can commute to his big-time whiz-bang science job at local industry leader, Toxico, and his wife Lily (Beth Hurt) can concentrate on her cooking and their skittish son, Michael.
Behind closed doors
Poor Michael is having a rough go of life. A moody and listless boy, he has to contend with fitting in at a new school (where he endears himself by sharing fun facts that sound like they come from a witch’s spell book), a new girlfriend (another misfit transfer to his school, who trashes his kitchen and breaks into his father’s liquor shelf), a nosy space-cadet social worker worried about his home life, and a growing aversion to his parents’ cooking. Oh, and nightmares about drowning in blood. Did I mention that?
But back to meal time. The real bone of contention between Michael and his father is a refusal to eat his meat. You see, the Laemles are a bit proud of their red meat, USA way of life. So it’s a bit peevish and unmanly of Michael to turn down their choice cuts. The relationship at the dinner table quickly becomes heated, as Michael refuses to eat, and Nick later catches him sneaking cupcakes into bed. What is a parent to do?
Wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Parents deftly maneuvers the middle ground right up until the final act. It’s nearly impossible to determine who has the problem in this household: is it Michael, with his odd waking nightmares, morose temperament, and proclivity for arcane utterances and morbid facts? Is it Nick, who works developing weapons of mass destruction, can’t keep his hands off of his wife, and who says some really horrible stuff when Michael refuses to eat? Is it society in the form of the touchy-feely school therapist, over-reacting to ever little quirk? Part of the charm of Parents is that any explanation you prefer is plausible, and keeps you second-guessing yourself.
The other nice flourish to this movie is the absolute surreality of some of the scenes. Normal scenes of home life suddenly spiral out of control into horrific hellscapes, and then just as quickly dissapear, leaving you wondering what you just saw. Like when a coil of sausage comes to life and tries to murder Michael in the pantry. Bryan Madorsky, who plays Michael, has such a completely unreadable deadpan that you can believe he’s not actually seeing any of these things. Or else is totally emotionally scarred inside. Either/or.
In the final analysis, Parents deserves a view, especially if you enjoy other black comedies set in 1950’s Americana such as Little Shop of Horrors. The visuals and setting are lovingly done, capturing an endlessly fascinating moment in American culture. The soundtrack is a fun throwback, with many of the titles adding sardonic digs at the potentially horrible happenings of the film. The acting is decent, but not great, and you can easily become a little impatient with Michael’s complete lack of emotion or Randy Quaid’s sudden bouts of it. The real reason to see this film, though, is because of the cool way in which the director hints at dark realities, though leaving plenty of wiggle room to doubt what you see. This technique allows him to probe some really juicy societal issues while ostensibly making a horror movie. Until the end, you’ll be guessing about what is really on the dinner table.