ParentsThis eighties curio was advertised and possibly intended as a black comedy along the lines of EATING RAOUL, but it’s actually closer to ERASERHEAD in tone.  PARENTS is quite simply one of the darkest, creepiest movies of the decade, but those who can take it may find themselves impressed by the film’s assured style and striking visuals.

You probably recognize this film’s director Bob Balaban as a supporting actor in movies ranging from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND to ALTERED STATES to GOSFORD PARK .  1989’s PARENTS was the first feature he directed, and remains an extremely impressive debut (his subsequent directorial efforts MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK and THE LAST GOOD TIME did NOT live up it, alas!).  I know little about the film’s production history, but it seems clear that Balaban and writer Christopher Hawthorne (whose first script this was) had far more in mind than the tacky horror-comedy Vestron aggressively marketed it as.  It’s no small wonder the film was a box office flop, and even less surprising that it has acquired a substantial cult following in the years since.

Suburban Massachusetts, circa 1954: ten-year-old Michael is a precocious brat with seriously weird parents.  Dad’s an ominous, stand-offish sort who works in the “Human Testing Division” of a medical plant while Mom tends to the ever-present leftover meat that constitutes the family meals.  “We have leftovers every night” Michael complains to his mother, “I’d like to know what they were before they were leftovers.”  He suffers from horrific nightmares involving his parents, and his apprehensions certainly aren’t allayed when he spies his folks one night engaged in a sordid act on the living room floor.

Finding little solace from his spacey pal Sheila (who “lives on the moon”) or his sympathetic but clueless shrink Millie, Michael takes to spying on his dad at work.  There he witnesses his old man dissect a cadaver and tote a suspicious looking bundle of something or other home.  Michael’s nightmares worsen and he takers to carrying around a scalpel, which is promptly confiscated by his father.  His worst suspicions are confirmed when Michael discovers human body parts hanging in the cellar like slabs of uncooked meat.

Millie unwisely decides to pay a visit to Michael’s house and is stabbed to death for her troubles, ending up as yet another left-over meal.  Michael understandably decides he’s had enough, but his loony parents most definitely have not!

If Bob Balaban was indeed trying for a black comedy then I’m afraid he failed in his intent, as PARENTS simply isn’t funny.  What it is is ugly, unsettling and quite grim, but that’s not to say it’s uninteresting.  I liked the contrast between the bright external world of Michael’s parents and the shadowy undercurrents of their freaky nighttime existence (it’s sort of like a kiddie version of BLUE VELVET)—and it is freaky: an early dream sequence has the young protagonist drowning in a pool of blood, an image as gruesome and disturbing as anything by David Lynch.  And from there the film only gets weirder: note the seriously off-putting squiggly line wallpaper that decorates the walls of Michael’s home and the many nauseating close-ups of ground meat.

Balaban’s heavily stylized filmmaking borders on overdone at times and loses its momentum (as does the script) in the rather pedestrian slasher climax, but impresses more often than not with its audacity and assurance.  Cudos are also due the period specific art direction of Andris Hausmanis, the performances of Mary Beth Hurt and (especially) Randy Quaid as the wildly creepy title characters, as well as the music by Jonathan Elias and Angelo Badalamenti, which effectively alternates bubbly fifties kitsch with brooding overtones that wouldn’t feel out of place in THE SHINING.

Vital Statistics

Vestron Pictures

Director: Bob Balaban
Producer: Bonnie Palef
Screenplay: Christopher Hawthorne
Cinematography: Ernest Day, Robin Vidgeon
Editing: Bill Pankow
Cast: Mary Beth Hurt, Randy Quaid, Sandy Dennis, Bryan Madorsky, Juno Mills Cockell, Kathryn Grody, Deborah Rush, Graham Jarvis, Helen Carscallen, Warren Van Evera, Wayne Robson, Uriel Byfield, Mariah Balaban, Larry Palef