Actor/filmmaker Bob Balaban made his directorial debut with this underseen gem of childhood fear and suburban horror. 1989’s Parents isn’t the first horror film to use the setting of middle class America to study the rot that hides underneath, but it is a particularly eerie and bleakly funny one.
The story is simple: little Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky) moves to a new town with his mom and pop, played by Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt.
Michael is a small, quiet boy. He’s prone to morbid thoughts and vivid nightmares. As his family settles into their new life, Michael starts to suspect that mom and dad aren’t quite who they appear to be. They just might be cannibals.
Written by Christopher Hawthorne, Parents is a tight, nightmarish little descent into adolescent fear and even a potent examination of parental failure.
The film is almost entirely shown from the perspective of Michael. His house is pristine, like something out of a retro showroom. He is often framed in wide shots dwarfed by the sterile, magazine-esque layout of the home. His parents are constantly shot from low angles, making them tower over Michael like giants or…monsters.
At first his mom and dad seem perfectly pleasant. This façade falls away quickly however as Michael becomes increasingly distrustful and wary of their actions. He catches snippets of conversations, peeks from behind doors or around corners, and is very curious indeed about where all the meaty leftovers they have for dinner every night are coming from.
The tone of 1989’s Parents is one of claustrophobia and nightmarish paranoia. An unease and dread permeate the film. Balaban employs the “is it all in their head?” trope for the majority of the film’s runtime. We aren’t sure if Michael’s suspicions are real or if he’s a troubled boy with an overactive imagination.
This aspect of the narrative lends Parents an undercurrent of sadness and tragedy you might not expect at first glance.
While mom and dad are mostly cordial to their son, they aren’t the slightest bit interested in him. They don’t take the time to relate to him in any way or to empathize with his feelings. They speak at him, not to him. They want him to behave and to conform. Any affections they show to their son feels performative and rote.
This thematic undercurrent is supported by the one friend we see Michael make in the film – Sheila (London Zuno).
Sheila is reckless and a troublemaker, but not mean or cruel. We soon learn Shelia is dealing with parental demons of her own. She’s a little older, a little wiser. She can see through the prim and proper 50s Americana façade her parents have put up.
Through both Michael and Sheila, Parents seems to be commenting on a certain kind of parenting style and attitude during the time period the film is set in. White Picket Fence, USA is definitely not an arbitrary setting.
The only adult character in the film that isn’t either portrayed as sinister or detached is the school counselor, Miss Dew (Sandy Dennis). Balaban frames her as something of a child herself behind a messy, overly large desk. Her manner of dress is frumpy and loose and she is the only adult character that interacts with warm sincerity with Michael. Unlike the parental figures, she wants to truly get to know him, to understand him. Miss Dew isn’t shown towering over Michael like his mother and father. They are on even ground.
You may be thinking: “this is all nice and artsy-fartsy, but where is the horror in this horror film?”
Trust me, it’s there. Balaban has an eye for disturbing and ironically horrific imagery. Certain extreme close-ups of meat in this film are stomach churning. Parents defines the term “mystery meat.” You never know exactly what you’re looking at whenever some massive pile of red, oozing flesh is being prepared. Is it steak? Pork? Are those sausages? Or is it all…something else?
1989 gem Parents is a wonderfully quirky entry in the cannibal subgenre. It boasts purposeful and clever direction, great performances, queasy visuals, and strong themes about parenting, suburbia, and how children view the world during crucial moments in their life.
Highly recommended – but won’t want to give Mom and Dad a call afterwards.