Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Parents (USA, 1989)

Here's a uniquely odd, disquieting and blackly funny horror comedy from the end of the '80s that remains unjustly unknown, despite being a mild financial and critical success when released. The feature-length directorial debut of Bob Balaban — a non-name who is more active as an instantly recognizable character actor in films as diverse as his feature-film acting debut Midnight Cowboy (1969 / trailer) to Ken Russell's Altered States (1980 / trailer) to Natural Selection (1999) to I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016) to, most recently, Asteroid City (2023 / trailer) — Parents stands out for its immaculate and colorful 1950s period setting and disconcerting narrative. The latter comes from the viewpoint of an imaginative young boy who could well be an unreliable narrator. (After all, how many reliable narrators get attacked by sentient salami while hiding in the kitchen pantry closet?) 
Trailer to
Parents kicks off to the sounds of some period perfect mambo music, naturally by Perez Prado,* as the trio that is Laemle family moves into their dream suburban American home in a new small town, where daddy Nick Laemle (a pitch-perfect Randy Quaid, of Bug Buster [1998], Hard Rain [1998], Freaked [1993] and more, all before the Hollywood Star Whackers stole his brain and talent) has a new job at Toxico (where he subsequently invents something along the lines of Agent Orange).** As Daddy Laemle's perfect housewife Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) keeps house and cooks perfect and meat-heavy meals, their young son Michael (Bryan Madorsky), whom much to the displeasure of his father appears to be a vegetarian, has to deal with the tribulations of his new school and his mounting suspicion that his parents are cannibals. Michael's growing anxiety at home is reflected in the drawings he does at school, so the chain-smoking and somewhat dizzy school psychologist Millie Dew (Sandy Dennis [27 Apr 1937- 2 Mar 1992], of Steven Spielberg's 2nd TV movie Something Evil [1972 / trailer], the grindhouse classic God Told Me To [1976 / trailer, with Richard Lynch], Nasty Habits [1977 / trailer] and 976-Evil [1988 / trailer]) soon calls his mother in for a talk...
Don't know Prado's music? Check out Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White or Patricia, among many cool songs, including his most famous, Mambo #5. As you can hear, one-hit wonder Lou Bega's Mambo #5 owes less to Bega than Prado.
** For a further look at the jobs of the male parental figure in the days of Wally and Beaver, dare we suggest our Short Film of the Month for January 2017, Billy's Dad Is a Fudge-Packer (2004)?
Visually, Parents is a pleasure to the eyes: the clothes, cars, houses and all the trappings of '50s suburbia is recreated with almost parodist perfection — and, as a result, Parents comes across far less anachronistic or dated than most of the horror films of the '80s set in the '80s. 
Director Balaban is also not exactly against the use of some pretty nifty framing and cinematography, which also helps put the film a visual step above so many other films of the day. True, young Bryan Madorsky is annoyingly blank-faced as the troubled Michael, but for that Quaid excels at exuding an undercurrent of menace and disdain towards his young son, even when simply doing the stuff any loving father might do. 
And as to be expected of an actress whose career is heavy in nice-girl and nice-wife parts, Mary Beth Hurt isn't too shabby as the stereotypical '50s housewife and loving mom who works hard to keep her husband happy and house perfect. Only Sandy Dennis is a bit off key, coming across as a tick too contemporary for the period setting.
For a horror film of the '80s, Parents is not the bloodiest movie nor is the body count exceptionally high, and it isn't exactly the scariest, either. For that, however, it is truly noteworthy for maintaining, between the black humor laughs, an uncomfortable, sinister and discombobulating undercurrent that leaves the viewer far more subliminally unsettled than most gore films. For any and all the laughs a given scene or this extremely dry black comedy might instigate, one never stops feeling oddly perturbed. This is particularly true of almost any scene involving Michael's only school friend, Sheila (London Juno of Prom Night III: The Last Kiss [1990 / trailer]), the daughter of his Nick's boss, who often comes across as overly knowing and unconsciously sexual for a girl of her age — an uncomfortable aspect of the narrative that would probably be exorcised were the film a product of today.
Parents is anything but a traditional horror film, and it swerves deeply into the realm of the weird; fans of films that are "different" will probably find this well-made, blackly humorous slice of '50s-set suburban dread highly satisfying. Heartily recommended by your fine folks here a wasted life.
Balaban's follow-up four years later was the teen comedy horror My Boyfriend's Back (1993 / trailer), which is fun enough but hardly as uncomfortable or disturbing, while his last feature film directorial project, the factually challenged and mildly humorous drama Bernard and Doris (2006 / trailer), starring an excellent Susan Sarandon, went straight to HBO.

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