In 2019, Bob Balaban is probably best known for his acting roles in Wes Anderson’s films (most prominently as the narrator in Moonrise Kingdom), his acting has also seen him work with the likes of Spielberg, Altman, Ken Russell, and Christopher Guest. He has also carved out an interesting side-career as a director, only one more notable for the number of iconic TV series he worked on than any great big-screen prolificness. Standing out head and shoulders in his directorial career is 1989’s Parents (out now from Vestron Video) – a curious oddity that works as a perfect storm of influence on the directors Balaban worked with as an actor.
Set in a warped vision of 1950s America that shares the same spirit as latter-day John Waters & David Lynch, Parents centres around the Laemle family: Father, Nick (Randy Quaid), Mother, Lily (Mary Beth Hurt), and, son, Michael (Bryan Madorsky). Michael is an odd boy, and upon joining his new school he is asked to tell the class something new – as per school tradition – and he drops upon his classmates a recipe to become invisible that involves cooking a skinned cat. Dark, yet compared to his parents he is a pussycat; his Parents are cannibals after all. That positions Balaban’s Parents in possibly one of the most unique seats in all horror – a singular entry into the cannibal sub-genre. More often than not, cannibals are tribes deep in South American jungles who inflict graphic violence upon European explorers. Italian cinema, in particular, got great mileage from this. Balaban, contrarily, sets his story in wholesome, middle-America within a family unit where the Dad wears sweater vests calls his Son ‘sport’ and his wife a wholesome homemaker.
Parents would make a fantastic double bill with Lynch’s Blue Velvet, both start off as virtuous representations of middle-class America and both go to great lengths to corrupt that status quo. The connection to Lynch is deeper than the aforementioned theme too, Balaban includes touches that could only be described as Twin Peaks-like. Michael’s horrific dreams (especially for a child under 10) can only be described as Lodge-like, furthermore, the use of brooding electronic drone used to score the nastier, more unsettling moments earns that constantly over-used phrase – Lynchian. Or at the very least, a monster mash-up of David Lynch and John Waters, creating the perfect middle ground between these two playfully eccentric American filmmakers.
Another concept Balaban adopts is the unreliable narrator. Michael’s time is divided between awkward meals at home, his only friend, Sheila Zellner (Juno Mills-Cockell), and the school therapist (Sandy Dennis). The only time we see the real little boy is when he is with his friend, otherwise we see an aloof, creepy boy. When he is with his parents around the dinner table, he is very suspicious – we know he has seen something untoward but the camera has never shown us the full picture and it only makes a distinction as to whether it was a dream or real late on. At school, when the other kids draw pictures of their family they draw a happy unit, Michael draws the same but scribbles over it with a comic sea of red – capturing the attention of the school faculty.
I was reminded of the reflecting skin in the sense that both it and Parents are vivid horror titles that use the perspective of children to process gross acts and both are lead by child performances that leave much to be desired. He isn’t bad enough to sink the whole ship, and unlike the child actor in Philip Ridley’s oddball vampire parable he doesn’t end the film by screaming at the sun, his is a subtle performance, at least. The same cannot be said of the other performers. It’s easy to forget when Randy Quaid has all but vanished into obscurity, but as the duplicitous Nick (or ‘Dad’ as he is described in the brilliantly referred to in the Brady Bunch-style closing cards) he reminds of what a good actor he can be. He is the very image of a good, family man: friendly, welcoming, a pillar of the community. However, when things turn dark he uses the exact same register to chastise his son, tell dark stories and spit venom. A quietly intense man whose secret lifestyle spills over into a final scene that would usually only be found in a slasher. This is a reflexive movie if nothing else. The same is true of Mary Beth Hurt as Michael’s Mum, only her role is intermediary, very much a cannibal and disappointed that her son doesn’t eat the meat presented to him yet she still protects her offspring. Let’s just say it’s a complicated family.
Parents is a comedy yet not for one second would I call it “laugh out loud” funny. Now that may be a failure to some, however, what it does better is mimic Americana in a wry, blackly comic register – whether that is better, worse or just different is for you to decide. If you do want that funny anti-cannibal horror Eating Raoul is it. Nonetheless, at an energetic 80 minutes, Parents is a forever rewatchable treasure trove laden with ideas. Vestron’s treatment sees the movie release look fantastic thanks to a glowing restoration and a selection of interviews with key players and a directors commentary; it’s all common extra fodder yet the value it adds to a film that has largely been forgotten in this part of the world is indisputable. And that is exactly why extra features matter.
PARENTS IS OUT NOW ON VESTRON VIDEO