Director: Bob Balaban
Screenplay: Christopher Hawthorne
Producers: Mitchell Cannold, Bonnie Palef, Steven Reuther
Starring: Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Bryan Madorsky
Country: Canada/ USA
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 81 min
Bob Balaban is perhaps best known for his acting roles in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, his appearances in Christopher Guest’s brilliant mockumentaries or, to TV viewers, his guest roles in Seinfeld and Friends (as Phoebe’s real dad). However, when I think of this almost-horizontally deadpan oddball my mind immediately goes to the unsettling Horror/Fantasy anthology shows that were popular in the 80s: Tales from the Darkside, Amazing Stories, Monsters. Balaban wrote and directed several episodes for all these shows, as well as the later Twilight Zone remake and the similarly-spirited kid’s show Eerie, Indiana.
These often haunting short films dripped with unease but Balaban’s work was generally tempered with a streak of black humour which made it (slightly) more palatable. The specific story that sticks in my head is The Farmer’s Daughter, a Monsters episode which took a well-known dirty joke as its jumping off point and then changed tack, pushing towards an ever more horrific finale. The result was an unforgettable piece that flirted with silliness but descended into nightmare, pulling it back towards daft at the climax as the morbid denoument was repackaged as a punchline.
Balaban channeled the lessons he learned on these creepy television shows into his first feature film, the supremely weird and routinely underrated Parents. At the time of its release, ‘Parents’ failed to find an audience and was critically panned because neither the public nor the critics really knew what it was. One complaint often levelled at the film is that it doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be, never funny enough to be a comedy but not quite horrific enough to be a horror film. I believe, however, that this deft walking of the line between the horrific and the ridiculous is one of the things that makes Parents such a subtle, clever piece of work. Those who demand their comedy be overt and rib-cage rattling and their horror constantly and obviously terrifying need not apply. You won’t laugh out loud during Parents and neither will you scream. You may, however, be quietly and satisfyingly amused while simultaneously feeling an overwhelming sense of foreboding and unease.
I keep using the word “unease” because, to me, it sums up the atmosphere of Parents perfectly. The story takes place in an apparently picture perfect 1950s suburbia, a setting which has become associated with creepiness through films such as Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands or David Lynch’s superb Blue Velvet. But, unlike Blue Velvet, which quickly turns its attention from the apparently quaint to the sick-makingly horrific, Parents leaves us in some doubt as to whether the events that appear to be unfolding are genuinely happening or simply inside the head of the clearly disturbed protagonist, young Michael. Michael has come to suspect that the indistinguishable meat his parents serve up for every meal may come from a sinister source. However, by the time evidence to this effect begins appearing, the viewer has enough reason to doubt Michael’s viewpoint is entirely reliable.
The film makes it clear right from the outset that the events of Parents are to be seen from Michael’s point of view. The opening image is a black and white picture of Michael, the camera deliberately picking out his haunted, terror-filled eyes. Not long afterwards, we witness Michael hallucinating a vast river of blood which he disappears into as he leaps into bed. Further developments reveal that Michael is deeply disturbed by his ongoing awakening to sex, especially in relation to his parents. This angle, to me, seems to hold the key to Parents as Michael’s likening of sexual activity with the carnivorous devouring of flesh casts a great deal of doubt on the unlikely events that unfold. There is no certainty here, however, and one might well ask the question, which came first, Michael’s fear of cannibalism or his apparent exposure to it?
Doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, does it?! Well, that’s because it isn’t. Parents is far more of a psychological horror that it is a black comedy. Perhaps the poster for the film (complete with the tongue in cheek tagline “There’s a new name for terror…. Parents!”), in which a sweet domestic scene is juxtaposed with a refrigerated skull, lead many to reasonably assume the comedy element of the film would be more prominent. I myself was expecting the corny Americana angle to be played up to a hammy extreme. In fact, the comedy that is present is utterly pitch black and Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt give subtle performances as the titular parents, never lapsing into the willfully goofy 50s stereotypes of Gary Ross’s Pleasantville. The humour mostly comes from juxtaposition of the terrifying atmosphere with bright, sitcom style settings and upbeat 50s rock ‘n’ roll (the climactic use of Sheb Wooley’s hit Purple People Eater over the closing credits is the most obvious ‘joke’ in the film). Humour also arises from the sheer intensity of the escalating chills. This edgy ambience is leant more weight by Angelo Badalamenti’s score (another connection to the work of David Lynch, which Parents is often compared with) and particularly by the agonizing central performance of Bryan Madorsky, whose shocking intensity carries the film.
Balaban’s brilliance with Parents is in stretching out the 20 minute format of his horror anthology episodes to four times the length, retaining all the creepiness but allowing himself to probe deeper into psychological corners too complex to examine in the shorter format. Parents is still a relatively short film, wisely ending after just 81 minutes. Any longer and the intensity would have crossed over from morbidly enjoyable to simply unpleasant, or else viewers would become bored and begin questioning the silly storyline to which Balaban so skillfully lends depth. When it closes with an upbeat pop hit over a ‘You Have Been Watching…” style closing sitcom credit sequence, the clued-in audience member instead leaves with a smile on their face, appreciating the highly unusual use of humour even as they ponder the not-unpredictable but still deeply troubling final image and all its many, many implications. It’s no wonder Parents quickly went from commercial failure to cult classic. For the small minority of moviegoers who “get it”, Parents is an unforgettable experience.