Directed by Bob Balaban. Starring Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Sandy Dennis, Bryan Madorsky, Deborah Rush, Graham Jarvis. Horror/Comedy, USA/Canada, 81 mins, cert 18.
Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Lionsgate on 25th February 2019.
Originally released during that awkward transitional phase between campy '80s mainstream horror and the darker psychological terrors that became popular in the early '90s, PARENTS always seemed to exist in a bubble all of its own thanks to a combination of 1950s nostalgia, a story about cannibalism that could be taken at face value or seen as a metaphor for other bizarre behaviours that adults engage in and probably the creepiest representation of idyllic family life outside of a David Lynch movie.
After an opening credits trip through suburbia we get to see the Laemle family - dad Nick (Randy Quaid - KINGPIN), mum Lily (Mary Beth Hurt - THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) and young son Michael (Bryan Madorsky) - taking a drive together and immediately it is very noticeable that things aren't right; Nick and Lily wave, flash their perfect teeth and say all the right things to make them appear whiter than white but Michael isn't a happy child. He knows something about his parents is different and has bizarre dreams about them and their apparent love for meat, a love that Michael does not share and leads him to question not only his own parents’ behaviour but also how adults generally behave around each other.
Much more than just being about cannibalism, PARENTS has several themes going on within its narrative, for not only does Michael view his parents with suspicion and fear but Nick also looks at Michael with similar disgust - "Well mister, you scare me too. You don't look like me. You don't act like me. You hate me. Well I'm not so crazy about you either!" he shouts at one point, the only time he loses it with his son - and you have this weird father and son dynamic that writer Christopher Hawthorne adheres to in the special features as being his experience growing up in a household with differing political views. The 1950s setting is perfect (and brilliantly recreated) as the image of the nuclear family suits the Laemles’ outlook of being seen to be a pillar of society by those around them but when behind closed doors things maybe aren’t quite so wonderful.
And if ever you needed to see how to portray the perfect parents with a creepy undertone then Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt give a masterclass in nuance. Quaid is mostly known for his comic roles but here he uses his talent for expression and timed delivery to make Nick Laemle one of the most terrifying antagonists to have come out of ‘80s horror, mainly because he looks so damn normal. Mary Beth Hurt does the doting mother thing with similar skill but her role is slightly different as she has to give a fixed grin during most of her lines, especially when dealing with Michael’s school and trying to explain his odd behaviour of drawing bloody scenes of destruction. Bryan Madorsky plays Michael as a quiet and intense boy and according to the interviews on the disc he was like that in real life, and the only other major character to add any real colour to the film is Sandy Dennis as Millie Dew, the chain-smoking bohemian school counsellor who isn’t quite as nuclear family oriented as the Laemles’ (and back in the 1950s that just wouldn’t do), and while there are a few other minor characters that pop up PARENTS is the most effective when it is the three Laemle members alone in their house.
Released as part of Lionsgate’s Vestron Collector’s Series this is the first time PARENTS has been available to buy in the UK since it was originally released on VHS and there are some tasty morsels to chew on with regards to special features. Writer Christopher Hawthorne gives a very detailed interview about the conception of the film and how the ideas germinated, as does Mary Beth Hunt who talks very highly of the experience. The best interviews, though, are the ones with cinematographer Robin Vidgeon (HELLRAISER) and decorative consultant Yolanda Cuomo who really go into detail about the look and designs of the film, pointing out a lot of things to do with lighting and framing that may go unnoticed on a first viewing but once they point them out you can’t not see them. There is also an audio commentary by director Bob Balaban and producer Bonnie Palef and isolated score selections and audio Interview with composer Jonathan Elias that fill out the details and give the impression of a happy shoot from all involved.
Overall, this long overdue release is definitely worth picking up for something a little different from the normal slashers/horror comedies that were around at the time. There isn’t too much in the way of gore but there doesn’t need to be as Randy Quaid provides enough uneasiness that you don’t miss it, although the close-ups of him cutting pieces of meat whilst cooking are disturbing enough that blood would have been welcome just to cover up the grey veal steaks that don’t look very appetising at all. It must be said that the picture quality isn’t the best and doesn’t differ too much from the previously available US DVD release but PARENTS isn’t a film that relies on any fancy effects and so for a chilling look at family life from a slightly skewed perspective this release comes highly recommended.
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