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Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective


Parents (1989) Blu Ray (Vestron Video/Lionsgate)

These parents aren’t who they seem to be

This black horror comedy is set in suburban America during the 1950s. Bryan Madorsky plays Michael Laemie, a young boy who is relocated to a new town by his parents Nick (Randy Quaid) and Lily (Mary Beth Hurt). While he settles into his new home, he begins to have a series of frightening visions which lead him to suspect that his mother and father aren’t the wholesome role models whom they appear to be. In particular, he wonders about the source of the masses of meat which end up on their dinner table each night.

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All is not well in white bread America

While Bob Balaban is best known as a character actor, he has also worked extensively behind the camera as a director. Most of his output in this regard was on television but he also directed a small number of feature films, the first of which was Parents. It fits rather snugly in with a string of mid-to-late-1980s satirical horror and SF films which surfaced during Ronald Reagan’s second term and, in a rather timely manner, revealed to us that all is not well beneath the surface of the white bread American capitalist dream. The others in this cycle include such cult favourites as Blue Velvet (1986), RoboCop (1987), They Live (1988), Heathers (1988) and Society (1989). While Parents is set during the 1950s and certainly lets us know about it via its colourfully gaudy production design, its digs at the aggressive and self-serving consumerism which ran rampant during the era of its release are caustically blatant. Moreover, the choice of setting implies that these issues date back well before Reagan came to power; it’s just that they were kept hidden within a sugarcoated, wholesome shell back then.

It is also a horror film about cannibalism which, in contrast to most others that mine this controversial topic (such as Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 or Raw in 2016) is quite sparing on overt gore, preferring instead to rely on subtle creepiness. For starters, while the sights and (popular music) sounds of the 1950s are evoked with an invitingly twee sentimentality, the food served up for each and every meal looks singularly unappetising. As things go further down the rabbit hole, we begin to notice how damn creepy Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt, playing the titular parents, truly are. Quaid, in particular, conveys a certain subtly intimidating air in the manner in which he speaks to his son by threatening consequences which are utterly absurd but could, nonetheless, play out very convincingly in the febrile mind of a child. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this is the finest performance of his career. Mind you, Hurt’s impeccable yet artificially robotic mannerisms don’t come too far behind.

Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt and Bryan Madorsky in Parents

Considering that Parents was Balaban’s big screen debut, there’s a surprising amount of directorial flair on display with at least two wonderfully audacious sequences. The first features a backwards tracking shot progressing though an air vent and a chimney which metaphorically recoils from a shocking discovery in the cellar. The second features a table spinning on a rotating pedestal, amplifying the disorientating shock factor as the parents attempt to feed their child with the hideous meat. Some monochromatic nightmare sequences are also quite effectively deployed throughout. The one section of the film where he falters slightly is the climax which features a bit too much in the way of heavy breathy soundtrack and slow motion. It comes across as the kind of generic finale which capped off umpteen 1980s slasher movies.

Despite this minor misstep, however, Parents is a subversive, surreal gem of satirical horror which gets under the skin in its own distinctive manner.

Runtime: 83 mins

Dir: Bob Balaban

Script: Christopher Hawthorne

Starring: Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Sandy Dennis, Bryan Madorsky, London Juno

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

While those garish 1950s colours could have been played up a little more here, this is still a serviceable enough restoration.


Audio Commentary with Director Bob Balaban and Producer Bonnie Palef

The duo provide a great commentary track for the film. Bob explains that he basically wanted Bryan Madorsky’s character to be a representation of himself growing up. Since the script was too scary for a child, he didn’t allow Bryan to read it but, instead, fed him his lines while shooting the scenes. Nonetheless, he asked Randy Quaid not to spend too much time with the boy off-camera so that he would be convincingly intimidated by him. While initially Quaid himself wasn’t too happy about this, he nonetheless agreed to this approach.

The decision to set the film during the 1950s was Bob’s own decision rather than part of Christopher Hawthorne’s original script. He chose this period in part because he grew up then and in part because he was drawn to the idea of a superficially perfect society covering up hidden horrors. The majority of the exteriors were shot in a suburb of Toronto which still had houses similar to those in the USA during that period. Many of the objects seen in the Laemie family home set were mid-20th-century items which Bob and his wife had collected over the years. However, the various grocery products seen in the kitchen were entirely fictional brands; no real-life companies would give them permission to use the genuine articles because they were (perhaps understandably) concerned about the film portraying them in a negative light.

Most amusingly, Bob also reveals that Parents came out at the same time as the more winsome and upbeat Steve Martin vehicle Parenthood, resulting in some patrons going into his film by mistake. Needless to say, a few of them ended up being rather upset!

Isolated Score Selections and Audio Interview with Composer Jonathan Elias

This audio track consists of a 27-minute interview with the film’s composer plus a series of bits and pieces from its soundtrack. Elias reveals that he originally aspired to be a music teacher but fell into the movie soundtrack business after he landed the job of creating the score for the trailer for Alien (1979). After some further work on trailers, he graduated to working alongside the legendary John Barry on a number of films as well as composing the soundtracks for the likes of Children of the Corn (1984), Tuff Turf (1985) and, of course, Parents. He has also worked with pop/rock various music artists such as Duran Duran and Yes.

Leftovers to Be with Screenwriter Christopher Hawthorne

An interesting interview with the film’s screenwriter, who reveals that he originally intended Parents to be more of a film about alcoholism and child abuse than about cannibalism. He originally wanted Christopher Walken or William Atherton for the role of Michael Laemie since he felt that they could easily play dark characters in the thrall of an addiction. He was initially horrified when he learned that Bob Balaban had cast the confident, good-natured Randy Quaid in the part. He soon realised, however, that he was fully capable of being sinister - especially when he donned those round-rimmed glasses which we see him wear through much of the film.

Parents wasn’t a big success on its theatrical release, partially because Vestron struggled to understand how to market such an off-kilter film to would-be audiences. It also polarised critics; even Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert expressed conflicting opinions on their reviews show, with the former enjoying it and the latter decrying it. Ironically, Christopher spotted Roger laughing his way through it during the Toronto International Film Festival so he was quite surprised at the negative review that he ultimately gave to it.

Mother’s Day with Actress Mary Beth Hurt

The film’s lead actress talks about her memories of the film and the 1950s era. Interestingly, towards the end of the interview, she admits that the first time she watched the film she saw it from the POV of the parents and assumed that the horror stuff was in the child’s mind. The second time, however, she saw it from the POV of the little boy and found it genuinely scary.

Inside Out: An Interview with Director of Photography Robin Vidgeon

Vidgeon took over from Ernest Day who had to drop out because his wife was sick. He was flown to Toronto immediately after shooting wrapped on Mr. North and pretty much thrown in the deep end. He describes how he lit and shot a number of key scenes, including the memorable rotating table sequence.

Vintage Tastes with Decorative Consultant Yolanda Cuomo

Arguably the best of the interview featurettes is this one with Cuomo, who designed the film’s incredibly kitschy interior aesthetics and credit sequences. She collaborated with a group of friends who brought her a selection of 1950s photographs. She used these as inspiration for a whole series of sketches, collages and drawings (some of which we see here) which would, in turn, inform the film’s period background. Sadly, this was the only film which she ever managed to work on.

A theatrical trailer, radio spots and a stills gallery round out the extras here.


Parents is a must-see for those who enjoy their horror on the offbeat side. Kudos, too, to Lionsgate for assembling an interesting and affectionate package of extras.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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