Director Bob Balaban and writer Christopher Hawthorne tackle a difficult subject in Parents – and I’m not talking about the cannibalism that throws a pall over the happy-go-lucky 1950s tone. The film alternates between straight horror and comedy, but Hawthorne’s script mixes a lot of moody atmosphere into the colorful scenery of the setting, eventually hinting at sinister undertones about parental abuse and the ease in which taboo subjects can be hidden from public life only to rear their ugly head in the privacy of the home. Parents‘ horror scenario jokes with the audience about a seemingly well-adjusted family who may or may not eat people for dinner, but the more important subject is hidden beneath this facade in much the same way the characters hide their true selves.
The film follows Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky), a shy and reserved kid adjusting to life in the suburbs. His parents Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) and Nick (Randy Quaid) seem like the perfect couple – Nick holds down a great scientific job at the local Toxico plant while Lily stays home cooking, cleaning, and acting like a wonderful housewife. But Michael suspects that his parents are really cannibals, and he refuses to eat any of the meat that they put in front of him; even more, he begins to fear them, drawing violent pictures at school and attempting to explain to his social worker Millie (Sandy Dennis) the reasons why he’s so frightened of his basement.
Part of Parents‘ charm is its ’50s time period, and not just because of the excellent set designs and costumes. It’s actually an important designation for the film; we tend to view this era with rose-colored glasses, remembering the good whole-hearted family values of society, and yet Parents juxtaposes that with a disturbing tale of hidden parental violence. Michael is a conflicted boy, unable to escape the darkness that surrounds him because the monsters in his life happen to be the ones raising him. As he attends school, deals with common childhood problems, he’s plagued by an abusive father and a mother unwilling to subvert the patriarchal makeup of the family dynamic. It’s an occurrence that was and still is too common, and though Parents satirizes abuse by portraying it through the lens of cannibalism, the effects of this metaphor are still felt within the context of the film.
It helps that the cast members work well together. Quaid is truly a terrifying father here, foregoing his usual goofiness for cold, calculated bipolarity – his quick alternations between doting parent and angry mental case give Parents suspense in its later scenes when Michael begins to rebel. Equally complex is Hurt’s character Lily, who truly wants to give Michael a good life but struggles to figure out how quell her abusive husband. Parents spends a surprising amount of time with Lily and Michael together, building their tight relationship to give the film’s climax its emotional weight. Madorsky’s quiet portrayal of Michael is a highlight too; Hawthorne’s script focuses on the oddness and creativity of childhood, especially with Michael and his friend Sheila (London Juno), a refreshing portrayal of kids that is less stereotypical than it probably could have been.
In truth, it’s questionable whether Parents really needs its cannibalistic elements except to give the film some bloody humor. Still, these moments add interesting directorial decisions from Balaban, who experiments with long shots, low angles, lighting, and rotating platforms to provide an off-kilter mood. Visually, the film is an erratic experience that emphasizes the unease Michael feels in his own home, and it works to give Parents an intentionally conflicting emotional resonance.
It would be easy to write Parents off as a silly horror comedy about a family of cannibals and one kid’s attempt to avoid eating humans, but that would boil off the real draw of the film. Balaban manages to evoke a powerful message about the dangers of hidden abuse, and in the process attempts to expose the darkness often lacking in portrayals of ’50s-era society. Parents is surprisingly successful, both in the horror genre and those outside of it.