25th Feb2019

Vestron Video: ‘Parents’ Blu-ray Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Sandy Dennis, Bryan Madorsky | Written by Christopher Hawthorne | Directed by Bob Balaban


“Real grown-ups don’t get upset,” reckons Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky), a young boy trapped in an idyllic 1950s condo with his creepily conventional parents. It’s a comment that betrays his increasingly twisted thinking. He suspects there’s something funny about his folks, and not in a ha-ha way. Mother (Mary Beth Hurt) is constantly serving up “leftover” meat, and Father (Randy Quaid) keeps giving weird lectures about the darkness of the human mind.

Father is a supervisor in a scientific research facility and his job gives him access to cadavers. Is it possible that Mom and Pop might be cannibals? Murderers, even? They have the perfect alibi: the career-man patriarch and his pie-baking wife, living in their domestic utopia, with its minimalist tan furniture and an Oldsmobile in the driveway. As the evidence stacks up, Michael’s nightmares intensify, and his relationship with his parents becomes increasingly tense.

Mike isn’t completely alone. There’s the school psychologist (Sandy Dennis), a chain-smoking hippie who’s also the most down-to-earth human in his world. And then there’s Sheila (London Juno), Michael’s crush, who claims to be from the Moon. Sheila and Michael both have an imagination; the difference is that hers is healthy and positive, whereas he pictures grim and sordid things.

The film isn’t shot from the perspective of a wholly innocent child. Michael imagines diving into a great sea of blood; and when he’s asked to draw his family in class, his depiction is like something out of The Babadook. Later, Michael reconfigures his memory of catching his parents’ lovemaking, turning it into a writhing, lustful bloodbath.

What his parents could keep hidden from Michael in early childhood he is gradually learning to understand. A running theme is children’s fear and distrust of adulthood. Grown-ups exist in a weird, alien world. When the Laemles visit friends of the family, Michael hangs out with their young daughter. She speaks of how her father will visit the refrigerator naked in the middle of the night. The kids’ uncomplicated minds cannot fathom the fetishes of their elders.

Michael associates the mystery of his parents’ “leftover meat” with their sexual appetite. Sex, traumatically glimpsed through his eyes, involves biting and violence. There’s something here about the nature of sexual repression; how it will cause confusion, rendering intercourse as something depraved and forbidden. Especially if evidence of love and affection is so sparse – Michael is convinced his father hates him, which he probably does.

Director Bob Balaban has a lot of mischievous fun. There’s an off-kilter fairy tale tone that’s reminiscent of Tim Burton at his best. The cinematography is inventive. Michael is often tucked in the corner of a frame like some frightened spider on a wall. And in the scene where his parents confront him about his suspicions, the entire dining table spins like a carousel. Then there’s Christopher Hawthorne’s smart script. Quite deliberately, we never see Michael’s parents together – particularly not plotting anything – which forces us to share in Michael’s sense of possibly unfounded suspicion.

Indeed, for a large portion of the film the possibility remains that everything could be a figment of Michael’s imagination. If the film has a significant flaw, it’s that by the end this ambiguity – the idea that Michael may be as culpable as any of the adults – has been removed, bringing the film into more conventional horror territory.

Parents is a slow-burn, psychological, blackly comical film. Its traditionally “scary” scenes are limited to Michael’s nightmares, which are shocking only because he is so young. They are accompanied by David Lynch-style howling wind and low-bass rumbling to go with their lightly surreal imagery.

Overall, Balaban’s film is far less broad (and perhaps less fun) a satire of the evil lurking behind the picket fence than, say, John Waters’ Serial Mom, though it’s also less intense than Lynch’s Blue Velvet. But Parents certainly fits into the same subgenre and it can stand proudly alongside them.


  • Audio commentary with director Bob Balaban and producer Bonnie Palef
  • Isolated score selections and audio interview with composer Jonathan Elias
  • ‘Leftovers To Be’ – with screenwriter Christopher Hawthorne
  • ‘Mother’s Day’ – with actress Mary Beth Hurt
  • ‘Inside Out’ – an interview with director of photography Robin Vidgeon
  • ‘Vintage Tastes’ – with decorative consultant Yolanda Cuomo
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Radio spots
  • Still gallery

Parents is out on Vestron Video Blu-ray from today, 25th February 2019.


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