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October 16th, 2011


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10:35 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Parents
I grew up (as I'm sure anyone reading this did) in the '90s, when home video equipment was still a relatively big deal. VCRs had become so ubiquitous by the beginning of the decade that everybody with any sort of business at all added a video rental section. There was a time when every gas station and grocery store had a video rental with just as small and crappy a selection as Red Box, but the movies were less current, and the prices were higher. There were two excellent video rental within walking distance of our house, but we tended more often to go to the Pick 'n' Save grocery store, which had a much smaller selection. I would spend time looking at the horror movies, but never renting them because my parents were the ones with the membership. Years later I learned that the box art which attracted me most belonged to the unwatchable films of Charles Band's Full Moon Productions.

Another box that always held my interest was Parents, which depicted a scene right out of the never-produced Halloween episode of Leave It To Beaver: Dad opening the fridge, oblivious of the skull inside, and Mom about to carve a big, bloody hunk of "beef." The tagline? "There's a new name for terror... PARENTS."

Pick 'N' Save eventually phased out the video department, and I forgot about Parents for about fifteen years, until I was looking up the resume of Bob Balaban and saw that he directed Parents in 1989. I don't think Bob Balaban is a terribly well-known person, but he pops up as an actor in all kinds of movies. I first noticed him in the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest, but he played Linus in the original off-Broadway production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which we had on a cassette when I was a kid. Eventually I bought the CD, and I believe that recognizing his name in the liner notes of the CD is the reason I'd looked him up. He's also (apparently) a very versatile director. You'd have to be versatile to go from Peanuts to Parents.

The film is about Michael Laemle (the never again seen Bryan Madorsky), a quiet elementary schooler with dark hair and big eyes. Every night Michael's parents serve him "leftovers." "Leftover what?" Michael asks. Just Leftovers. "What were they before they became leftovers?" Leftovers to be, of course.

Michael is too imaginative, and it doesn't help when he makes friends with a compulsive liar, Sheila, who is the daughter of his father's boss. Sheila has a tendancy to get into trouble, and more importantly, to get Michael into trouble. Soon he is forbidden to see her, and his parents are beginning to resent his nosiness and suspicions. There's also a social worker who gets involved when Michael's teacher is disturbed by the few words he says in class.

Then we start seeing Mr. Laemle choosing organ meats from dead bodies, and in one scene Michael, hiding in the pantry, is strangled by tentacular salami. It's hard to know whether Michael's suspicions of his parents' cannibalism have any basis in fact, or whether he's imagining it all. That question is eventually answered, but by that point the movie has spun out of control. Not in the good, mind-bending way, but in the what-the-hell-was-the-director-trying-to-do? way.

Parents is not a very good film. I'm glad to have tied up one of the loose ends in my pursuit of cinematic appreciation, but I'd expected better. A big part of the problem is that Parents is supposed to be a horror/comedy, but it doesn't handle either of those very well. It's dark and understated, which sabotage the comedic aspects of the film, and it spends too much time wandering aimlessly to be effectively suspenseful. There are oedipal undertones and good scenes of Michael's bewilderment and offense at his parents' behavior while inebriated, but none of this goes anywhere. Part of this is mediocre writing, but the production also spends too much time on recreating the gosh-darn-aw,-shucksness of suburban life in the '50s, and not enough time examining what's actually going on in the plot.

There are good characters, at least. Randy Quaid is just about perfect as Mr. Laemle, and Sandy Dennis brings the right confused intellectualism to the chain-smoking social worker.

Visually, it's an interesting movie, borrowing camera tricks from Hitchcock, and visual style from David Lynch (particularly Blue Velvet). Balaban knows how to make a movie look interesting, but that's not enough. You know, I just realized that this movie reminds me an awful lot of Ed and His Dead Mother, which is equally obscure, and more fun to watch. Even if it's not horror.

Here's the trailer, which misleadingly casts Parents as a more traditional horror film.

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31 Days of Halloween: Parents - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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