I surf around on Reddit and Letterbox, I subscribe to Kanopy and Criterion, I’ve got Hulu and HBO, why haven’t I ever heard of Bob Balaban’s Parents? Holy Shit, it’s a kick in the teeth! A hard kick in the teeth with workboots on. By all appearances, you would think Parents falls neatly into the 1980’s counter-culture, comedy, horror genre. If you look at the poster and the cast, namely Randy Quade, you would think you were in for a comedy along the lines of Society, The Stuff, Frankenhooker, Terrorvision, Brain Damage, or that sort of thing.
Parents flirts with being a silly parody like Meet The Applegates but it has a serious undertow that frequently overwhelms everything with genuine terror. The film takes place in the suburbs in the 1950s. It’s an easy era to parody with its hollow consumerism and obsession with white, heteronormative appearances. The Mom is a homemaker and the father works at a mysterious chemical company named Toxico. The name is a perfect example of the sort of social satire typical of the genre. The whole atmosphere seems to predict silly, unscary, and superficial fun, but then the young boy of the family has his first nightmare and we are thrown into a Kubrickian flood of blood and hallways as the child drowns in a dark sea of red.
The cinematography itself sets the film apart from its genre peers. Ernest Day and Robin Vidgeon use wide angles and extreme foreground shots to create an unsettling atmosphere. You’re never quite sure if you are watching through a specific character’s point of view or if you are some kind of fly on the wall, but the camera’s presence never fades away. You always have a sense of being an observer. Not a safely removed observer, but one who is almost included in the shot.
The compositions are odd as well. Often the camera is very low to simulate our child protagonist’s point of view, but other times the frame cuts characters off at odd places like the shins, or belly button. The movie is about cannibalism and the odd cropping feels like its own kind of butchery. Blaban is careful in what he chooses to show. We never see the actual disassembly of a body but Parents can get quite graphic and gory even if we are never really given the full picture. The truly fearsome elements are left to our imagination where they can be customized to our own anxieties through our own imagination
Often the counter culture, comedy, horror genre does not rise much above goofy parody. If you look for it you can sometimes glean a subtext about social hegemony or Reagan era capitalism, but Parent’s deserves more credit. It may not be as substantive and insightful as Todd Haynes Safe, but it leans in that direction. There is a similar sense of menace born of confusion and alienation. The young boy doesn’t fit in. Outsiders have the advantage of looking in from the margins where they can see the world in ways the initiated can not. The boy can see the seams and cracks in the social facade and he can’t help but peel at the edges.
There is also the possibility that the boy is a delusional psychopath unwittingly murdering people and imagining that the murderer is someone else. This is not likely to be the case but the possibility is kept open and adds to the film’s creepy thrall. Parents is a bit like an unstable tower that wobbles and lurches in different directions. There is the horror at the core but there is some John Hughs style teen angst which again feels light and breezy for a while but then gets sucked into darkness by a sinister undertow. Once we are stuck in this unstable world where nothing feels like it can be taken at face value everything and everyone becomes suspect. The film is intentionally presenting something that feels fake. There is a sense that at any minute the happy facade will collapse and reveal something horrifying, a bit like a Lynch film but again not quite as sophisticated.
A distinguishing characteristic of Parents is its unapologetic bleakness. Unlike other films in its genre Parents is unrelentingly dark. There is no redemption or lesson learned. There’s no illuminating moral about materialism or vanity, there is just a dark corner of the suburbs where something horrible is happening right under everybody’s nose.
Parents hovers somewhere in a category all its own. Its comic elements are campy. Its campy elements are creepy. The horror is genuinely frightening and the drama swings from soap opera parody to teeth-grinding intensity. There are the psychosocial aspects that remind you of a film like Ordinary People but once you are drawn into the family dynamics there is something far more disturbing going on.
Parents is not an indecisive film, it’s more like a creepy, shifty-eyed guy in an alley who won’t give you a straight answer. You know he’s hiding something, you know he’s dangerous but you’re curious and you want to find out what is going on. As humans, we fear the unknown, but we are also incurably curious. There’s nothing like tempting us with the forbidden and then punishing our prying eyes with something horrible. Sorry, not sorry.