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Monday, April 01, 2019

Meat: The Parents

From the Cinema Vault Dept.: I’ve written very few fim reviews over the years, which is surprising given my intense love of the cinema, and unsurprising given the crap I’d be asked to write about. But I’ve been able to cherrypick a few choice assignments over the years, and this was one of them (albeit an uncharacteristically brief example).


MANY YEARS AGO I attended a lecture describing an island culture that resolved its aggressions through “dream therapy,” the conscious manipulation of the unconscious state that allowed the dreamer to conquer an oppressor by imagining and then eating the person’s image.

Randy Quaid, Bryan Madorsky, and Mary Beth Hurt
Writer Christopher Hawthorne and director Bob Balaban may not have had this in mind when they embarked on the film Parents, but it certainly examines one nightmare case of parental oppression in terms both ghoulish and frighteningly familiar.

The familiar ones are the scariest, a tribute not only to the abovementioned and an exceptional cast but also to design consultant Yolanda Cuomo, who reproduced the look of 1958 Indiana in all its Eisenhower-loving glory.

Nick and Lily Laemle (Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt) have just moved into a spanking clean town with their 10-year-old son, Michael (an astonishing debut performance by non-actor Bryan Madorsky). They drive the right car and wear correct clothing. Dad works a nine-to-five job (he’s a defoliant expert for Toxico) and Mom keeps house.

Cooking some extremely unusual meals.

What at first seem like typical small-boy terrors (he’s afraid of the dark; he has bad dreams) take on a more poignant nature as we discover that all may not be picture-perfect in the Laemle house. And therein lies the genius of Parents, Balaban’s first as-director feature. Terror lurks in every corner of the young boy’s imagination, and even the more far-fetched fears seem plausible as Michael’s perspective is brilliantly captured.

These are the terrors shared by all baby-boomers, a kind of cold-war cocktail we shared as our parents played out the general fears of the era.

Parents also happens to be a hilarious movie, its laugh darkly-colored, of course, but stunning in its subtlety. In this, the age of the stupid “slasher” film, the story wouldn’t be nearly as effective, but set as it is two years before Psycho was released, it takes a Hitchcockian tongue-in-cheek approach to the an ultimately grisly story.

Quaid and Hurt are achingly good as the just-so parents, complemented by Sandy Dennis’s performance as a ditzy school counselor who may be Bryan’s one ray of hope. But in scene after scene it’s the camera who is the star, gliding down hallways and alongside the stairs in the Laemle house.

The finale is gratuitously messy and the punchline predictable, but that doesn’t get in the way of the tremendous fun you’ll have if you approach this with a sense of humor. And an empty stomach.

Directed by Bob Balaban

Metroland Magazine, 18 May 1989

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