Balaban’s 1989 film ‘Parents’ is an overlooked but somewhat effective psychological horror.
Promoted, initially, and more recently through its release via Lionsgate’s increasingly prominent ‘Vestron’ label as a black comedy, this film has a lot more to offer than perhaps that sub-genre would suggest.
The plot introduces 10-year-old Michel as the film’s protagonist, an awkward young boy whose fertile imagination and social awkwardness leads to his perceptions of the adult world distorted and disjointed. Often viewed from his perspective, he tries to make sense of a world where his parents are cannibals, monsters exist, and no-one seems to understand or be able to make sense of what seems perfectly ‘normal’ to him.
This film may have been associated with satire, a critique of suburban life and self-destructive excess associated with 80s USA, but to me, this film is a very relevant piece of media which concerns the lack of understanding in childhood conditions such as Autism; to an extent, its perhaps even more relevant now. At least in the films first half anyhow.
(Whether it was ever intended to be viewed as this I’ve no idea, but I would be interested to see whether other people share my point of view)
Its difficult to review the films plot as the story is more a horizontal slice rather than a ‘beginning to end’ affair. The only real linear theme running through the film is that the more Michel becomes aware his life is ‘different’ to other children, the more intense the threat to him becomes. Initially his issues seem to revolve around him walking in on his mother and father having sex, but as things escalate themes of abuse and emotional neglect begin to encroach into his everyday life. Social worker and psychologists find him odd, his parents seem to struggle with his withdrawn nature, his father in particular, who in one poignant scene openly states that the boy scares him because of his behaviours; the more Michel investigates his world, the more macabre his perception. That, and of course the continually running theme that his parents may in fact may actually be cannibals!
Don’t get me wrong, the film doesn’t dwell on these concepts, this is not an arthouse movie, it is however, creative although eventually the film does fall into a story whose third act is more typical of genre movies.
The horror elements are mild, by say a slasher standard, and despite is slightly off-beat concept this film stays away from the splatter indulgence of say Yuzna’s ‘Society’. There are some cool scenes scattered throughout the films 80-minute run time, often involving the suggestion of human flesh, as well as a number of prosthetic corpses. The film works as a horror, however, due to its effective crafting of tension and atmosphere. The use of awkward camera work, dialogue which seems constantly forced, a minimalistic yet droning soundtrack – all of which culminate in a world which feels cold and dehumanising, completely normal, but nothing seems right. Again, towards the end, things return to more typical genre fayre as just deserts are dished out.
Overall, its lack of typicality is what no doubt led to it being overlooked upon release, but times have changed, unusual is more than welcome these days. Vestron have done a great job of the release, ‘Parents’ is well worth checking out.