Parents (1989) Retrospective

Ten-year-old Michael Laemle has moved with his parents Nick and Lily from Massachusetts to a new neighborhood in 1958 suburbia. As Michael is very socially awkward and also has an overly active imagination, he has trouble making friends at school. He is also prone to extremely weird dreams, such as dreaming that he has jumped into bed- only for it to collapse into a pool of blood.

Emotionally distraught from the move and the dreams, Michael is traumatized by accidentally viewing his parents having sex (he believes that he is seeing them biting into one another) and by viewing his father cutting into a corpse in the Division of Human Testing at Toxico, where Nick is developing a chemical defoliant (like Agent Orange) for use in jungles. As time progresses, Michael begins to suspect that his parents are cannibals, after he discovers (or dreams that he discovers) body parts hanging on a meat hook in the basement. Michael is convinced that what he has seen is true, much to the chagrin of his school guidance counselor Millie Dew. One afternoon Millie goes home with Michael in order to convince him that he is imagining everything, only for the two of them to find a corpse in the basement. Michael runs up to his room while Millie, hiding in the pantry, is found and killed.


When Nick and Lily arrive home, Michael attacks his father. Later that evening Nick tries to feed Michael (possibly human) meat assuring him he will develop a taste for it like his mother did while Lily smiles in agreement but he fights back and manages to stab his father in the shoulder. Nick then tries to kill Michael, only for Lily to try to protect Michael and die in the process. Michael is then chased around the house by his injured father, who accidentally runs into a gas line due to his injuries. Nick breaks the gas line and then runs into a shelf of wine bottles, which he pulls down onto him and presumably dies. As gas fills the room, Michael has barely enough time to escape before the gas ignites and blows up the house.

The film ends with Michael’s paternal grandparents assuming his care. After placing him to bed, Michael’s grandparents leave him a midnight snack consisting of a glass of milk and a suspicious-looking meat sandwich, implying perhaps that his father learned cannibalism from his parents.

The movie, shot on a seven-week schedule in Toronto with a budget under $3 million, is about the perfect couple, Nick and Lily Laemle, and their not so perfect son, 10-year-old Michael (played by Canadian newcomer Bryan Madorsky). Michael’s nightmares and suspicions about his perfect parents turn out to be prescient. “When you watch the movie, all you’re aware of is that the people are a little strange,” hedges Balaban, sidestepping the “C” issue. “Certainly the father’s a little sinister, but not really unlike people I knew when I was growing up, and the mother is obsessive.

The director of Parents is a parent himself. He and wife Lynn Grossman, a screenwriter and fiction author, have two girls: Mariah, 11, and Hazel, 18 months. “Being a parent is hard, winces Balaban. “We all think that as parents we will definitely not commit the sins of our own parents, whatever we think they were. We’re going to do it better, differently. Then you become a parent, and you find out it’s pretty hard to be perfect. Or even polite.

Bryan Madorsky as Michael Laemle
Bryan Madorsky as Michael Laemle

Madorsky, who plays nine year-old Michael, is the neighbor of the film’s producer, Bonnie Paleff-Woolf, and not a professional actor. Explained Balaban, “I showed the producer a video by XTC (a British rock band) called ‘Dear God’ and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could get a little boy as interesting as the little boy in this video.’ After I interviewed 65 child actors she brought him in and he got the part.”

The boy has these nightmares, and eventually you realize something is happening. It’s different for different people, but around three quarters of the way through the movie-and this is what I don’t like to reveal-you find out that the parents are cannibals. They eat people. They don’t kill people, but they eat them.”

“Obviously, as soon as the movie comes out, everybody’s gonna know anyway.” sighs Balaban. Still, he hopes to preserve the surprise, at least for a few. “When people find out what’s happening. they do one of two things: They either turn off to the movie or they think it’s neat and wonderful and weird. But they generally have a very strong reaction to what’s happening. So it’s not like I’m Steven Spielberg and I don’t want you to know what E.T. looks like. I would just like everybody to not be primed, because immediately the film will get pigeonholed as another … Can we be off the record?”

Sure, guy. But for the record, anyway, the movie also stars Sandy Dennis as the school psychiatrist who tries to help Michael deal with his nightmares about flesh, blood and death. And if we can’t talk cannibals, at least we can talk rats. There is one gory scene involving rats. “Something happens,” is all Balaban will disclose. Some actors want to keep their wardrobe when shooting is over, but Sandy Dennis was so taken with the cute little rodent thespians that she wanted to take them home.

“Sandy is really a wonderful animal lover and humanitarian,” Balaban asserts. “She suggested that she take them home with her, to make sure they had a nice life. but she realized that with the 47 cats she has in her house, it would be a terrible idea.”

Balaban says the Toronto rats (unlike their counterparts in New York City, where he makes his home) were listless and not very frightening on the set. “We had to rub them with carbon paper-or something a little more humane than that–to make their hair look sort of dark and bristly. But really. they were very tame, and they refused to move or do anything. At one point, I threw a stone in their direction. They got so frightened they stood there and wouldn’t move.”

Although Parents was finished by the end of the summer, Balaban spent some time tinkering with it. After running it by test audiences in New Jersey, he trimmed seven minutes out of young Michael’s nightmare scenes. “Instead of being as exciting as we thought they were going to be,” he frowns, “the dream sequences kind of slowed it down, so we removed – some of them.”
He feels the test audience was very clear about what should stay and what should visit the cutting room floor. “You hear rustling. and your heart sinks,” Balaban explains. “You can tell when they like it and when they don’t. It’s pretty evident. Part of being an actor is getting up in front of an audience in the first preview, and you learn. Actors are kind of like computers, in a way. Not that we’re mechanical, but we do stand in front of an audience and notice what works and what doesn’t work over a period of days, months. That’s what I felt about the movie, although it is painful and frightening to show what you’ve been working on for a year to a bunch of people.”

Balaban, though no stranger to directing, is mostly known as an actor. After working with Sidney Lumet on Prince of the City, he apprenticed himself to the director during the making of Deathtrap. I learned a huge amount about how to prepare a movie, which actors don’t usually learn,” he says. The NYU film school graduate’s first solo directing effort was a short, SPFX 1140. He then directed “Trick or Treat,” the pilot of Tales from the Darkside. Although George Romero wrote the script, Balaban discounts it as “not particularly terrifying. It was more of a character study.” He also helmed a segment for Amazing Stories, a Penn & Teller special for Showtime and a music video.

It was while at Showtime that he discovered the Parents script by first-time screenwriter Christopher Hawthorne. It was unusual,” he recalls. “I had been reading lots of things, and I’d been offered a couple to direct. This one attracted me because there were a lot of interesting visual opportunities, not just people talking all the time. I thought that was important for my first movie.”

Parents explores one of Balaban’s pet subjects: the evil that lurks beneath the calm surface of very polite personalities. “People who are too polite, in situations that are too perfect, make me nervous,” he confesses. “You know, going to a cocktail party where everybody wears white gloves and eats cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. You’re just dying for somebody to make some mistake or do something rude because you’re so tense. The nicer the facade, the bigger the secret.”

And yet, Balaban himself is dare we say it?-polite. “I’m not really that polite,” he protests. “I’m acceptable in polite company and society and everything. I’ve worked for years to not be so polite all the time.” Yeah, that’s what all polite people say.

Balaban set his movie in what he considers the scariest era of American history. the 1950s. “I was a kid in the ’50s, and that’s one of the reasons I set the movie then, because outward appearances and being perfect really were so much more important than they have ever been. The ’50s were about being homogenized. We were all supposed to think the same things. It was dangerous if you had beliefs that weren’t just like everybody else’s. And you had to look the same. God forbid you should have curly hair.”

And God forbid we should talk about cannibalism. I loved Eating Raoul,” Balaban points out. But that wasn’t a cannibal movie. I mean, yes, the story was that they were cannibals, but it wasn’t a ‘cannibal movie.’ It was just Paul Bartel’s wonderful, strange kind of humor. Parents is not a horror film. It’s really a comedy, a dark comedy about manners. I would call it a kind of social satire, if anything. If you go into it expecting cannibalism and gore and horror, I don’t know that you’ll notice it that much. About three-quarters of the way through, it gets a little gory and scary.”

It’s not that Bob Balaban is soft on cannibalism; it’s just that he’s afraid moviegoers will line up for Parents expecting severed limbs on plates and steaming tureens of human innards, and they’ll be disappointed. Your reporter can see already by the look on Balaban’s face as he eats his chicken salad (he’s on a low-fat diet-no red meat) at an Upper West Side bistro that this is definitely not the impression he had wanted to give about his debut as a feature film director.

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“It is definitely a strange movie, the mild-mannered, bespectacled actor allows. “It is weird. I describe it as a very black comedy about the demise of the perfect couple in 1958 middle America. Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt play perfect parents. They dress beautifully, they live in a perfect split-level house, they drive the right car. Dad is on the move at work, Mom bakes and cooks and keeps a clean house. And basically, it’s an investigation of the underside of politeness. Sort of a cross between The Donna Reed Show and Psycho. Does that sound weird?”

Vestron plans to market the film as an “offbeat comedy: the “C” word does not enter into their plans. “I like horror films, but that’s not my favorite kind of movie. My wife hates them,” offers Balaban. “I thought it wouldn’t be harmful for the first thing I directed to have an edge to it. People don’t have to die in order to have an edge to it. But I thought it might be better if it wasn’t four people sitting around discussing what they’re going to be when they grow up.”


Balaban said he tried to treat the film’s horrific special effects “realistically,” but downplays PARENTS’ connection to the horror genre. “We tried making [the effects] confusing on purpose,” said Balaban. “I want the audience not to be completely sure whether it is a nightmare or is really happening because the boy himself is confused.”

Saying a horror film isn’t a horror film has become fashionable of late, especially in promotion and advertising. Vestron and the makers of PARENTS seem intent on following this strategy by keeping the film’s cannibalism theme under wraps. That approach raised the ire of the film’s special effects supervisor, Gordon Smith, who worked on PLATOON, NEAR DARK, and DEAD RINGERS.

“The director says this isn’t a horror picture, so we have two entirely different views on the movie altogether,” said Smith. “He and the producers are trying hard to push the notion [the characters] are not eating human flesh. But it is quite obvious from beginning to end that’s what they are doing. Look. I have used more blood in PARENTS than I did in all of PLATOON. That should tell you something.”


Effects by Smith and Derek Howard include a ceiling that comes down. opens up, bulges and tries to swallow the boy, a 16-foot kielbasa sausage that tries to strangle him, and 1500 gallons of blood used to simulate his drowning. Howard, who worked under Smith, questioned whether Balaban was able to elevate the graphic scenes to the metaphoric plane he was seeking. “It is really hard to assess if Bob has succeeded in capturing this psychological elusiveness,” said Howard. “Is this really a parody on normal, everyday life? It is walking a thin line. You make up your mind in the last five minutes whether it is a fantasy of the kid’s or is true. Much depends on the quality of the script to be able to pull this off successfully.”

After working with two successful, experienced directors in Oliver Stone and David Cronenberg, Smith looks back on his work on PARENTS as “one of the most frustrating experiences in my life,” he said. “We lost about 40% of the effects on NEAR DARK due to fear and naivete the same sort of problems we have had here. You have an effect and it is assumed at the start it won’t work even before it is tried, which to me is rather amateurish.”

Parents (1989) Soundtrack Credits

Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White (Cerisier Rose et Pommier Blanc)
Memories Are Made of This Dean Martin
Purple People Eater Sheb Wooley
Chantilly Lace The Big Bopper
Moments to Remember The Four Lads
Meatloaf Mambo Angelo Badalamenti

Bob Balaban

Mitchell Cannold
Bonnie Palef
Steven Reuther

Christopher Hawthorne

Bryan Madorsky as Michael Laemle
Randy Quaid as Nick Laemle
Mary Beth Hurt as Lily Laemle
Sandy Dennis as Millie Dew
Juno Mills-Cockell as Sheila Zellner
Kathryn Grody as Miss Baxter
Deborah Rush as Mrs. Zellner
Graham Jarvis as Mr. Zellner
Helen Carscallen as Grandmother
Warren Van Evera as Grandfather
Wayne Robson as Lab Attendant

Jonathan Elias

Cinefantastique v19 n03

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