When actor Bob Balaban was gathering a crew for his directorial debut, Parents, a would-be applicant walked in and said, “I don’t really want to do this with you, I just came in to tell you you’re evil.”
That’s great press for any horror movie, but especially for the first feature from an actor who built his entire career on looking like your doctor. Today, Bob Balaban is most recognized as the quiet man in round glasses who shows up in Wes Anderson films or narrates them with a singularly pleasant voice that sounds like a constant, considerate whisper. By the late 1980s, he was already one of the best That Guy character actors in the business. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Absence of Malice. Prince of the City. All of it impressive. None of it suggesting he’d want to make a comedy about an atomic family of cannibals in 1950s suburbia.
Parents (which opened 30 years ago this month) opens in extreme close-up on a black-and-white photo of 12-year-old Mike Laemle. The score spells doom with an orchestral chant. But then the band cheers up and little Mike fades away. In his place, the gilded, cookie-cutter sprawl of the American Dream set to Billboard’s No. 1 song of 1955. The film’s rendition of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” produced by Jonathon Elias and composed by Angelo Badalamenti, preserves the flirtations of the original’s cocktail-hour jazz, but perverts it with an occasional squeal of brass that sounds like a record scratch or a scream, depending on your mood. The title arrives on the mile-wide grille of a 1958 Oldsmobile, only to be ripped apart in its chrome-plated grin.
Except for the text announcing Randy Quaid’s presence, it could be an industrial film shown to Cold War kids, called something like “The Suburban Experiment.” Identical houses. Identical lawns. Identical dads practicing putts in identical living rooms. Identical moms frosting identical cakes. This is the Life, same as everyone else’s.
“I grew up in a family that was perfect. You had to look perfectly, you had to act perfectly.” In a rare interview about Parents for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Bob Balaban revealed that the original script, written by then-employee of the Showtime accounting department Christopher Hawthorne, was set in a more traditional haunted house. It was Bob’s idea to set it in the same kind of suburb where he spent his childhood. “My whole growing up was about the fear under the normalcy.”
The Balabans were not bad people, he clarified. And they certainly weren’t cannibals, as far as he knew. But they were living the Life in one of the first, last, and only decades when artificiality was next to godliness. Dad works for a defoliant company that has no problem naming itself Toxico. When he brings Mike to work, the boss takes the boy aside and waxes poetic on the virtues of chemicals the same way Walt Disney would about imagination. They have a morgue in the basement for human testing, and their latest breakthrough is a biological carpet-bomb that destabilizes the ecosystem of unnamed “jungle outposts” enough to be wiped away by monsoons, but hey; it’s a living.
Mom, meanwhile, cooks. In an era when Jell-O came in celery flavor and encouraged you to hang meat in its candy-colored suspended animation, the food in Parents is equal parts sterile and squeamish. When the teacher asks them to draw their respective families, the class turns in almost interchangeable art — except for little Mike, who grinds his red crayon to death all over his stick-figure parents. It’s subversive enough to get him sent to the school social worker, Ms. Dew, who eventually admits, “I wish I could label him and put him in a box.” Like everybody else. But if she paid more attention to his drawing, she would’ve noticed he already put himself in one.
What Parents manages better than almost any other Suburban-Scooby-Doo story is seeing the world through the wide and wandering eyes of a kid. Every night, when Dad rubs Mom’s shoulders and kisses her neck and tells Mike to go to bed, with hell to pay if he leaves his room, it’s more threat than routine. What are they doing? What are they hiding? Any question Mike asks, about dinner or nightmares or his parents wrestling in their underwear, is shut down with one of Dad’s cautionary fairy tales, like the boy who asked too many questions and got his lips stuck together permanently. Kids aren’t allowed to know adults beyond the jobs they complain about and the meatloaves they serve until they reach the imaginary threshold when they mutate into adults themselves.
When Mike plays grown-up with the girl down the street, Sheila, they can only act out what they’ve seen. She cracks raw eggs into all the chrome-plated kitchen appliances. He replaces a fuse when the mixer blows. She gets into the wine and tells him to take his shirt off. Whatever parents do after that, she wouldn’t know.
The only adult who’s honest with them is the only adult who listens to them. When Mike asks why Ms. Dew is a social worker and not a psychiatrist, she explains, after a flinch, that she doesn’t have a degree. Mike laughs at her accidental display of genuine frustration and declares her not a real grown-up, because “real grown-ups don’t get upset.” This doesn’t annoy her any less, but it does show a change in the tides. In the 1950s, if you didn’t want the Straight WASP Hat Trick of a home-maker wife, a flawless backswing, and a basement freezer full of beef tips, you were just wrong. No reason to ask you what you actually did want.
Dad can’t stand Mike’s recent vegetarian streak, which Mike sums up with a line that deserves immortality among horror’s finest: “We’ve had leftovers every day since we moved here. I’d like to know what they were before they were leftovers.” But he’s not furious because his son is misbehaving or refusing to touch the ambiguous meat next to his mashed potatoes; he’s furious because his son isn’t like him.
“You don’t look like me. You don’t act like me,” he shouts from the corner of Mike’s bed. “You hate me.” But not according to Mom, who tells Ms. Dew that they get along famously. What do they do together? “Many things,” she bluffs with a smile. “I would have to say many things and just leave it at that.” Boys get along with their dads because that’s what they do, because they’re pals.
By the time the third act rolls around and the bloody checks start cashing, Mom comes to accept that her son is not like her husband. She proves her love the hard way. Dad, though, has no problem throwing out the baby and the bathwater. “We’ll have another one, Lily. We’ll bring him up right.”
When Parents reached audiences in 1989, with an ad campaign that teased “A New Name For Terror” like drive-in fodder, they didn’t know what to make of it. Ebert hated it, declaring it had “no other purpose than to disgust.” Siskel, against all odds, enjoyed it. “I think this will be a cult film.”
They were both wrong. Balaban has no problem talking about Parents, but nobody asks about it. Bryan Madorsky, who delicately balanced the entire movie as Little Mike, never acted again. None of its grown-up stars — Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, and Sandy Dennis — carry enough genre clout to bring it up in the usual circles, despite all of them turning in pitch-perfect work. It’s not gory enough for that kind of appreciation, either. Blood runs on occasion and regularly haunts Mike’s abstract dreams, but the only mutilation comes courtesy of an imaginary hand twitching around the garbage disposal. It’s a horror movie with little viscera and fewer jolts. Even the most genre-centric scene — a Halloween riff when someone hides in a pantry dodging a steak knife as it stabs through slats in the door — plays over music that belongs in a commercial for laundry detergent.
The effect might not be crippling terror, but Parents deals in a mounting dread that you won’t find anywhere else. Balaban, with cinematographers Ernest Day and Robin Vidgeon, turned the 1950s into a pop-art nightmare. The Laemle house is a chic maze of prison-bar architecture and squiggly wallpaper that melts into white noise over everyone’s shoulder. Adults loom too large. Kids shrink with every cut. That sainted artificial Life might be all the grown-ups have ever wanted, but to someone noticing it for the first time, to someone growing up in it, it’s hell.