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Fright Fest: Parents (1989)

 

parentspsoterIt’s my personal opinion that the phrase ‘cult classic’ is overused. It’s a phrase often applied to movies that are mainstream successes, purely because they happen to be a bit odd. For example, I find labeling anything David Lynch has been involved in from Twin Peak on as ‘cult’ just… well, wrong. I like David Lynch’s work, a lot, as it happens. But cult? Dude’s a mainstream success, albeit one who has managed to do that without compromising his artistic vision. Which is utterly awesome, and all respect and praise due.

But it’s not cult.

Cult, IMO, needs to be small. Obscure. Flawed. If everyone on your friend’s list has heard of it, it’s not cult. It’s just a cool thing you like.

And basically, I’m not a cult guy. My ear isn’t to the ground enough for that – I’m too busy failing to  skim off the cream of the mainstream offerings out there, in any popular culture genre, to have any realistic chance of finding some deserving second or third tier band or movie or TV show to enjoy. By the time I come across something, in other words, it’s generally by the above definition no longer cult – it’s broken out, reached a critical mass, if you can dig it. It may have been ‘cult’, but by the time I find it, chances are good it’s graduated simply to ‘classic’.

Except then, they’re Parents.

Parents released back in 1989. It was made for $3 million and grossed $870,500 box office. It got a brief US DVD release, and so far none at all in the UK. It stars Randy Quaid, in I think his best screen performance, and probably no-one else you’ve heard of. And by sheer fluke, I saw it on TV in the UK, as part of a horror movie season on one of the broadcast networks – BBC2 or C4.

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Now, Parents is undeniably a goofy movie. It’s set in the 50’s, in whitebread suburbia, and that’s an inherently goofy setting. Randy Quaid, is, well, Randy Quaid, and though he exhibits a level of restraint in this film that becomes actively creepy, there’s still an essentially goofy quality to, well, him.

The brilliance of Parents is how it recognizes a great but underexplored aesthetic truth – goofy is only a very thin sliver away from creepy.

I mean, think about it for a second and it immediately makes sense. Grotesque is what happens when you twist caricature up just another half inch. Turn the volume up to eleven on an old cartoon and the distorted sound will become harsh, grating. The tragedy is when I stub my toe, comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die.

That said, I’m struggling to think of a movie that gets and exploits this better than Parents.

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It start’s with Quaid, for me. That 50’s buzz cut, the serious glasses, and his early, misplaced humor with his son. It’s a brilliant performance, by turns utterly buttoned down, the kind of icy calm that makes you instinctively nervous, through to behavior so exaggerated past comedy it turns into creepy, without ever landing on ‘normal functioning human’. When we look back of the culture and advertising of the 50’s, there’s an inherent eerie, pod person aspect to it these days, especially when it comes to the rigid enforcement of gender norms, and totalitarian representation of the nuclear family as the irreducible final form of society, of humanity. Parents nails that vibe perfectly, creating a suburban environment where every smile looks like an upside down scream, where the perpetual sheen of sweat on Dennis Quaid’s forehead seems to give the lie to his preternaturally calm voice – and yes, where the increasing insistence of Michael’s parents that he eat up the unidentified meat they serve him for dinner takes on an almost screamingly sinister tone, even as the actual words and actions could as easily be those of exasperated parents as… well… as what, exactly?

It’s not clear, of course, and it remains unclear for most of the film’s 81 minutes running time. It’s the internet age, so you can look it up if you want, but I’m not going to spoil it here, and my firm advice is that you shouldn’t either, if by the end of this you decide to give the film a spin (spoilers: you should ). One of the reasons I think this movie deserves far more attention and love than it gets is precisely the way in which it spins out the central tension of what, exactly, the hell is going on in this family, well past the point where most movies would have come down on one side or the other.

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A lot of that ambiguity is possible because of the kid. Michael, played by Bryan Madorsky, is about as far from a Hollywood leading child actor as you could have found in ‘89 (though he wouldn’t have been out of place one of the gangs in Stranger Things). He’s a quiet, shy, pale, awkward kid, with a vivid imagination that leads to some fairly spectacular nightmares. These sequences are beautifully shot, and yeah, they are a lot less impressive post The Shining, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still effective. Steal from the best, and all that.

Beyond the very good, and occasionally actually brilliant direction, the kid turns in a superb performance. Mirroring the wider ambiguity of what the hell is (or is not) going on with his parents, Michael is straddling that line between quiet and withdrawn, imaginative and disturbed (as I write that last, I wonder if that even is a line, or just positive and negative spins on the same phenomenon). He’s certainly a misfit, which in the hyper-conformist atmosphere of the 50’s setting places the viewer in a constant state of anxiety for his wellbeing. This is further amplified by intentionally showing us a sequence where his parent’s behavior is understandable to the viewer but incomprehensible to him, further fueling his imagination and nightmares, and for the audience heightening our anxiety as to what the truth of his situation might be.

The other strength, for me, is the movie doesn’t cop out. It plays out the tension as long as it can – indeed far further than most movies would dare to – but ultimately, the ambiguity is utterly dissolved, leading to a final fifteen minutes of high-stress horror. Again, the cast performances in this sequence are brilliant, as are many of the directorial decisions – the film didn’t have a massive budget, but some very imaginative choices with camera positioning and movement really help elevate some of the closing scenes.

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In summary, Parents is a movie long overdue a critical reappraisal – it’s a smartly made, well acted, quirky horror movie, and one where most of the horror is based on psychological tension, generated by the potential gap between the kid’s perception of the world and reality. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not a gore fest, but if you’re a fan of 80’s horror in general, and this one passed you by, I think you could do a lot worse than treating yourself by hunting it down and checking it out.

If for no other reason than it unambiguously qualifies for the title ‘cult classic’. And it’s probably the only one I’ll ever be able to recommend. 🙂

PS – If you HAVE seen the movie, and want to hear me in conversation with a couple of other film enthusiasts pulling the movie apart in gleeful detail (including some quite dark suppositions about what the central themes might be metaphors for), check out They Must Be Destroyed On Sight! Podcast episode 70 http://tmbdos.podbean.com/e/tmbdos-episode-70-tommy-1975-parents-1989/ . In fact, check them out anyway. They’re brilliant.

 

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Kit Power is no stranger to Machine Mean. He was reviewed for us both The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the forever classic Monster Mash Pinball Game. Mr. Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as the frontman (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as,GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers. You can read Kit’s review of Bridehere.

And as always, if you enjoyed what you’ve read here on Machine Mean, please subscribe to our author mailing list by clicking on the FREE BOOKimage below to not only receive updates on sales and new releases, but also a free anthology of dark fiction.

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