Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Parents (1989)

A favourite trick of horror films is to take something that should be familiar and comforting to a character, such as family, and subvert or corrupt it. In Parents, we see a little boy begin to suspect that his oh-so-perfect Mom and Dad have some very nasty secrets in the refrigerator, and director Bob Balaban has created a film that is a slow burner, building an atmosphere of ambiguity and dread, punctuated with moments of jet black comedy. The ending does slightly spoil all the hard work, but, despite this, Parents is still creepy, funny, and highly memorable.

Young Michael Laemle is anxious enough, being an only child who has just moved to a new town and a new school. Now, he is getting nervous about dinner, because the family are having leftovers again. In fact, he is always having leftovers - but never what they were left over from.

The opening credit sequence sets us up perfectly for what is to come, in both style and content. The first shot is of Michael's head sliding into view accompanied by menacing rumbling and clanking sounds. This then cuts into a montage of the family driving to their new house, waving and smiling at their new neighbours who wave and smile back, the parents dancing around the living room, Mom making a cake and Dad practising his golf swing, all to the upbeat strains of a Rumba song.

Stylistically, Parents owes much to David Lynch, especially Eraserhead, with its black-and-white moodiness, periods of silence, and ominous background sound effects, and Blue Velvet, with its depiction of a bright happy suburban town hiding dark disturbing secrets.

Throughout the film, we are constantly shown this contrast of opposites in two ways. Firstly, the repeated cutting from Michael's disturbing nightmares (usually involving gallons of blood and body parts), to the garish cheeriness of home life; secondly, by taking the sort of events that should be a normal part of growing up for a child, such as Dad carrying his son to bed, or sitting down to eat dinner, and draining them of any pleasant overtones. Instead, we get long awkward silences, more of the aforementioned rumbling sound effects, and the fact that Dad (played by Randy Quaid), with his growing, barely disguised contempt for his quiet, imaginative and non-meat-eating son, cannot seem to say anything to Michael without it sounding like a threat. Quaid deserves a special mention, as he is completely convincing as both a Ward Cleaver style dad, and the sort of guy who WILL rip your head off and bury your corpse if you disobey him, and he switches effortlessly between the two.
The script takes a dark approach to children and the family, with nods to the theories of Sigmund Freud. The first of these is explored in the infamous theory of the Oedipal Complex, where the son wants to usurp the father by murdering him. The tensions between Michael and his Dad are what drive the plot, but there is a specific allusion to Oedipus in one scene where Michael is seen aiming and firing an imaginary gun at his dad. The theory also refers to the son wanting to consummate a sexual relationship with the mother, and although this is not explicitly referred to, the relationship between Michael and Mom is much closer than with Dad, and much more obviously affectionate.

The second Freud reference is to what is known as the primal fantasy, where a child is left traumatized by seeing or hearing his or her parents having sex, which is what happens to Michael in one scene. This is given a twist here by the hint that Mom and Dad might have been introducing something from the kitchen into the bedroom - is that blood they are rolling around in? There is certainly something red smeared on mom's lips - but is it just lipstick?

This scene is a perfect example of the ambiguity that makes Parents so intriguing. Although Dad is undeniably sinister and unpleasant on the surface, there is nothing, at least to start with, that could not be explained as the hallucinations of a boy with an over-active imagination and bad dreams. Incidentally, the repeated references to dreams may be another nod to Freud, who used them as a therapeutic tool, and whose book on the subject is one of the seminal works of psychoanalysis.

The ambiguity starts to lessen when we are introduced to the Michael's school counsellor, who is convinced that his fears over his parents are all in his head, but on paying a visit to the family home, finds, in the worst possible way, that this may not be the case after all.

It is at this point that the film switches to more standard slasher film scenes, with Dad finally losing his temper and stalking Michael around the house, before coming to a grisly end underneath a wine rack.

The final scene sees Michael trying to put recent events behind him, and start a new life being brought up by his grandparents. However, any notion that he is now safe and sound from the mystery meat he was subjected too by his parents soon evaporates, with the appearance of a bedtime snack consisting of - the dreaded leftovers. This twist ending suggests that his parent’s culinary habits are inherited, and Michael may himself be doomed to repeat the cycle of cannibalism. This could be interpreted as the final allusion to Freud, who wrote of the concept of "Repetition Compulsion", where people ceaselessly repeat distressing patterns of behaviour from earlier life.