If Wiggenstein was right when he wrote, “The face is the soul of the body,” then 10-year-old protagonist Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky) must be the most patently soulless little boy in the entire world yet, despite his highly debilitating social retardation, he somehow learns to deeply loathe his parents, especially his father, due to their taboo eating habits. Indeed, if there is anything constantly captivating about Parents, it is Michael's brutally flat affect, which is apparent to both his parents Nick (Randy Quaid) and Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) and everyone he encounters, though he seems to be completely oblivious to his glaring social inadequacies. On top of his absurdly autistic essence and seemingly complete and utter incapacity to experience simple human emotions like happiness and joy, Michael tends to say inordinately random and inappropriate things and to ask extremely redundant questions that especially annoy the hell out of his father, who is a peculiarly private man that is obsessed with appearing completely normal.
Michael and his family have just moved to a new undisclosed suburb from Massachusetts and on the first day of school, the protagonist makes quite the first impression when he states to his entire class after his teacher Miss Baxter (Kathryn Grody) asks him to name one new thing he learned over the summer, “Um, if you take a black cat and broil it on the oven…and you peel off the skin of the bones and take it off…and you check on the bone, you’ll be invisible.” While his teacher treats him like a foolish retard and his classmates laugh at him for his nonsensical black cat spiel, he impresses a tall blonde girl named Sheila Zellner (Juno Mills-Cockell), who was held back a grade because she may or may have not done sexually inappropriate things with male classmates and who tells the rather gullible protagonist that she is originally from the moon. While she is a good foot taller than him, sassy Sheila wastes no time in aggressively flirting with Michael by stating, “You ask a lot of question. I like that in a man.” In other words, Sheila likes the fact that she is the one that gets to wear the pants in their budding relationship. Additionally, Michael takes a likening to her because he genuinely believes she is a space alien. In fact, when Michael informs his parents that he has made a new friend and that she is an extraterrestrial of sorts, his father Nick gets angry and states, “We can’t make friends by telling lies, Michael.” In fact, virtually anytime they interact, Nick gets mad at his son because he says weird things and especially because he refuses to eat. After all, it must be a hard thing for a cannibal to have a son that refuses to eat human flesh that he went to relatively dangerous lengths to procure. While Michael might be quasi-autistic dunce that seems to be pretty much oblivious to everything, it is only a matter of time before he finally realizes the source of his subconscious dread towards his parents' hermetic home cooking habits.
As it turns out, Michael would rather see his parents burn. Indeed, aside from telling his parents that he does not love them anymore due to their quaint eating habits, he stabs his father immediately after he unties him. At this point, Nick decides enough is enough and resolves kill his only son, even yelling like a disgruntled mad man, “Kids! Who made the little bastards? […] We’ll have another one, Lily. We’ll bring him up right.” Of course, despite being a deranged bitch, Lily loves her son too much to allow him to die, so she stabs Nick in the back while he is carrying Michael down the basement stairs. Naturally, Nick stabs Lily back and while he is lying on top of her and penetrating her wife with a knife, it seems like they are making love in what ultimately proves to be a sick (anti)sentimental moment that seems symbolic of their unhinged marriage. While Nick makes a dramatic attempt to catch and kill Michael while succumbing to his wounds, he ultimately causes the entire house to blow up after breaking a gas line and knocking over a large wine rack containing dozens upon dozens of bottles of Château Margaux. Luckily for Nick, he at least dies in his cannibalistic mancave while drenched in his two favorite drinks: blood and wine. In the end, Michael is happy to go live with his grandparents in the country, though he is left somewhat uneasy when his elders leave a sandwich filled with dubious meat on his nightstand after they tuck him in at night in what is a superlatively stupid and entirely predictable yet somehow fitting twist ending.
Personally, I cannot even count the many times that I have seen wholly worthless horror films with both covert and overt anti-WASP sentiments, so it was almost refreshing to see a film as preternatural and nuanced in terms of its goyim-bashing as Parents. Indeed, more than just simply moronically mocking white suburbia, the film is practically dripping with Balaban's own angst, paranoia, and disdain for mild-mannered blue-eyed and blond-haired people. For whatever reason, it seems 1988 was a good year for wildly idiosyncratic anti-Aryan horror, as it also saw the release of the all the more perversely autistic horror-melodrama Pin (1988) directed by kosher Canadian Sandor Stern. Despite its absolutely bizarre brand of anti-Aryan paranoia, Stern’s film is absolutely beloved by an extremely gay Belgian nationalist/Odinist/neofolk fan that I used to somewhat know, but I digress.
Undoubtedly, it is hard to hate a film that the rather rotund celebrity film critic Roger Ebert once described as, “a real weirdo, one of the strangest, most depraved, certainly most depressing films I have ever seen.” Of course, Ebert was also famously offended by Blue Velvet, so Balaban's film is in good company. While Balaban would take one more shot at the horror-comedy subgenre with the rather lame undead romcom My Boyfriend's Back (1993) and would direct episodes of various horror oriented TV series like Eerie, Indiana (1991-1993) and The Twilight Zone (2002-2003), he never again directed anything nearly as interesting or socially substantial as the cryptically hateful iconoclastic idiosyncrasy of Parents and is probably best known nowadays for his acting roles in Wes Anderson films and quirky cult films like his fellow four-eyed Hebraic homeboy Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001). Certainly, it is strange to think that the four-eyed dork that conned Jon Voight out of a free suck-fuck in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) would go on to direct arguably the most sardonic and socio-politically esoteric of cannibal films. On a more personal level, I can thank Balaban for strengthening my craving for red meat. Indeed, I have never considered Schrader's ladylove Mary Beth Hurt to be a particularly sexy broad, but in Parents she looks rather delectable while both fingering red meat in a dress and engaging in a sort of cannibal sex ritual while vital bodily fluids are covering her quite fair flesh. Likewise, I never thought wild mensch Randy Quaid would be so good at portraying an unnervingly uptight bourgeois bastard who has more dark secrets than Jerry Sandusky.