Written by Christopher Hawthorne
Directed by Bob Balaban
Randy Quaid: Nick Laemle
Mary Beth Hurt: Lily Laemle
Bryan Madorsky: Michael Laemle
Sandy Dennis: Millie Dew
I wanted to start this review by mentioning the hidden depths behind people you think you know, even tangentially, and pointing out the similarities between the titular parents (who are into some really unsavory things) and the director, who I knew as a genial character actor who shows up as a welcome sight in dozens of ensemble casts.
But then one of the Muses punched me in the neck and all I could think of was how well the director's name fit with a Beach Boys song and started singing:
Bob, Bob, Bob, Bob Balaban
BOB, BOB, BOB
Bob Balabaaa haah hannn
He is the maaa haah hannn
Bob Balabaaa haan hannn
Called up Randy Quaid, got a horror movie made
Balaban Bob Bob, Bob Balaban
Good luck getting that out of your head, dear readers.
Bob Balaban cannot sanction my buffoonery.
The film is one of many that examine American life in the suburbs--films ranging from American Beauty to Edward Scissorhands belong in this category. Additionally, it's a film from 1989 looking at the mid-1950s (and I'm here in 2015 looking back at 1989 looking back at 1954). So there's lots of layers to contend with, and nothing says "late Reagan era" to me like the Vestron Pictures logo at the start of the film. Though the "comical wacky" typeface also pegs the movie to a specific time and place as well as genre. It's also that bright swimming-pool blue that makes me think of tailfins and boomerang-pattern Formica whenever I see it.
The massive suburban sprawl of something like Levittown fills the screen; an endless vista of tract houses that Malvina Reynolds found so ticky-tacky and felt compelled to write a protest song about affordable housing and education for returning veterans from World War II (also, Malvina: What the fuck? If you wanted to write a song about how American culture was hurting your feelings in 1961, I would have figured the John Birch Society would be a more deserving target).
Lightly "ethnic" jazz fills the soundtrack as the monstrous grill of a postwar Oldsmobile fills the screen; the credits list the principle cast members (including the credit to introduce Bryan Madorsky; he never made another film, so his introduction is also his finale). The soundtrack choice shows attention to detail; usually when something's set in The Fifties you get Buddy Holly and Little Richard on the soundtrack, but when they were popular with teenagers and played on the radio, the overconcerned parents of America thought it was an attack on society just to have a few 45s or to snap your fingers along with Chuck Berry. Therefore if Dad's got the radio going in the family roadster, that radio is playing something soft, safe and sanitized.
Michael Lamle is the viewpoint character for the film, and he's a kid with his age in single digits, untidy hair and big eyes staring out at the world. He's also not that great with his social skills (it's like someone made a movie about me when I was thirty-plus years younger!). His mother Lily is almost a parody of the fifties stay-at-home mother, hand-decorating cakes and doing housework in heels and pearls. His father Nick is concerned about his putting game and wears glasses that look more than a little like Buddy Holly's (though I'm certain that's just because in 1953, there were not hundreds of frames to choose from at LensCrafters). They've just moved to a brand new house in a brand new town, and Michael's going to be going to a brand new school.
Dad's got a new job supervising a team at a chemical company; he says defoliants are going to be a growth industry, which would sound like a pun if he looked witty enough to be making one on purpose. After dinner and a little light necking, Mom declares that it's Michael's bedtime and the kid is extremely apprehensive about his father carrying him off to his bedroom (and in this scene, both parents are dressed in soft pastels while their son is in a dark navy blue robe; all of the Lamle family furniture is extremely bright as well, so it's easy to see at a literal glance how poorly Michael fits in to his family and their home). Mom says, with a touch of resignation, that their son doesn't want to go to sleep because of frequent nightmares. And his father, trying to make things better, comes across as a predatory insect that learned to talk ("You can be yourself in the dark" is not something I want to hear from Randy Quaid, especially when he isn't putting any kind of inflection on the words).
Perhaps it came from Bob Balaban's character actor years, but he makes extraordinarily good use of Randy Quaid in this film; the sheer physical size of the actor when in the same frame as Michael or Lily makes him look more than a little like an ogre. He's big in that fleshy, not interested in salads, 1950s manner (and he looks period-perfect with the costuming and haircut choices the filmmakers made). It doesn't seem all that unusual for Michael to be apprehensive or even openly afraid of dear old Dad from the very start of the film.
Michael gets carted off to his room and his father turns out the lights. An extremely low level tracking shot follows his parents' feet as they raid the fridge for a midnight snack, and the audience cringes in sympathetic embarrassment at the thought of Michael overhearing their sweet talk. Right after that scene, we get one of Michael's nightmares; he jumps into bed and finds himself drowning in a world of bright red blood (and if he spent a few days flailing around in a pool of red liquid to film this, I can easily imagine Bryan Madorsky deciding one movie was plenty, thank you).
The next day, his mother is spending a great deal of effort making dinner out of thawed-out leftovers from the previous house (and I think Ravenous is the only other movie I've seen that makes cooking meat look so repulsive) and Dad's in the backyard working on his golf swing. The soundtrack has an ominous drone on it as Michael points a finger-gun at his dad and softly says "Pow". He's a weird, nervous kid with frequent bad dreams and no appetite, so I'm guessing more than a few of my readers will empathize with him quite a bit. He doesn't like the basement. It's clammy, cold and dark, but it does make a good wine cellar for his parents. The prospect of spending lots of time with his dad in the new town doesn't look like a good thing for Michael (and the filmmakers appear to share this belief, because he's the viewpoint character).
At school Michael gets to be the new kid in class (along with a girl named Sheila who transferred from another class. The obligatory "tell us something new when you're the new student" request goes awry; Sheila knows about cocktail variations thanks to her mom's bartending guide (and, quite likely, her mom's implied drinking problem). Michael gives the recipe for making a witching bone from a dead black cat--he doesn't tell the teacher where he got that information, but Sheila asks him and he says his father told it to him. She also says that she's from the Moon and that she's going back once she's got an education from the Earth people around her (which is much more interesting than Michael's background in Massachusetts); young Michael appears to actually believe her, which means either he has very little experience with liars or he's even less socially adept than one assumed from his earlier scenes.
Michael wants to know if he can go to the Moon and visit his new friend; she says it's okay (but not to tell the teachers at school about the whole lunar origin thing). Back at the Lamle place, there's an ominous low roar on the soundtrack as soon as Michael walks in, and there seems to be something more than a little off about the way his parents remind themselves about what time school gets out in the new district. Dinner that night features one of the most frequent terrors of childhood--saying something true and having authority figures take it for lies (it turns out that Nick and Lily Lamle don't believe their son when he mentions the Moon and how to make a Gibson martini, both conversational gambits courtesy of his day with Sheila). And both parents are disappointed and angry that Michael isn't eating any of the meat that was prepared for dinner (as always, it's red meat; there might be a bottle of white wine in the cellar somewhere, but almost the entire stockpile appears to be crimson).
That night, Michael is staring at a crack in his bedroom ceiling in apprehension; when his mother tries to put his mind at ease by explaining it's a gas pipe that expanded slightly when it heated up, he responds with a recipe for the Hand of Glory (which I'm guessing his dad told him at some point). His mother takes that in stride, and does seem to genuinely love her weird and anxious son. That night he walks in on his parents, together on the floor in their underwear, sweaty and red-lipped. Their understandable reaction (frustration, embarrassment, anger) is something he's going to carry with him for a few years, at least. Both parents are wearing blindingly white clothing here and lying on a white sheet; I wondered if that was going to be another dream sequence at first and it seems like it could have been filmed as one before just being used as a straightforward part of the narrative.
It's an accident of bad timing that the students in Michael's class have to draw pictures of their families in their workbooks the next day; Miss Baxter isn't ready for a picture using quite so much red crayon when she gets to the depiction of the Lamle family. One phone call (interrupting Lily chopping celery with a massive kitchen knife) later and it's time for a meeting with Millie Dew, the school's psychologist--it seems a little bit off that a grade school in the Eisenhower era would have one, but I'm also not much of an expert on education fads of the postwar era. And it's necessary for the story, so what the heck. I'll roll with it.
Lily tries to get through the meeting by giving Miss Dew the answers she's pretty sure the school administration would like to hear, and lying transparently and unconvincingly through her teeth the whole time. I had flashbacks to Sarah Palin claiming she read every newspaper and magazine ever published during this cringe-inducing scene. At roughly the same time, Michael's in a baggy oversized lab coat at Toxico, where Nick works. At the office, Nick is an understated, enthusiastic worker--explaining to one of his fellow employees about a new defoliant he's working on that causes plants to starve themselves to death. The lab attendant (who looks more than a little like Bob Balaban) is extremely enthusiastic about the possibility of destroying thousands of acres of jungle--the diorama used to simulate the effects of the defoliant certainly looks like a miniature Vietnamese encampment. Even in this scene, among outsiders, Nick issues a threat to his son for pressing his nose to the glass of the diorama case. Randy Quaid is incredibly menacing in this movie, the personification of "Wait until your father gets home", to quote Lyz of the world-class review site And You Call Yourself a Scientist!.
The lab attendant gives Michael a souvenir pen and a pep talk about how you can make anything with chemicals, and that he hopes the young boy will make opportunities. This is juxtaposed with a look at that diorama after the defoliant was sprayed on it; it's a smear of mud that looks like nothing ever lived there before and nothing's going to live there again. This is impressive, and soon it's time for the Laemle family to visit the Zellners' place for dinner. Mr. Zellner is the manager of a Toxico manufacturing plant, and wants to meet the new star in his plant-killing division. It also turns out that the Zellners have a kid; Michael's already met her and she says she's from the Moon.
Both of Michael's parents have discreetly let him know that it's an important night, and that Michael is not to act like a weirdo and put undue stress on the evening. When his father says it's a new town and they need to fit in, I'm not certain how much of his motivation is explained by the need to look good in front of his boss, and how much of it might have a more sinister reason. (Mr. Zellner turns out to look so much like the lab attendant that I thought the IMDB might have mis-identified an actor; like the scientist, he looks quite a bit like Bob Balaban. Does this mean anything? Did Mr. Balaban just like the idea of casting more than one Bob Balaban type? I'm not sure. I'd really like a commentary track for this one, but the two-movie disc it's on didn't have one. It also misidentifies the film as having a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it's widescreen.)
The two sets of parents play bridge, snack and chat while Hawaiian guitar suffuses the air. Again, the movie gets its soundtrack choices down pat--the 1950s were a time of great national interest in Hawaii, stemming from hundreds of thousands of military men coming home from the Asian half of World War II via the islands. And, of course, in the second half of the decade it became the fiftieth state. At the time the film takes place, high-fidelity record systems were so expensive that only lawyers, dentists and similarly rich people could afford them. And that was a crowd that wasn't particularly interested in anything challenging--101 Strings or The Fifty Guitars of Tommy Garrett were more their speed.
The kids sneak over to watch their parents socializing, not understanding anything they're seeing. Nick manages to spill a drink on his wife's dress and it seems that the Zellners know quite a bit about whether or not alcohol will stain various fabrics. Sheila tells Michael that people change when they get old, and that he can observe that process with his own parents.
Later, Michael's dad is making breakfast while his son watches passively. His father says it's good to watch people so you know how to behave, but to always remember that other people are watching at the same time. The conversation turns weird, with Nick Laemle trying to teach his son "the first law of survival", and asking if Michael understands (which he patently does not). Then it's time to serve up a heaping skillet of fried organ meats and announce that breakfast is served.
At school, Michael gets pulled out of class to talk to Miss Dew. The name plate on her office door is at eye height for a child, which makes a lot of sense. She wants Michael to explain the red-saturated drawing of his family, and brings out some cards with pictures on them; his part of the "game" is to explain what's going on in the various illustrations. A man and a woman next to a bed leads to flashbacks to whatever Michael saw his parents getting up to; he's scared for reasons he can't even articulate by seeing that first card. (This is a real psychological technique, incidentally, used on children ages 3-10 or so; it's called the Children's Apperception Test and it uses pictures of humans or animals as a way to elicit responses from children by getting them to talk about something other than themselves.) The counseling session doesn't really establish anything one way or the other; Michael's obviously not like the other kids but Miss Dew doesn't have anything to go on about why he's so odd.
At Toxico, Nick is getting liver and lymph node samples from cadavers (which doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me, but perhaps OSHA regulations about body storage were lax or nonexistent in the fifties; at any rate, it's necessary for the story so I'll buy it). That scene transitions to one where Lily is making meatloaf; there's a pretty sedate mambo on the soundtrack and Michael, hiding in the pantry, has a fugue state reverie about smoked sausages on the top shelf reaching down to strangle and crush him (wonder what the school psychologist would make of that vision?). Dinner that night is "leftovers", but Michael is puzzled--they've had leftovers every day since the family moved to a new town, He wonders what they were before, and doesn't feel like eating. His dad snaps at him and his mother explains that Daddy's had a rough day; you don't need to be in a horror movie to have that conversation going on in one's childhood.
That night Michael has a nightmare that combines all the fears and anxieties he's had so far--death, blood, being watched, watching something he doesn't understand, and his parents doing...something...together with their mouths. It's a very impressive montage and it leads to a day at school where Michael hides in a coat closet while Miss Baxter and Miss Dew discuss that he's a frightened, lonely little boy who isn't fitting into any of the categories they use to understand children. There's a great moment where both educators are standing right outside the closet door and the psychologist says "I can't find him", while talking about his diagnosis, not his presence less than three feet away.
After school, Michael sees his friend Sheila sitting in a tree; she says she's quit school forever and is going to go on the run with him in a camper-trailer. The look on her face in this sequence when she says they'll never be punished again is bleak and awful, and grounds the movie considerably--Michael Lamle is not the only confused child trying to navigate a world that frightens him. Sheila goes into the Lamle house and starts messing with all the chromed-up kitchen gadgets and making a mess; turning on the disposal, blender and mixer at the same time blows a fuse and Michael has to go down to the basement to replace it. Sheila starts drinking wine straight from the bottle in the cellar (and the Big Bopper shows up on the soundtrack here, as a counterpoint to the anxiety and acting out from the two child characters. He might be saying "Oh baby that's what I like!" but it's a more than safe bet that neither Michael or Sheila would use "like" to describe anything they're feeling about their lives),
And that goes double for when Michael's dad walks in and sees the two of them in the chest freezer (that Michael is forbidden to go near); we don't see whatever he said to Sheila but his story to Michael about being a good little boy is horrifying and piles on the shame and fear as much as his father possibly can. Watching Randy Quaid's angry red face fill the screen is scarier than the nightmare sequences. He wraps up his little father-to-son talk by forbidding Michael to ever see Sheila again, which will only work as long as one of them cuts school any particular day.
It also transpires that Michael ignores this edict; Sheila lies to her mom when Michael's parents call looking for him, and they have a talk about how little either one knows about what their parents are really like, and what they do all day. Michael thinks on this and sneaks into the Toxico plant (he's skinny enough to scoot under the security gate in the parking lot); he finds the cadavers in the "Division of Human Testing" section of the building and hides behind a pillar as he sees his father sneak in, look around carefully, and slice out a piece of a cadaver (the blocking in this wordless scene creates a massive amount of suspense, with Michael moving repeatedly to stay out of his father's field of vision). The shots of Nick at work harvesting flesh from a corpse are intercut with closeups of Michael's huge, staring eyes. He takes a suicidally stupid risk swiping a pair of scissors that his father accidentally knocks to the floor, and the only time the audience sees fear on Randy Quaid's face is in this sequence, when he looks around, thinking he might have been discovered.
That night, in the dark, Nick sees his son walking around and orders him into the car; Michael is curious about what's in the big canvas bag in the back of the sedan and his father curtly orders him to keep his damned hands off the laundry. Or "laundry", as it may be--Nick asks his wife for some help getting it out of the car and everyone tables their standing arguments for another time. The subtext-filled conversation between Nick and Michael when the kid returns the scissors to his dad is tooth-grindingly intense, with the father telling his son just what happens to boys that make up stories. Michael flees for bed, and for more anxiety about sex and death.
That's nothing compared to what he's going to be feeling after going down into the basement--he finds a cardboard trash barrel full of discarded clothing, and there's a butcher's block covered with dried blood. It's the severed leg hanging from a meathook that sends him running, and there's no shot in the movie scarier than his dad sitting on his bed and waiting for an explanation for what he's doing wandering around the house.
The next day at school, Michael is having another session with the psychologist, who doesn't believe that he saw what he thinks he saw (which is another childhood frustration showing up in the film--you aren't believed when you lie and you aren't believed when you tell the truth). Miss Dew tries to get him to open up about his nightmares, but the things that are worrying him the most are the things that he's really seen. She drives him back to the Lamle house and he sprints for the basement; the psychologist follows him and keeps trying to get him to describe a dream that he had. When Michael sees a rat, the psychologist shoos it away and stirs through the yard rubbish in a covered outside bin, but uncovers a dead body there--looks like the kid's picture was more accurate than anyone at the school would have guessed.
The tracking shot that follows Miss Dew's scream as it echoes through the basement and outside the house (where the family car is pulling into the driveway) is flat-out amazing, and showy in a way that benefits from the rather staid camerawork over the rest of the film.
Michael shuts the basement door on the psychologist and flees; he's just had a spectacular trauma. While Miss Dew looks for him in the house, she gets shoved into the pantry and it's time for a closeup on Sandy Dennis' eyes before Lily goes after her with a kitchen knife, a garden tiller and, eventually, one of Nick's golf clubs. And the next shot is the loving couple barbecuing a gigantic amount of meat on the backyard grill. But dinner gets interrupted when Michael takes a swing at his old man with a Louisville Slugger. Unfortunately, one lucky shot is all he gets in before winding up tied to a kitchen chair with his father telling him a little story about how the boy's an outsider, not like anyone around him, and therefore quite a bit like his parents.
His father uses every trick in the Shitty Parenting book to try and guilt-trip his son into keeping the family's (literally) ghoulish secret. It's time for him to either have dinner with his mom and dad or cause their destruction. He makes his choice, and it's one that winds up driving his father into a homicidal rage, grunting out to Lily that they can have another kid, and bring him up right. Lily can't accept that, and the ensuing confrontation takes out Mom and injures Dad quite badly. All the quiet menace in Randy Quaid's performance pays off as he tries to lurch to his feet in a blood-streaked cardigan to chase his son down and murder him; when he tips the wine rack over on himself the basement floor floods with red. A knocked-over candle on the table leads to a conflagration in the kitchen; a torn-apart gas line in the basement results in the total destruction of the house, and probably the concealment of the Lamle parents' crimes. At any rate, Michael winds up living with his grandmother and grandfather.
Which would be great news for him, except for one simple fact: Nick had to learn his appetites somewhere, didn't he?
The end credits are either a misstep or a wonderfully sick joke, showing that all the actors are doing perfectly okay as they smile and wave for the camera and Sheb Wolley's "Flying Purple People Eater" plays. Wait a minute--was that a reference to the end credits for The Undertaker and His Pals? Sweet mother of Christ, Bob Balaban is potentially a sicker and weirder person than I could have ever hoped to find out.
Bob, if you're out there, come to B Fest some year. I bet you'd really like it, if your debut film was something as well-managed yet demented as this one.