FILMS

Home, sweet hell

Two new movies unearth horror in suburbia

Brian D. Johnson February 13 1989
FILMS

Home, sweet hell

Two new movies unearth horror in suburbia

Brian D. Johnson February 13 1989

Home, sweet hell

Two new movies unearth horror in suburbia

FILMS

Both are horror movies about parental repression. Both are about children who sneak into rooms where they are not supposed to go, and suffer dire

consequences. Parents and Pin are thrillers about the fears that lurk in the Glad-wrapped psyche of the suburban family. And both were filmed in Canada. Parents, produced by Canadian Bonnie Palef, was shot in suburban Toronto. Pin, directed by Sandor Stern, a native of

Timmins, Ont., was filmed in suburban Montreal. Despite those similarities, the two movies are radically different. Parents is witty, audacious and truly terrifying.

Even with limited distribution, it has the potential of becoming a cult hit. Pin, which has been widely released across Canada and presold to distributors in 40 countries, is a contradiction in terms: an inoffensive horror movie.

Parents, seething with Freudian psychology, is a nightmarish look at a 1950s family, seen through the ever-widening eyes of a frightened 10-year-old named Michael. His family has just moved into a new split-level house. Father’s aqua Oldsmobile is moored in the driveway; mother cheerfully slices red meat in a spotless kitchen. The open-plan living room is jazzily decorated with futuristic furniture of that era. But the cellar holds a freezer full of flesh that

did not come from the local supermarket. And long after the audience has guessed the grisly truth, Michael discovers that his parents are stranger than he dared imagine: they are cannibals.

It is as if Leave It to Beaver and The Twilight Zone have collided head-on in television hell, with gruesome results. Parents presents a merciless satire of late-1950s suburbia—the breezy optimism and virgin technology of a culture about to lose its innocence. Michael’s father, portrayed with sinister calm by Randy Quaid, is an upwardly mobile defoliant expert at a company called Toxico. Mary Beth Hurt crisply complements him as a mother trying to protect her son from unpleasant secrets. And

at the centre of an excellent cast, Canada’s Bryan Madorsky is eerily authentic as the petrified child. It is Madorsky’s first acting job, and producer Palef—who worked as associate producer with Canadian director Norman Jewison on Moonstruck and Agnes of God—recruited the boy from her next-door neighbor’s house in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill.

Making few concessions to mainstream

tastes, Parents taps into a primal fear. Michael’s parents want him to be just like them— a happy, well-mannered carnivore. Said Palef: “All of us, on one level or another, are afraid of turning into our parents.” Boldly directed by U.S. actor Bob Balaban, making his first feature, the movie is saturated with metaphor. The house itself is a brittle membrane of repression, as the camera traces Michael’s curiosity from a crack in his bedroom ceiling to a nightmarish descent through the heating ducts. Like director David Lynch’s 1978 cult classic, Eraserhead, which imagined a nasty world behind a radiator, Parents is not for the squeamish. Its sound track jostles with novelty tunes of the 1950s—from Chantilly Lace to

Purple People Eater—but the humor only enhances the horror.

By contrast, Pin presents a much blander tale of parental guidance gone awry. Based on a best-selling novel by U.S. author Andrew Neiderman, it is the story of Leon (David Hewlett) and his sister, Ursula (Cyndy Preston). They are raised by a mother obsessed with cleanliness who keeps the furniture shrouded in cellophane. And their father is a physician who uses an anatomical dummy in his office to practise ventriloquism. In fact, he uses the dummy—nicknamed Pin (after Pinocchio)—to impart moral lessons to his children. As they grow up, Ursula realizes that Pin is only a dummy. But Leon persists in believing that his childhood mentor is alive. After a car accident kills off the parents, Ursula is left living alone in a big house with her increasingly demented brother—and the macabre Pin.

Something dreadful has to happen. Ursula fancies men, and Leon is a very jealous brother. But by the time the horror arrives, it is too little, too late, and too obvious. The movie is well acted by Canadians Preston and Hewlett and lushly photographed. But it is clinically directed by Stem, a physician turned Hollywood screenwriter. Stern, who wrote the script for the 1979 hit The Amity ville Horror and has developed numerous TV shows, makes his debut as a director of theatrical features with Pin. What he has created is a bloodless excursion into commercial cliché—too tame for horror fans and too silly for anyone else.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON