The film received a mixed response from critics and fared poorly commercially, but has since gained a cult following.
Ten-year-old Michael Laemle has moved with his parents Nick and Lily from Massachusetts to a new neighborhood in 1954 suburbia. As Michael is very socially awkward and also has an overly active imagination, he has trouble making friends at school. He is also prone to extremely weird dreams, such as dreaming that he has jumped into bed- only for it to collapse into a pool of blood.
Emotionally distraught from the move and the dreams, Michael is traumatized by accidentally viewing his parents having sex (he believes that he is seeing them biting into one another) and by viewing his father cutting into a corpse in the Division of Human Testing at Toxico, where Nick is developing a chemical defoliant (like Agent Orange) for use in jungles. As time progresses, Michael begins to suspect that his parents are cannibals, after he discovers (or dreams that he discovers) body parts hanging on a meat hook in the basement. Michael is convinced that what he has seen is true, much to the chagrin of his school guidance counselor Millie Dew. One afternoon Millie goes home with Michael in order to convince him that he is imagining everything, only for the two of them to find a corpse in the basement. Michael runs up to his room while Millie, hiding in the pantry, is found and killed.
When Nick and Lily arrive home, Michael attacks his father. Later that evening Nick and Lily try to feed Michael (possibly human) meat but he fights back and manages to stab his father in the shoulder. Nick then tries to kill Michael, only for Lily to try to protect Michael and die in the process. Michael is then chased around the house by his injured father, who accidentally runs into a gas line due to his injuries. Nick breaks the gas line and then runs into a shelf of wine bottles, which he pulls down onto him and presumably dies. As gas fills the room, Michael has barely enough time to escape before the gas ignites and blows up the house.
The film ends with Michael's grandparents assuming his care. After placing him to bed, Michael's grandfather leaves him a midnight snack consisting of a glass of milk and a suspicious looking sandwich, implying perhaps that his parents' cannibalism was learned behavior.Randy Quaid as Nick Laemle
Mary Beth Hurt as Lily Laemle
Sandy Dennis as Millie Dew
Bryan Madorsky as Michael Laemle
Juno Mills-Cockell as Sheila Zellner
Kathryn Grody as Miss Baxter
Deborah Rush as Mrs. Zellner
Graham Jarvis as Mr. Zellner
Helen Carscallen as Grandmother
Warren Van Evera as Grandfather
Wayne Robson as Lab Attendant
Parents was filmed in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Parents grossed $870,532 in the US on a budget of $3 million.
The film was released on DVD on 25 May 1999 in its unmatted full screen format. The original DVD went out of print for a brief period of time before the film was re-released in the DVD format as a double feature with the film Fear, presented for the first time in widescreen since its original theatrical release. Lionsgate was released the film on Blu-ray on January 31, 2017 as part of their Vestron Video Collector's Series line.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 50% of surveyed critics gave the film a positive review.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated it 2/4 stars and said that the film's tone never satisfyingly settles on satire, comedy, or horror. Variety wrote "There is not enough weight or complexity to the material to justify the serious approach, and while the potential for considerable black comedy exists, Balaban only scratches the surface. The laughs never come." The New York Times wrote "The satire of the 50's [sic] is more bland than biting, dependent on authentically garish costumes and sets. And when the horror-film scenes begin to intrude on normal life (what is hanging from the cellar ceiling, anyway?) Mr. Balaban can't make the dark elements seem comic enough to mesh with the rest of this nightmarish joke."
Writing for The Washington Post, both Hal Hinson and Desson Howe called it a flawed but impressive debut. Empire called it an "unfairly neglected, perfectly creepy and disturbing suburban bizarro drama."
The film has since developed a cult following.