I have a very soft spot for this sick little film, which while not terribly well-known does have a devoted cult following. In simple terms it is a 'horror' film but not one of 'slice and dice' or 'jump in your seat'; it decants in a scant 80 minutes the horrors of childhood and the fears that mom and dad can instil. Since my copy was barely watchable, I welcomed the recent (and very rare) TV showing courtesy of FilmFour to take a fresh copy. And I thoroughly enjoyed every minute!
Surprisingly it is the first feature film as a director from Bob Balaban, best known as a screen actor with some 90-odd credits and a Christopher Guest regular. Balaban has continued directing and writing over the years, but largely for television series and TVMs. So where this gem appeared out of left field is anyone's guess. Set in the American suburbia of the l950s, perfect Mom and caring Dad (adept turns from Mary Beth Hurt and Randy Quaid) have just moved to their new home with only son Michael (a bug-eyed and small-for-his age nervous bundle of fears embodied by Bryan Madorsky in his only screen role). Young Michael is not only plagued by nightmares -- rivers of blood engulfing him, bloody arms disappearing down the waste disposal, and the like, but also dreads family meals (even breakfast) where oozing liver or overly 'blue' roasts are plonked down before him. Even when hiding in the pantry, he believes he is being attacked by strings of fat sausages holding him in a deadly grasp. (Shades of the manic and active cuts of meat cascading in Jan Svankmajer's "Lunacy").
When he asks his mother why all of their meals are described as 'leftovers' and from what are they left over, she replies "From leftovers-to-be, Silly". It soon becomes clear that Quaid who works for the aptly named Toxico Corporation, designing defoliants, has an inbuilt appetite for human flesh, cutting choice cuts from his laboratory's constant fresh supply of cadavers. He brings these home in clean white sacks, telling Michael to keep his hands off the 'laundry'. Enlisting Hurt's help to bring the goodies into the house, she beams "isn't it nice that Daddy picked up the laundry?" When Michael spurns yet another blood-soaked entrée, Quaid becomes the indignant Dad and tells him that he will learn to love their meals -- "your mother did!"
At his new school as each student is asked to describe what they learned over the summer vacation, he horrifies the class with his story of how to skin a cat and suck its bones to become invisible. His only ally is a gal, several heads taller, who has just finished telling their classmates how to mix a Gibson. When asked to draw a picture of his family, his drawing drowned in streaks of red crayon, lands him in the office of the school social worker, a klutzy and chubby Sandy Dennis. "You can't be an adult" Michael tells her -- "you're too nervous". Eventually he confides his beliefs that his parents do unspeakable things down in their basement, that is when he does not observe them making barbaric and juicy love in their bedroom. To put his fears at rest, Dennis accompanies Michael to the fearful basement and sees the blood-soaked chopping board and the chunks of meat hanging to age. Next thing we know, after hiding from Quaid in the same creepy pantry, the family are 'enjoying' a huge barbecue roast and Mom tells Michael that she has cut away all the fat! The film continues in this vein with Quaid telling Michael stories about a little boy who didn't obey his parents. "You're scaring him" says Hurt; "He scares me" replies Quaid -- "He doesn't look like me; he doesn't act like me"... When Michael finally rebels and attacks his parents and their supposedly perfect home, he ends up an orphan in the care of his kindly-looking and wholesome-seeming grandparents. Everything now seems to be looking up for the spooky youngster -- until Grandma brings him a bedside snack!
What I particularly like about this movie, apart from its brilliantly handled theme, is its faithful recreation of 50s' dress, hairstyles, interior decoration, cars, mores, and particularly music. With a score by the very talented Angelo Badalamenti, the composer incorporates pop classics from the period, including "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White", "Memories are Made of This, "Chantilly Lace", "Moments to Remember", and over the end-credits "Purple People Eater" -- all very evocative to me. Balaban has given us a sunny, cheerful and very wholesome period movie about cannibalism! I for one do thank him...