January 30, 1989 12:00 PM

Bob Balaban, whose performances enlivened such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Prince of the City and Absence of Malice, takes his first shot at feature directing with this startling comedy of an Indiana family in the Eisenhower era. That is not a contradiction in terms, not here anyway. Christopher Hawthorne’s script tells of a 10-year-old boy, played by newcomer Bryan Madorsky, whose picture-perfect parents just happen to be cannibals. Dad Randy Quaid works at a chemical plant with access to fresh corpses he can bring home for pretty wife Mary Beth Hurt to heat up or serve rare. Madorsky is a scrawny kid with an understandable aversion to Mom’s home cooking, but he doesn’t catch on to his parents’ taste for human sushi until he spies them late one night digging into a bloody corpse on the living room floor. At school, the teacher (the excellent Kathryn Grody) and the psychologist, played by a hilariously addled Sandy Dennis, sense the boy has problems. But how does a kid reveal this kind of dark secret, especially when Mom and Dad try to initiate Sonny Boy into their rituals? Timid souls may not want to find out. Balaban doesn’t skimp on the grisly aspects of the story. The dining room scenes will leave even the strongest stomachs roiling. Still, using cannibalism to illustrate a child’s mounting horror of conforming and growing up to be just like his parents is a fiendishly funny idea. Sadly, Balaban fails to develop it fully. There are compensations. The film abounds in visual humor. With split-level houses, color-coordinated furniture, aqua ashtrays, Betty Crocker kitchens and moms vacuuming while wearing crisp housedresses and spike heels, Parents is a 1958 tackfest. Balaban also has been fortunate in his cast. Hurt plays Mom like a warped Donna Reed. And Quaid, magnificent on the tube last season as LBJ, is the pluperfect nightmare dad. Normal, even goofy, to the outside world, he can switch from mirth to menace in seconds and freeze your blood. Some may reject Balaban’s film as an unsavory dish, but for those who like their horror laced with laughs and a dollop of social comment, Parents is a recipe worth trying. (R)

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