Happy Father’s Day from the HorrorDads!

The HorrorDads are getting the jump on the holiday weekend with something a little different today. Instead of our customary roundtable discussion, Jeff Allard, Dennis Cozzalio, Paul Gaita, Greg Ferrara, Nicholas McCarthy and I will take the stage one by one to discuss a particular horror movie father. This isn’t meant to be listing of superlatives – we’re not here to tout the best or the worst horror fathers, the bravest or the most tragic, and we’re squeezing into the discourse father figures who may or may not be biologically liable for their (invariably) heinous progeny but rather a collection of chiller dads who just, er… pop for us for one reason or another.

Jeff Allard: Robert Thorn, THE OMEN (1976).

The consensus on Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck), the beleaguered adoptive father of the Anti-Christ in THE OMEN, seems to be that he was a good guy who got dealt a bad hand but I think Thorn is a fascinating failure as a father for reasons that have nothing to do with Biblical prophecies or demonic DNA. After being told that his newborn son has died, Thorn takes an accommodating priest up on his offer to adopt a child born that same night – a child whose mother, according to the priest, died the moment her son entered the world. Thorn accepts this proposal, the switch is made, and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) believes the child is their own. Until I became a father, Thorn’s reactions and decisions (outside of lying to his wife) never struck me as being especially wrong. But in revisiting THE OMEN a year or so after my son arrived, I found Thorn’s indifference to his own offspring to be troubling (what father would be told that his child had died and not insist on seeing the child for himself or demand to give their child a proper burial?) and the five years that Thorn spends with his adopted son don’t bring out any paternal instincts in the man. There’s a deep disconnect between Thorn and Damien (Harvey Stephens) that can’t be just attributed to the fact that Thorn knows the child isn’t his. Even after Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) warns Thorn about Damien and even after multiple suspicious “accidents,” Thorn continues to get all his information about Damien from second hand sources and he only deals with the boy through intermediaries, like Katherine or Damien’s nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw). Thorn goes to great lengths to collect evidence against his adopted son but yet even as the possibility grows in his mind that he might have to kill Damien, he never attempts to spend any time with Damien – if only so that his monumental decision won’t be formed solely by religious dogma. Thorn makes the most crucial choices concerning his family but yet he abstains from being a hands-on dad (until the point where he decides to put seven daggers into Damien, that is). Tragically, it’s only through his investigation into the truth about Damien that Thorn finally lays his eyes on his real son. When Thorn and photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) unearth the child’s pitiful skeletal remains in a forgotten graveyard and see the crushed skull that proves the boy was murdered, Thorn is finally made to confront his son’s awful fate, five years after brushing it off. And it’s only after Thorn is convinced that Damien is the Anti-Christ that he and Damien are ever alone together, as Thorn hauls him away with the intention to murder him on a church altar. It’s almost too bad that THE OMEN sides so completely with theological explanations because I think if viewed as a psychological study of a father, the events of THE OMEN are far more twisted than any portents of the end of the world.

Dennis Cozzalio: Jerry Blake, THE STEPFATHER (1987).

Most new dads I know have had a moment where they’ve looked in the mirror (metaphorically, or in the bathroom) and felt the crush of new responsibility which fatherhood brings. There might also be a strange remoteness mixed in there too, a momentary self-protective disengagement from facing the enormity of the wonderful, daunting life ahead. What makes THE STEPFATHER an interesting movie for fathers to contemplate is the possibility of a frisson of self-recognition within Terry O’Quinn’s peerlessly warped performance as Jerry Blake (or is it Hodgkins—who is he here anyway?). That feeling of failure, of having not lived up to fatherly expectations, is one with which most dads are familiar. THE STEPFATHER cheekily locates that common response in a portrait of psychotic yearning for an ideal that was largely a Saturday Evening Post fallacy to begin with. The self-recognition is thankfully fleeting— there but for the grace of God, genetics, or the little leprechaun who doles out the good luck go I. O’Quinn’s brilliance, however, is rooted in his placid surface, his likability, his ability to draw us in and make us connect with his desperate insistence upon order, upon family values, upon the primal authority of paternity. There is no mystery in THE STEPFATHER, directed with economy and visual wit by Joseph Ruben, from a script by Donald Westlake (based on a story by Westlake, Carolyn Lefcourt and Brian Garfield). We know from the beginning who we’re dealing with, a man capable of horrific violence whose one-track life is spent endlessly reinventing his persona in search of the idea, or the ideal, of family. But it’s a mistake to presume shallowness  because of the movie’s forthrightness. The satirical wit of THE STEPFATHER comes in tracing the visible cracks on Jerry Blake’s surface which O’Quinn maps for us; in the revelation that it is the realities of life, its very messiness, which inevitably cause him to derail; and in the audience having been cleverly positioned to panic and empathize with that desperation when Blake’s best-laid plans start falling apart. He has the white-picket-fence world of Oakridge, Washington, fooled, yet we are never less than aware of the dark shadow beneath Jerry Blake’s slightly-too-accommodating manner. Because of Blake’s barely hidden secret, that jaunty, disarming inhabitation of extraordinary evil hidden in an everyday shell, the movie holds us in dread anticipation of the moment when the foundations of this pretend father’s dream-house world reveal their rot. Here is a father figure whose homicidal rage blocks any possible nurturing, whose illusions of fatherhood are repeatedly trumped by its actual demands. THE STEPFATHER dismantles the mythology of Reagan-era family values and illustrates, in the manner of the best thrillers, that taking an ax to the meaning of being a good dad is far easier than fulfilling it.

Paul Gaita: The Cook, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)

Although not the biological father of the cannibal brood in Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, Jim Siedow’s Cook is a nightmarish embodiment of an enduring archetype: the Henpecked Husband-Father. Locked in a perpetual snit over maintaining his version of civility in his home – one in which the least amount of mess and hassle can be brought to the capture, murder and consumption of humans for the family’s four-square (“I can’t take no pleasure in killin’”) — the Cook is thwarted at every turn by the twin entropic forces of his Brother-Wife Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and Brother-Son the Hitchhiker (Ed Neal), who disrupt his domestic bliss by bungling their pursuit of victims, bickering endlessly and destroying the house in explosions of lunacy (“LOOK WHAT YER BROTHER DID TO THE DOOR!”). Their volcanic clashes, at once banal, hilarious and horrifying, suggest a particularly malevolent episode of THE LIFE OF RILEY (albeit one in which Digger O’Dell replaced Chester A. in the lead), while the long-faced, sharp-toothed Siedow’s mournful mutter of “There’s some things you gotta do. Don’t mean you gotta like it,” sums up the popular critical interpretation of CHAIN SAW as a disastrous clash between a “traditional” frontier clan from what Greil Marcus called the Old, Weird America and a new, less structured interpretation of the nuclear family unit. A dad’s work, like a cowboy’s (or an undertaker’s) is never done, it seems to say; one can easily imagine such Hollywood Western father figures as John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart echoing the line while giving a weary shrug before settling down to the dirty business at hand.

Greg Ferrara: John Baxter DON’T LOOK NOW (1973).

I can’t remember the first time I saw DON’T LOOK NOW.  It’s become such an integral part of my cinematic life I can’t remember a time without it and, thus, can’t remember when it was I first saw it.  But I do know that every time I’ve watched it I’ve felt a kinship with John Baxter, played so eloquently by Donald Sutherland, even long before I grew to adulthood, fell in love and raised a family.  John Baxter is everything I want to be and many things I am but he is a father and a husband first and foremost.  The two go hand in hand and when he and his wife, Laura (my wife’s name as well), suffer the unimaginable loss of their daughter, his instincts take over and he does everything he can to make it better for Laura.  When she encounters two sisters, one an alleged psychic who claims to have seen her daughter and tells her that her daughter is happy, John is both skeptical and protective, just as I would be.   He wants Laura to be happy and can see that the sisters make her happy but he doesn’t want to see her further hurt and his skepticism of them guides his judgment.  That would be me as well but where John and I truly match in psyche is our desperate ability to run headlong into the unknown if we suspect someone, anyone, is in danger.  I’ve done it, on multiple occasions.  And I’ll do it again.  I can only hope it is here I part ways with John and that I never walk into my own bloodletting in a frenzied attempt to help.  It can take a lifetime to find the answers you’re looking for, even if you know where to look, but you’ll never find them chasing a phantom.  By the time John found that out, it was too late.  There’s a lesson in there for somewhere.  I just hope I’ve learned it.


Nicholas McCarthy:  Dr. Génessier, EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959).

On the surface, Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) in EYES WITHOUT A FACE is the kind of dad that I aspire to be.  Not only is he brilliantly successful, but he’s made it his life’s work to bring his kid happiness.  Of course, to Génessier, this means abducting young women and removing their skin so it can be transplanted on to his disfigured daughter’s face.  Like any endeavor worth doing, fatherhood is about entering the unknown.  Personally, the image of the father I wish to be never seems to meet the imperfect reality of dealing moment to moment with a child.  Dr. Génessier wishes to beat this chaos of family into submission, using the tools of science.  In this way, he perverts the love he feels for his daughter and makes her into a fetish object to be molded, worked on until she is perfect in his eyes.  In one scene, he bemoans that his experiments work well on dogs but fail on his child.  I agree with him that it would be more convenient if children were like dogs – we could keep them on leashes and maybe then they’d only speak when spoken to.  There’s an awful undercurrent of dark comedy in Génessier’s air of belligerence toward everything that hampers his experiments; he acts like his daughter’s mutilated face is akin to some obstacle at her getting into an Ivy League school.   Being a father and daughter story, EYES WITHOUT A FACE is like FRANKENSTEIN brought to a cruelly intimate place.  Génessier reminds me a little of another family man in horror: Raymond Lermorne in THE VANISHING (1988).  Both of them have the appearance of being devoted fathers and husbands, while secretly they see the world and everything in it as their science experiment.  While Lermorne is a full-blown psychotic, Génessier is something that’s scarier to me: someone who has spent his life pursuing the charitable paths of science and fatherhood but has forgotten that both are about putting yourself in the service to another person.  Ripped to shreds at the end of the film by the animals he deemed his perfect subjects, EYES WITHOUT A FACE shows that fatherhood often causes even seemingly the noblest of men to go to the dogs.

Richard Harland Smith: Robert Morgan, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1962).

Robert Morgan represents for me the most unfortunate sort of Dad… his daughter is dead, his wife is dead and he is alone. He’s got nothing to live for but his work… and his work is killin’ vampires. A semi-faithful adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short novel I Am Legend (published 1954), THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964) swings widest from its source in the depiction of its protagonist. In the book, Robert Neville is a suburban wage slave when the pandemic turns the earth’s population into a rainbow coalition of bloodsuckers — in the years following the event, and with himself barricaded against the horde by night and setting out to stake-and-bake ‘em by day, Neville teaches himself science in order to understand how it all happened and potentially reverse the process. Narrating his own story, Neville speaks in the unembroidered patter of a film noir hero, spewing facts leavened with cynicism and the pain he sucks up every day. For the film, Neville is renamed Morgan and played by Vincent Price. Already a scientist when the plague strikes, Morgan’s genius brain is useless as his daughter withers and dies and his wife quickly follows. As in the book, he holes up in his house, boards up the windows (Morgan’s rather haphazard style of home improvement inspired George Romeros’ NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), and exists in a bastardized bachelor’s paradise – smoking cigarettes, drinking scotch and playing his jazz louder than his wife would have permitted in life. Morgan is a funny sort of dad in that, in flashback scenes, he is never shown holding, touching, or even addressing his daughter by name. At the girl’s birthday party, it is her neighbor and Morgan’s coworker “Uncle” Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) to whom she runs; as Ben scoops the girl up in his arms, Morgan merely stands by filming the moment. When the girl sickens and is confined to bed, Morgan fusses with the netting hung in a vain attempt to stave off infection as if his daughter is a scientific subject. When she dies and is removed by the military to be consigned to a mass bonfire, Morgan races after them and it’s the only time we see any real fatherly affection. This could be an oversight on the part of the filmmakers or a quirk in Morgan’s character, suggesting that he was too obsessed by work to appreciate his family and must live in the nightmare scenario of their absence, living night after night in an empty house and day after day lost in numbing busy-work that can only alleviate his agony in the full flower of its absolute awfulness.

The utility of the nightmare is that we feel so much better when it’s over… but with the rising of the sun comes a reflection upon its teaching. All of the characterizations discussed above are a variation on a father’s worst case scenario: that his least attractive characteristics will be passed on to his child, that he may not be able to protect his family, that he cannot save his family, that he will become in the process of fathering a monster, that his offspring will bring harm to others. All of the movies from which we’ve drawn our respective paterfamiliases end on a down note, of tragedy, of futility, of oblivion, trauma and madness. And yet the final fade-out allows each of us — and fathers in particular — a breather from our mundane worries, a second chance and an opportunity to go back out into the real world reinvested in making a difference. With that, the HorrorDads wish you smooth sailing, sweeter dreams and a very Happy Father’s Day!

20 Responses Happy Father’s Day from the HorrorDads!
Posted By Jenni : June 17, 2011 9:36 am

Very good read, as most of these flicks I haven’t seen. One horror movie Dad you left out, and I was hoping would be written about is Claude Rains portrayal in The Wolfman. He quite rightly shows the turmoil he is experiencing in wanting to protect his son, but ultimately having to do the unthinkable to save the community.

Posted By Jenni : June 17, 2011 9:36 am

Very good read, as most of these flicks I haven’t seen. One horror movie Dad you left out, and I was hoping would be written about is Claude Rains portrayal in The Wolfman. He quite rightly shows the turmoil he is experiencing in wanting to protect his son, but ultimately having to do the unthinkable to save the community.

Posted By Grand Old Movies : June 17, 2011 10:47 am

Great post! Particularly fascinating comments on “The Omen,” and the failure of Gregory Peck’s dad character (rather ironic, since many viewers associate Peck as the ‘perfect’ dad of “To Kill A Mockingbird”). Of course, the ultimate failed dad to include is Colin Clive’s title character in “Frankenstein,” who abandons his ‘child’ after it fails to meet his perfectionist expectations. Indeed, the underlying theme of many horror-dad movies seems to be the expectation of perfection in the family — and that when perfection is not achieved, the dad blames it on the horrific ‘offspring’ (the monster).

Posted By Grand Old Movies : June 17, 2011 10:47 am

Great post! Particularly fascinating comments on “The Omen,” and the failure of Gregory Peck’s dad character (rather ironic, since many viewers associate Peck as the ‘perfect’ dad of “To Kill A Mockingbird”). Of course, the ultimate failed dad to include is Colin Clive’s title character in “Frankenstein,” who abandons his ‘child’ after it fails to meet his perfectionist expectations. Indeed, the underlying theme of many horror-dad movies seems to be the expectation of perfection in the family — and that when perfection is not achieved, the dad blames it on the horrific ‘offspring’ (the monster).

Posted By Bob Gutowski : June 17, 2011 12:10 pm

Engrossing pieces! What a good idea to let us hear from you all one at a time every once in a while, as the occasion warrants!

Posted By Bob Gutowski : June 17, 2011 12:10 pm

Engrossing pieces! What a good idea to let us hear from you all one at a time every once in a while, as the occasion warrants!

Posted By muriel schwenck : June 17, 2011 3:56 pm

Interesting thoughts about Damien. I never thought the plot was worthy of so much analysis. Just enjoyed the show. I thought the fact that he so blithely accepted the replacement baby was a cheap plot device. I always thought that Gregory Peck’s un-Dad like behaviour was due to his inability to love the child which was an excellent instinct in retrospect. The kid was not lovable to anyone, nor was he likeable. Was Damien that way because his father seemed cold, or was the father reacting to an awful child? After all, if he had been a truly loving dad, he never would have tried to kill him, he would try years of psychology instead and then where’s the story?
“Grand Old Movies” Excellent suggestion about Colin Clive!

Posted By muriel schwenck : June 17, 2011 3:56 pm

Interesting thoughts about Damien. I never thought the plot was worthy of so much analysis. Just enjoyed the show. I thought the fact that he so blithely accepted the replacement baby was a cheap plot device. I always thought that Gregory Peck’s un-Dad like behaviour was due to his inability to love the child which was an excellent instinct in retrospect. The kid was not lovable to anyone, nor was he likeable. Was Damien that way because his father seemed cold, or was the father reacting to an awful child? After all, if he had been a truly loving dad, he never would have tried to kill him, he would try years of psychology instead and then where’s the story?
“Grand Old Movies” Excellent suggestion about Colin Clive!

Posted By muriel schwenck : June 17, 2011 4:00 pm

Love that photo of Bela Lugosi. There is an anecdote regarding the scene in “Frankenstein” where the monster throws the little girl in the lake. The cast had to drive to a lake to film the scene. Karloff was worried that his monster get up would scare the little actress. But when they gathered to drive to the filming location, she ran up to him and begged to ride with him. Cute!

Posted By muriel schwenck : June 17, 2011 4:00 pm

Love that photo of Bela Lugosi. There is an anecdote regarding the scene in “Frankenstein” where the monster throws the little girl in the lake. The cast had to drive to a lake to film the scene. Karloff was worried that his monster get up would scare the little actress. But when they gathered to drive to the filming location, she ran up to him and begged to ride with him. Cute!

Posted By rhsmith : June 18, 2011 3:10 am

Thanks, everyone, for the suggestions. I suspect the HorrorDads will make this an annual tradition. There are many Dads to discuss and we’re just the guys do do it!

Posted By rhsmith : June 18, 2011 3:10 am

Thanks, everyone, for the suggestions. I suspect the HorrorDads will make this an annual tradition. There are many Dads to discuss and we’re just the guys do do it!

Posted By Happy Father’s Day « STEVENHARTSITE : June 18, 2011 4:36 pm

[...] geeks also known as the Horror Dads are marking Father’s Day the best way a movie buff can: by talking about fathers in horror movies.  I’m particularly taken with Paul Gaita’s bit on Cook, the put-upon paterfamilias of [...]

Posted By Happy Father’s Day « STEVENHARTSITE : June 18, 2011 4:36 pm

[...] geeks also known as the Horror Dads are marking Father’s Day the best way a movie buff can: by talking about fathers in horror movies.  I’m particularly taken with Paul Gaita’s bit on Cook, the put-upon paterfamilias of [...]

Posted By muriel schwenck : June 20, 2011 4:39 pm

Any Creepy or Evil Mothers of Horror films?

Posted By muriel schwenck : June 20, 2011 4:39 pm

Any Creepy or Evil Mothers of Horror films?

Posted By dukeroberts : June 22, 2011 11:42 am

Interesting info to read about horror dads. To answer Muriel’s question: Yes, there are plenty.

Posted By dukeroberts : June 22, 2011 11:42 am

Interesting info to read about horror dads. To answer Muriel’s question: Yes, there are plenty.

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Racist Images in Classic Films: A Conversation : July 28, 2011 5:22 pm

[...] to borrow an idea from my fellow Morlock, Richard H. Smith, who routinely organizes the insightful Horror Dads Roundtable and I asked a group of classic film fans and writers that regularly use Twitter to share some of [...]

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Racist Images in Classic Films: A Conversation : July 28, 2011 5:22 pm

[...] to borrow an idea from my fellow Morlock, Richard H. Smith, who routinely organizes the insightful Horror Dads Roundtable and I asked a group of classic film fans and writers that regularly use Twitter to share some of [...]

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