Horror films are filled with all types of unimaginable threats, from child-killing dream stalkers with razorblade fingers to invincible, homicidal summer-camp psychopaths, to escaped mental patients hell-bent on settling scores by way of murder. But sometimes we find that the greatest screen villain hits a little closer to home... or in some cases, literally at home. It’s unspeakably terrifying to entertain the idea that the family patriarch is a psycho, and that as a member of that family, you're unable to escape Dad's murderous rage and must comply with his every whim just to stay alive. So, for your reading pleasure, we are naming ten of the most unfit fathers in horror film history.
[Warning: Big spoilers ahead!]
Jerry Blake in The Stepfather
Jerry is the poster boy for unfit parents: he has the best of intentions, but the moment things go awry, he starts to lose his cool and begins murdering anyone that threatens his vision of the picture-perfect family... and he'll keep trying until he finally gets it right. Terry O’Quinn was phenomenal in the first Stepfather film and not half bad in the second, but even he couldn’t have saved the made-for-TV third entry in the franchise; to explain why the series lead has been recast, we're given the flimsy excuse that Jerry escaped from an asylum and had his face surgically reconstructed.
Richard Sullivan in New Year's Evil
Richard, played by Kip Niven, is a maniacal killer who targets his ex-wife Diane (Roz Kelly), the host of a popular TV music program, and he commits a brutal murder in every time zone on his way to confront her in New York during the show's New Year's Eve music countdown. Richard is apparently so evil that at the end of the film we're led to believe he inspires his son to carry on his legacy of lunacy.
Jack Torrance in The Shining
We don’t really need to give Jack much of an intro; he's one of the most notoriously bad parents in cinema history, and Jack Nicholson plays him with relentless precision. Jack tries to kill both his son Danny and wife Wendy, and there’s really no recovering from that. There are many different interpretations of The Shining, but none of them are necessary to determine that Jack definitely should not be charged with shaping the future of the next generation.
"Daddy" Robeson in The People Under the Stairs
The twisted father figure (Everett McGill) from Wes Craven's cult classic is by all indications highly unfit to be a parent: he imprisons his "children" and runs the household like a dictator; not to mention he’s also a homicidal creep in an incestious relationship with his sister (McGill's Twin Peaks co-star Wendy Robie). The pair have conspired to kidnap and abuse innocent children in an attempt to create their idea of an ideal family. The knowledge that the film is (very loosely) inspired by actual events makes it even more unsettling.
Nick Laemle in Parents
Both of this film's title characters, played by Randy Quaid & Mary Beth Hurt, belong on a list of bad parents, but for today we're spotlighting Quaid as the creepy dad Nick. The pair are seemingly leading a perfect Leave it to Beaver lifestyle, but in actuality, they are cannibals forcing their poor son to eat human flesh for dinner. Bob Balaban (My Boyfriend’s Back) directed this 1989 horror-comedy, but it would be easy to mistake the aesthetic of the film for something crafted by legendary director John Waters.
Dad Meiks in Frailty
Mr. Meiks, played to haunting perfection by Bill Paxton (also making his directorial debut), is an interesting case: by the film's conclusion, we're led to believe that the murderous patriarch in Frailty is truly ridding the world of demons. But even so, that’s no way to raise a child, and even if murder were not a factor, it's inexcusable that Dad imprisons his son in a hole in the backyard for days on end. Anyone capable of doing that certainly isn’t going to win any parenting awards.
Nathan Grantham in Creepshow ("Father's Day")
This vignette is a personal favorite from George Romero's classic anthology: a bad parent and curmudgeon during his life, Nathan proves to be an even worse tormentor in death. Murdered on Father’s Day by his daughter Bedelia, he rises from the grave on the anniversary of that date to terrorize her and the rest of his family in search of his long-overdue Father's Day cake. At the end of the vignette, he proudly produces his "cake," in the form of his granddaughter Sylvia's head.
Chris Cleek in The Woman
It’s hard to think of ways a parent could outdo the horrible example set in this disturbing and heartbreaking film from Lucky McKee, based on the book by Jack Ketchum (The Girl Next Door). Chris discovers a feral woman who has lived in the wild her entire life, and instead of taking her to a shelter, the authorities, or anyone qualified to help, he chains her up in his shed and attempts to "civilize" her... a plan which includes rape and other forms of sadistic torture. Sean Bridgers’ performance as Chris is sinister and stomach-turning, and Pollyanna McIntosh turns in an equally powerful performance as The Woman.
Don in 28 Weeks Later
This 2007 sequel to Danny Boyle's genre classic was largely seen as substandard when compared to its predecessor, and Don’s parenting skills are certainly substandard as well: at the very least, he’s not the man you would want on your side in the event of a rage-zombie epidemic. It’s bad enough that he abandons his family in favor of his own survival, but it’s later made worse by his attempts to locate his children and make a meal of them after he becomes infected.
Joe St. George in Dolores Claiborne
Though Dolores Claiborne isn’t really a horror film per se, the Stephen King book on which it is based certainly has some horrific moments. Well-known character actor David Strathairn plays the wicked patriarch of the St. George household, and he's both a wife beater and a child molester, so it's not hard to include him on this list... though he represents evil in a more realistic sense than most of the other bad dads featured here.
Did we cover all of your favorite unfit fathers? Let us know in the comments!