Horror is full of families-they’re personal, relatable, and vulnerable. They provide a great opportunity for things to go so horribly wrong, and with children in play, well, that just raises the stakes. We’ll often see the matriarch in a role of power (Poltergeist, Child’s Play) or problem ( Run, Carrie), but dads in horror can be just as diversely dramatic.
In honour of Father’s Day, let’s have a look at some of the good, the bad, and the…questionable fathers in horror.
In the interest of brevity and diversity, I’ve picked five dads who are deeply committed to their families, five dads who definitely aren’t winning Father of the Year any time soon, and a couple of dads who are doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons.
The Devil’s Candy is a good ol’ fashioned southern-fried tale of devils and dangers. The film follows an artist, Jesse Hellman (played by an almost unrecognizable Ethan Embry), who moves his hip family into a beautiful house with a dark past (as one does). When Ray (Pruitt Taylor-Vince), the troubled previous homeowner comes-a-knockin, he meets Jesse’s daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) at the door. Trouble is, Ray is under a near constant demonic influence that compels him to kidnap and sacrifice children, and now Zooey is his next target.
Though Jesse is admittedly distracted by the lure of dark forces that pull him deeper and deeper into his work, he is a dedicated father that just wants to keep his daughter safe. When push comes to shove, he fights tooth and nail to save her, and it is… rather epic.
The Devil’s Candy has a headbanging confidence thanks to its heavy metal influences, but deep down it’s steeped in the anxieties of parenting. It’s a story about family, and they are an incredibly likeable family, which makes the tension and terror so very real. They have a wonderful sense of unity that bleeds through the screen and right into your heart, and they just seem so damn cool. Of all the horror movie families I’d like to be a part of, the Hellman clan is top of that list.
Lee Abbott (John Krasinski) is into survival. When the world turns topsy-turvy at the arrival of hyper-sensitive aliens who seek and destroy anything that creates noise, Lee does everything in his power to protect his family. His methods may be strict, and his attitude a bit harsh, but he’s managed to keep his family safe (except in that opening scene, but we’ll look past that).
Lee and his wife Evelyn (played by Krasinski’s real-life wife Emily Blunt) have set up a network of tools and tactics to help guide them through their daily routines with safety. While Evelyn tries to ensure the children still lead relatively enriched lives, Lee works to build an improved cochlear implant for his hearing-impaired daughter (in the hopes that he can help her to hear-and avoid-potential danger) and studies the creatures as much as he can to find some kind of solution.
Though Lee has a bit of a distant relationship with his daughter, he shows the pure love and dedication he has for his children in one final scene. It’s beautiful, it’s emotional, and it’s proof that-even though he seems strict-he’s a good dad.
Ah, the film that launched a franchise (and forever changed the way we listen to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”). When young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) unwittingly enters “the further” and becomes trapped by a sinister entity, his father Josh (Patrick Wilson) jumps in to save the day. Josh had developed the ability to use astral projection to travel to “the further” as a child, and thus, having passed this spooky skill set on to his son, he’s Dalton’s only hope.
Even before all the supernatural happenings, Josh is a good father. His kids are always excited to see him come home, he has a close-knit relationship with his wife Renai (Rose Byrne), and he’s engaged in the lives of his children. Notably, when Renai is convinced that their new house is haunted, Josh agrees to move the family yet again, even though he doesn’t quite believe Renai’s hypothesis. He shows himself to be a committed father and husband, and he doesn’t dismiss Renai’s fears just because he doesn’t share them.
Of course, he’s not perfect, and spends a bit more time at work to escape the at-home struggles. But he’s supportive of Renai’s efforts and-again-though he may initially disagree, it doesn’t take much to change his mind. Josh comes around to the reality of the situation and stands by his family to guide Dalton back home.
Poltergeist is also a particularly good-and very similar-example of the good horror dad who believes and supports his wife through the supernatural kidnapping of their child. However, I’m going to choose to keep Josh on this list in place of Craig T. Nelson’s character Steve, but only because Poltergeist is really about the mother, Diane (JoBeth Williams), and her quest to save her daughter. Steve plays an active role (he’s really mad about the whole “moved the headstones but not the bodies” thing), but the film is more about Diane being a total badass. So, because Josh is the one to actively venture into “the further” in search of his son, he gets a leg up here. And we’ll choose to overlook the sequel, because that would firmly place him in the “bad dad” category.
The Wailing (2016)
Local policeman Jong-goo (Do-won Kwak) is in a real tricky pickle. A mysteriously murderous illness breaks out in his village, causing those infected to lash out and brutally kill their own families. Jong-goo must investigate the killings, and he’s in way over his head. It only gets worse when his daughter contracts the illness, and he must race to try to save her-and his family-before it’s too late.
Poor Jong-goo is just a simple policeman, and this whole ordeal is way more than he bargained for. There’s a hefty dose of the supernatural that really complicates the whole situation, and he’s receiving conflicting information from strangers that makes it all very muddled. It’s a lot to deal with! He’s trying desperately and doing everything he can, pushing his limits to be a good father for a daughter he deeply loves.
Does he succeed? Well, that’d be a spoiler, but he does throw everything he has at this problem, with heartfelt dedication.
The Last House on the Left (2009)
Though Wes Craven’s 1972 film birthed the story of the parents who go on a vengeance spree against the criminal clan that raped and killed their daughter, the remake puts a dark and gory 00’s spin on the acts of revenge, earning it a place on this list.
John (Tony Goldwyn) gets his hands good and dirty in his revenge plot. He first uses his medical know-how to save his daughter (a notable difference from the original), then turns his sights on the maniacs who attacked her. John goes full throttle in this version, and he seems to be quite capable. Even in the film’s final moments, he shows that there are no half measures. It’s an admirable and commendable effort that demonstrates his love for his daughter. Nothing but the best for his baby girl!
The Stepfather (1987)
Who’s your daddy? Not this guy! He’s the worst. Jerry Blake-if that is his real name (it’s not)-wants nothing more than to be a beloved family man. He tries and tries (and tries again) to build the perfect family, but he does tend to overreact and, you know, murder them all.
Now, I’m not saying the life of a family annihilator is easy, but if Jerry Blake (and John List) has taught us anything, it’s that you can probably get away with it for quite some time before anyone’s the wiser. Just change up your facial hair, skip town, pick a new name, and find a new wife and kids. Because for whatever reason, catching the madman who’s left (as implied) several families in his violent and bloody wake doesn’t seem to be high on the police’s list of priorities, so Jerry gets several cracks at being a great dad. Despite all the practice, he’s still intensely creepy and also not the best at covering his suspicious behaviour.
Part of what makes The Stepfather (and its 2009 remake) such a great example of “terrible horror dads” is that Jerry (played with intensity by Terry O’Quinn of Lost fame) shows a pattern of this psychotic behaviour, moving from family to family with the same violent end. This was no “help I’m possessed” one-off, this is a string of premeditated murders, so well prepared that he sets up his next fake life before fleeing his current one. He’s conniving, manipulative, psychotic, and worst of all, he’s likeable. Truly a monster.
The Woman (2011)
Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) is a terrible human. When he finds a feral woman in the woods, he decides not to take her to seek help (maybe even just leave her to her own, capable devices-she seems happy where she is), he instead takes her home to try to “civilize” her using a string of violent measures. He treats women-strangers and relatives alike-with total disdain.
He assaults the titular woman, attacks an innocent teacher, and (surprise!) keeps his eldest daughter locked in a barn with the dogs. Chris time and time again proves that he’s a depraved and horrible person. Like, a whole new level of terrible.
Based on the novel by Jack Ketchum (a master of disturbing literary horror), The Woman is an excellent example of a horrible horror dad. He doesn’t care about his kids or his wife, and he certainly doesn’t care about being a rational, normal father. His methods of “civilization” are barbaric, and he’s such a negative influence that his own son picks up after dear ol’ dad. Chris is basically the scum of the earth, and by the end of the film he well deserves what he gets.
It (2017) & It Chapter Two (2019)
Though Alvin Marsh plays but a small role in It, Stephen Bogaert certainly delivers a memorable (and highly upsetting) performance. As Bev’s gross, abusive father, Marsh makes both Bev and the audience wildly uncomfortable with his serpentine gaze and sneering demeanor. He’s manipulative, disgusting, and just plain creepy.
While It sets the unsettling scene, it’s It Chapter Two that really seals the deal. Marsh makes it clear that Bev was always “his”, and it’s… just… so awful. You immediately feel a wave of pity and anger and disgust, with an overwhelming desire to protect Beverly at all costs. Bogaert is incredibly effective in his scenes, and his performance has forever coloured any other role I see him in.
The Clovehitch Killer (2018)
Don (Dylan McDermott) seems to be a wholesome, all-American dad. He runs his son’s scout troop, has a good relationship with his family, and he’s a proud religious community leader. But he’s harbouring a dark, serial killing secret.
Ten years ago, the Clovehitch Killer terrorized a small Kentucky town with the brutal murders of ten women-all bound and strangled-and he has yet to be caught. When Tyler (Charlie Plummer) finds a collection of explicit photos, disturbing drawings, and condemning evidence hidden by his father, he begins to suspect that daddy Don could be the culprit.
What really makes Don a terrible dad (besides all the serial killing, obviously) is that Don is a manipulative, lying, gaslighting creep who doesn’t even hesitate when he turns on his own son to try and keep his identity safe. The worst part about it all is that Tyler knows that the truth would ruin his family, so he must keep the shameful secret. It burdens him forever, causing a painful emotional trauma that will probably haunt him for life.
The Shining (1980)
I’m sure you were expecting to see this one. It’s no surprise; Jack Torrance is notorious for being a pretty vicious husband and father, thanks (in large part) to the supernatural influence of the Overlook Hotel. Of course, let’s not forget about his violent alcoholism; before they even got to the Overlook, Jack dislocated Danny’s shoulder in a drunken rage. But once those spirits work their magic, things escalate quickly for Jack, and the trickle-down effect it has on Wendy and Danny is pretty powerful.
Though in Stephen King’s novel, Jack has a distinct arc of wanting and trying to be better before he ultimately falls under the Overlook’s spell, Kubrick’s film paints him as a far less sympathetic character. He’s pretty twitchy right from the get-go, and only gets crazier from there. It’s hard to imagine what a fun weekend with dad would look like in the Torrance household, but I’m willing to bet they were few and far between.
Bonus: The Questionable
Come to Daddy (2019)
Norval (Elijah Wood) has received an invite from his estranged father to come to his remote cabin. When he gets there, the man he meets is not quite what he expected, and a dramatic series of unfortunate events unfold that leave Norval in a terrible situation.
While Brian (Martin Donovan) really did want the best for Norval, his actions have shoved his poor son into the worst night of his life. Norval has to hide, sneak, and fight his way through if he ever hopes to save himself and his mother from a violent end. Everything Norval’s father needs him to do is absurd and horrible, and for such a timid young man it’s really too much to ask.
Brian really did want to reconnect with Norval after all these years, and honestly, though his methods for collecting the money to support Norval and his mother from afar were… not good, he really did just want to support them (which he didn’t have to do). And when he left, it was for their own safety. But still, he’s a deadbeat that brings nothing but trouble and sadness into Norval’s life, even though his heart was in the right place. Not the worst dad, but certainly not a good one either.
Ok, so, let’s muddy some waters here. Daddy (John Brumpton) is doing all the wrong things, but it comes from a place of love. Really unsettling and inappropriate love, but love nonetheless. He kidnaps boys and brings them home for his daughter Lola (Robin McLeavy), who really just wants to be treasured. The torture he puts them through is shocking, but… it’s for love, you guys.
Does that make him a bad father? Maybe. A bad man? Definitely. But he clearly cares… way too much for his daughter and wants nothing but happiness for her. So, yes. Bad person, absolutely, but bad dad? Ambiguous.
Pet Sematary (1989)
Here’s a tricky case. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) really is trying to do what’s best for his family. When the family cat, Church, is tragically killed, he buries it in the old pet cemetery (sematary) to spare his daughter the grief of losing her beloved kitty. When his son is similarly tragically killed… well, you know the rest.
This is a prime example of “doing the wrong thing for the right reasons”, and boy howdy is he doing the wrong thing. Truly, sometimes dead is better, so Louis Creed has earned a rather nebulous spot on this list. Is he a good dad? Is he a bad dad? It’s hard to say. What we can all agree on is that he was a wrong dad.