"A king, realizing his incompetence, can either delegate or abdicate his duties. A father can do neither. If only sons could see the paradox, they would understand the dilemma."
- Marlene Dietrich
"My father had a profound influence on me. He was a lunatic."
- Spike Milligan
One of the central rifts in the new movie Super 8 (about which I will have more to say coming very soon) is the one separating a father and a son in the wake of a senseless accident that claims the life of the man’s wife, the son’s beloved mother. The relationship between the two is set in relief during a conversation we see that takes place four months after the tragedy. The father has taken the son to dinner, and while they sit at the counter rather than a table, pointedly not facing each other, the father presents the son with a pamphlet for a summer baseball camp which he would like him to attend. The son objects, telling his dad that he has to stay in town during the summer and help a friend finish making a horror movie they’ve been shooting on Super 8 film. The dad replies with a sentiment that will sound very familiar to the specific generation of movie geeks targeted by J.J. Abrams’ movie: “Don’t get me wrong. I like your friends, but I just think it’d be good for you to spend some time with kids who didn’t only care about movies and monsters.” For those of us who grew up in the ‘70s (my time was about five years or so before the kids depicted in Super 8) it’s the kind of refrain that repeated itself often among dads who didn’t understand their kids’ creepy obsessions and eventually found its way into the work of young monster fanatics like Stephen King and Joe Dante and others when they started producing their own creations. (The Horror Dads talked about this stripe of father/son conflict in detail during our discussion of Salem’s Lot.)
One thing I’ve come to understand from my own adventures in fatherhood is that each generation will find a way to come up with something to define themselves as set apart from the previous one, whether its rock and roll, drugs, hip-hop or an unhealthy appetite for Famous Monsters of Filmland. My own daughters, who are bright beyond my wildest hopes and dreams and hardly the rebellious type (not yet anyway) are obsessed with the slam-bang cacophony of anime and manga, a borderline incoherent universe to these eyes and ears. I’m trying not to be that guy and reject the obsession outright—after all, it has sparked their creativity in drawing** and imagining their own worlds on paper and brought them an excess of joy, even if that joy often seems to me only of the sugar-rush variety. I’m happy that I don’t feel the intense need to overwhelm them with my own interests, that I have been so far fairly successful in just letting them be themselves. But I also have to recognize that I am luckier than some dads who never felt the specific kind of happiness that comes when your own enthusiasms intersect with those of your kids.
My own dad never knew that specific kind of happiness, and I spent my childhood before college in a constant state of awareness that because I was never interested in hunting or fishing or sports, the very things that defined his own happy childhood as well as his personality, he and I would never be very close. There would always be a wedge between him and me, defined by a smarting disappointment that he wasn’t blessed with the sort of son he really wanted, one who would share his enthusiasms, one who he could share with his friends and his friends’ sons. Eventually I did end up embracing some of those interests—I crave the opportunity to go fishing, for example, but too late to do much of it with him. He was excessively proud of my involvement in Animal House, which I took as some kind of personal triumph. And we’ve bonded considerably in my adult life over a mutual appreciation of baseball. He still doesn’t indulge in movies much, though in his retirement he has now become part of the home theater revolution and is fully DVD/flat screen HDTV compliant, a fact that tickles me to no end given the amount of shit he flung my way back in 1982 when I brought home my first Betamax, the mighty SL-5000. We’ve been lucky in that we’ve been able to find some mutual ground on which to stand that has allowed life to proceed in a civil, respectful and even loving way. Would I have done as well as I seem to have with fatherhood (so far) if I’d faced a similar challenge early on? Maybe not.
Although I think I would have handled the situation better than does our old friend Chucky. One of the things that marks Seed of Chucky as an underrated horror comedy/satire is the way it takes on this very schism between the expectation of the father, unreasonable or otherwise, and the inalienable right of the son to forge his own path outside the interests, or in this case the notoriety of his old man. The satirical sensibility of Don Mancini’s terrific movie* is rooted in parody of a certain stripe of touchy-feely family dramas (think Ordinary People and its overly earnest ilk, like the unwatchable Tribute), but it hits its high notes by not only stripping the formula of its pretenses but also, within the subversive framework of his serial killer family dynamic, fulfilling the requirements of the very genre being parodied in a perversely satisfying way.
Every mewling TV movie about estranged fathers and sons bridging the gap of decades of misunderstanding and ignorance is echoed, skewered and refashioned in Chucky’s hostile takeover bid for son Glen’s personality. He naturally wants to school the kid in the fine art of dismemberment and disemboweling, but Glen has other ideas. He’s a sensitive doll, separated from his mom and dad and traveling Europe as part of a sleazy ventriloquist act, and he can’t figure out why he keeps having violent nightmares. He sees Chucky and his homicidal bride Tiffany being interviewed on an Entertainment Tonight type show, promoting the movie being made of their bloody past, and makes his way to Hollywood for what he hopes will be a happy reunion. But when he gets there he finds himself torn and confused by Chucky’s overtures for him to participate in another rash of gory killings, Tiffany’s halfhearted attempts to steer her son clear of his father’s murderous influences, and some internal gender confusion that serves to tear the family further asunder. Mancini cleverly fashions the situation to function on the level of standard father-son conflict, but with Glen (or Glenda) locating his resistance to slaughter in that gender confusion, the tale becomes a potent reflection of the fear and intolerance fathers have often expressed when faced with sons asserting their emerging homosexuality. Seed of Chucky has plenty to say about the way we try to mold our children into Mini-Mes in order for us to better see our own reflection in them, and what might happen to a father who can’t accept when that reflection gets splintered in unexpected ways. Only with anatomically correct (or confused) dolls.
Chucky is just one of many great examples of fatherhood in the horror genre, and this Father’s Day the Horror Dads have gathered together at TCM’s Movie Morlocks site (which has, by the way, become one of the best movie blogs out there, period) to celebrate the phenomenon of the horror movie father in a unique way. Richard Harland Smith, headmaster of the Horror Dads introduces our tribute to Father’s Day thusly:
“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 has contributed a superb piece in consideration of the fatherly traits (or lack thereof) of one Robert Thorne (Gregory Peck), U.S. ambassador and stepdad to the son of Satan, aka Damien Thorne, in the original version of The Omen (1976). I could be wrong, but this may be the first piece of writing to deal with that character in any serious way, at least in my experience; I love the way it takes the character seriously from Jeff’s own perspective as a father. Richard’s own lively and insightful piece on Robert Morgan (Vincent Price), a.k.a. The Last Man on Earth (1962), sees the character’s loss of family in terms of how they define him as an existential film noir hero plopped down into a science fiction nightmare. Greg Ferrara vigorously empathizes with John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), the ill-fated father who would do anything to preserve (or resurrect) his shattered family in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). The vivid recounting of the character of the mad (or is he just misguided?) Dr. Génessier of Eyes Without a Face (1959) that Nicholas McCarthy artfully offers up in his piece has made me hunger to see the movie again, as only the best writing can. McCarthy understands Génessier as a peculiar species of overprotective father who only “wishes to beat this chaos of family into submission, using the tools of science.” And Paul Gaita offers up yet another brilliant piece on a father figure who, like Robert Thorne, has probably never been considered seriously from a critical standpoint, Jim Seidow’s Cook, who presides over the uber-dysfunction at the heart of the hearth in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
Personally, I was torn between a couple of choices, so I chose to vent my observations vis-à-vis Chucky here and save another warped vision of fatherhood for the Horror Dads gathering. I’ve offered up my thoughts on Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn), the homicidal would-be patriarch of The Stepfather (1986) whose ideals of family and order are constantly undercut by persistent and inconvenient reality, with bloody results, as my contribution to the Horror Dads’ Tribute to Father’s Day, and I am honored to be able to contribute to what I consider a truly excellent collection of writing on a subject that is very near and dear to us and to many of you as well. I fret that my own piece won’t live up to the high standard set by the others but am simultaneously comforted by the notion of quality by association, which I hope will work in my favor here. Please check the post out over at Movie Morlocks and let us know what you think. And do have a happy Father’s Day too, be ye father or child.
* Full disclosure for readers of this blog who might have somehow missed this factoid: Don and I have been good friends for about six years now, ever since I published a **½ review of Seed of Chucky which recognized the monumental accomplishment of Jennifer Tilly but mischaracterized the movie as a whole as a mediocrity. Since then I have come to my senses and recommend it not only as the best of the Chucky series so far but as a unique achievement in the history of horror movies as a delivery system for hilarious and incisive social commentary. I value my friendship with Don immensely, but I believe I would have eventually reached the same conclusion even if I didn’t know him to be a very smart guy and a terrific writer even outside the realm of killer dolls.
** My daughter Emma recently interpreted Chucky's dysfunctional family through her own anime-manga-influenced eyes and came up with this wonderful portrait, which has ranked the enthusiastic approval of none other than Chucky's dad, my friend Don. Now, what father wouldn't be proud of that?!