In order to be an equal opportunist after our top 10 darkest mothers’ in film list, we’ve garnered a list of the top 10 scariest, narcissistic, and darkest papas for Father’s Day. Fathers throughout literature, like William Shakespeare’s King Lear or John Updike’s character Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom from the Rabbit trilogy, can often disappoint their children, betray their confidence, and even form murderous and violent impulses. Perhaps the most iconic moment of discovering your paternal heritage occurs in Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when Darth Vader confesses to a stricken Luke Skywalker that he is his father.
While we hope this Father’s Day that you don’t lose a limb at the behest of your daddy, perhaps watching one of these movies on the 19th will be the perfect bonding experience for you and your loved one, who is (hopefully) more akin to Liam Neeson in Taken than Anakin Skywalker.
10. Creepshow (1982)
Creepshow features a series of shorts created by the perfect marriage of writer Stephen King and director George A. Romero. The opening short “Father’s Day” follows Aunt Sylvia and her family members (including a very young and blond Ed Harris) on Father’s Day as they wait for Great-Aunt Bedelia, who supposedly murdered her father Nathan on Father’s Day seven years earlier. Their relationship is described as “completely Freudian,” as Bedelia was forced to care for her father after he suffered a stroke.
After her father supposedly murders her beau, she “bashes her father’s head in with an ash tray – or so rumor has it.” As they discuss the familial gossip, Sylvia notes that Bedelia returns to the house every Father’s Day to meditate at her father’s grave before joining the rest of the family for a nice baked ham.
When a haggard Bedelia shows up to the house, a campy voiceover of the father crying, “Where’s my cake?” rises in volume as a buried memory climbs to the surface of Bedelia’s consciousness. The murder scene is recounted through panels as if one is reading a comic book and the entire collection of stories deftly balances comedy and horror.
When Bedelia drinks by her father’s graveside and bemoans his emotional abuse, the light shifts from natural to a series of primary blues and reds as a skeletal hand rises from the earth demanding, “Where’s my cake?” It seems like this Father’s Day Nathan gets his cake, and the ability to eat it too.
9. Frailty (2001)
Bill Paxton’s feature directorial debut, Frailty, opens in an FBI office with Matthew McConaughey’s Fenton Meiks (thought he later reveals himself to be someone else) claiming he knows well who is the “God’s Hand” killer: his brother (biblically) named Adam. Fenton recounts his and Adam’s childhood with their single father played by Bill Paxton. Initially, Paxton jokes with his sons about eating too many peas and saying “don’t let the bedbugs bite” when putting his sons’ to bed.
But Paxton soon claims an angel visited him at work, informing him that God has asked him to kill “demons” at His behest. Paxton tells his son of the angel’s visit and Adam is entranced by the tale, while Fenton is skeptical. Soon, Paxton is bringing victims home to their shed to kill with an axe, and the boys witness these murders as they quiver in fear. “This is our job, son,” Paxton says to a frightened Fenton, “You’ve got to accept that.” He buries the deceased in the rose garden adjacent to their property.
The boys try to forget their father’s unspeakable violence, but the killings continue with the boys as accomplices to the abductions and eventual murders. “You can’t escape God’s wrath,” Paxton cries as he attacks an elderly man gagged and bound. As Fenton tries to emotionally separate from his fanatical father, Paxton orders Fenton to dig a mass grave and pray. Finally, the boys are asked to murder on their father (and God’s) behalf.
Desperate, Fenton brings the sheriff to the house. Paxton promptly murders him, and then locks Fenton in the darkened cellar. Fenton finally sees God, but his decree is to murder his father. It’s a biblical tragedy that results in their father’s death with one of the brother’s narrating this tragic, chilling tale.
8. Oculus (2013)
When siblings Tim and Kaylie move into a new suburban home with their parents, it seems like the perfect spot for new beginnings. Told in flashback and narration from Kaylie and Tim now as adults, the film chronicles horrific and unspeakable atrocities that occurred when the siblings were 10 and 12. As adults, Kaylie brings Tim back to the house in an attempt to help him remember a fateful and fatal night while also capturing any unexplainable events on a series of video cameras she’s rigged throughout the rooms.
As the narrative begins to unfold, Kaylie explains that an antique mirror is responsible for their parents’ deaths eleven years earlier. Tim, unconvinced, resists her insistence. Yet, they each remember their father’s increasingly bizarre behavior as he shuts himself up in his office and as they spy a strange woman in the room with him.
When their mother hears of the woman’s visit, she becomes depressed, drinks heavily, and eventually attacks her children. Discovering her violent behavior, their father chains her to the bedroom wall without food. Though the children plead for their dad to bring help, he ignores their cries, even when they run out of anything to eat.
Mike Flanagan’s horror film is as much about technological anxiety and how technology can potentially fail us (as with the cameras, computers, and timers), as it is about a patriarch’s possession and psychotic bent. His most recent Netflix release Hush similarly deals with technology and terror when deaf writer Maddie is terrorized in her secluded country cabin.
7. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
It’s hard to say which father is comically worse in Jake Kasdan’s film: Pa Cox or his son Dewey Cox. When Dewey is a young boy, he accidentally kills his multi-talented brother Nate with a machete. Grief-stricken, his father repeatedly tells Dewey throughout the rest of his life that “the wrong kid died.” It’s a mantra that weighs on poor Dewey as he struggles with his musical career, fame, sex, heavy drug use, and the demons that Nate’s death unleashes (including the sudden loss of his sense of smell).
Dewey marries his 12-year old girlfriend Edith at the ripe old age of 14, and the two go on to have several children together as Dewey struggles with his blossoming musical career. Edith, harried and worn down, repeatedly tells Dewey he’s “never going to make it” while simultaneously chastising him for never spending enough time with his family.
It takes several decades for Dewey to finally (re)connect with his many children in a montage where he plays catch with dozens upon dozens of children, teenagers, and young adults. Though he’s spawned enough children to create a couple football teams, Dewey is largely absent from his children’s’ lives, perhaps in response to his own father’s dismissive and cruel mantra that Dewey should’ve died all those years ago.
6. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Though the sets, costumes, and overall mise-en-scene are often what draw audiences to Wes Anderson’s films, in The Royal Tenenbaums it is undeniably Gene Hackman’s performance as Royal Tenenbaum that is one of the central reasons to see this fabulous film. The film opens with Royal announcing to his children Chas, Margot, and Richie (played as adults by the delightfully deadpan Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Luke Wilson) that he is divorcing their mother Etheline. The children, all bright, talented, and successful, fizzle from the public eye and dust settles on the accolades they’ve accrued over the next 22 years. Royal resides in a hotel during this time until he’s kicked out for insufficient funds.
Homeless and desperate, Royal worms his way back into his family and their house when he tells them that he’s dying of cancer. Royal can spin any yarn he wants and the family believes him, though Chas is suspicious and unsympathetic. Slowly Royal begins to reconnect with the kids he has never really known and finds himself enjoying their company, despite not being socially graceful or fully truthful.
There are hiccups along the way for Royal’s relationship with his children, but, ultimately, things improve and when Royal dies of a heart attack, we’re smiling even if we’re saddened when we see the epitaph on his grave that reads: “Died tragically rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship.”
5. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Even though Captain Vidal is Ofelia’s stepfather, his presence in Guillermo del Toro’s fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth is so commanding, controlling, and chilling that his patriarchal presence goes unquestioned. Ofelia is traveling with her sickly pregnant mother to meet the captain whom her mother has wed. Ofelia, clutching a stack of books, delves into her imagination to escape the myriad of adult changes facing her. Shortly after arriving, she meets a faun who tasks her with responsibilities to complete before the full moon so that she may gain immortality as a princess.
As she confronts giant slimy toads or monsters with hands for eyes, Ofelia is also keenly aware of her new father’s dislike of both her and her mother. He instructs the doctor to save the baby son first, rather than the mother, and chastises Ofelia’s mother publicly at the dinner table for sharing the story of how they met.
Outside the home, the captain is even more terrifying, smashing a farmer’s face with the edge of a bottle or torturing republican rebels with various tools. At one point, a rebel slices the inside of his mouth up his cheek, and the captain’s countenance resembles a rough sketch of the joker from Batman as he stiches the wound shut.
Eventually, he and Ofelia confront one another as her fantasies start to affect the world and people surrounding her. The captain assures her that he will kill her and he’s not one to make false promises. It’s a heartbreaking tragedy of one man’s fierce ideology and psychopathic nature versus the pure and imaginative heart of a young girl.
4. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Though Daniel Plainview reveals toward the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood that he is not, in fact, H.W.’s biological father, he raises the boy and involves H.W. in his business practices as a child. Yet, his tendencies with the infant boy are to dip the bottle’s nipple in whiskey when the child cries or to pass the boy off to another to hold. Plainview is as cold and calculating with his business as he is with raising his son.
When H.W. suffers permanent hearing loss after a gas blowout, Plainview is unwilling to take care of the boy and sends him away to a boarding school. The scene where he takes H.W. to the train, only to slip off as the locomotive starts to move while H.W. screams is a gut-wrenching moment as the audience realizes the complete lack of plentitudes within Plainview’s heart. When H.W. visits Plainview as an adult, Plainview rebuffs the opportunity to reconnect, insisting the boy was a “bastard in a basket” when he rescued him. H.W. walks away from Plainview at the conversation’s conclusion, leaving Plainview utterly alone in his ornate, empty home.
3. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
“What is it about high school where you read the worst novels by the best writers?” Jeff Daniels’ Bernard Berkman cattily asks in Noah Baumbach’s film The Squid and the Whale. Bernard is a once successful writer who is getting divorced from Laura Linney’s Joan, a now up-and-coming writer in her own right. They have two sons, Walt and Frank (played by the Jesse Eisenberg and a breathtaking Owen Kline), who struggle with the implications of their parent’s separation.
Bernard is not just pretentious but frugal, which is most painfully evident when Frank runs a fever and asks his father for money to go buy Tylenol. His father doesn’t give him enough the first time, and Frank walks back and forth between his dad’s apartment and the drugstore, a light sheen of sweat glinting on his forehead.
During family tennis matches, Bernard encourages Walt to hit the ball at his mother’s weak hand and curses profusely during Ping-Pong matches when he loses. He’s insecure and rides on his intellectual laurels, belittling his wife’s new beau when he labels him “a philistine.” Upon meeting Walt’s girlfriend Sophie for dinner, Bernard allows Sophie to pay for her meal, rather than treating the two teenagers. Bernard hits on his students (including Anna Paquin, an uncomfortable pairing given their pairing nine years earlier as father and daughter in Fly Away Home) and instructs his Walt on how to steal books that belong to him from their mother’s library.
He’s narcissistic and egotistical, a father who needs more from Walt and Frank then he’s ever willing to provide for them. At once dark comedy and drama, The Squid and the Whale is a brilliant look at a family deeply hurt and fumbling towards healing, one small step at a time.
2. The Wrestler (2008)
Mickey Rourke rose to cinematic prominence in the ‘80s for films such as Rumble Fish (1983), 9 ½ Weeks (1986), and Barfly (1987); in 2005 he made a comeback in Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, but it wasn’t until 2008 in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestlerthat he achieved accolades for his heartbreaking performance as an aging professional wrestler and absentee father. Rourke received a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for his role as Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a role that requires great emotional as well as physical pain.
With his peroxide long hair, his penchant for playing with his kids outside his trailer park home, and his ability to slam a folding chair against his forehead before jumping in the ring, Randy is a wrestler with a heart, even if he is virtually estranged from his only daughter Stephanie (played by a seething and wounded Evan Rachel Wood). His reunion with his daughter is prompted when he collapses after a particularly grueling fight. “Your heart – you need to take care of it,” advises his doctor and the diagnosis is both literal and figurative for Randy’s broken psyche.
Though Randy is ultimately well intentioned as a dad, he invites a neighborhood boy over to play video games after his heart attack and reconnects with stripper Pam who’s won his heart (played by the always charismatic Marisa Tomei). It is Pam who ultimately implores Randy to contact his daughter, rather than his own volition. When he finally visits Stephanie at her home, she bristles at the imposition, even after he tells her about her medical woes. “Where were you when I needed you to take care of me?” she demands before storming away.
Randy attempts to redeem himself. He brings her a shirt with an “S” for Stephanie and a pea coat to stay warm. Though things seem to be parentally looking up, Randy misses a dinner date with his daughter after snorting cocaine all night with a blond at a bar. Stephanie waits for him two hours at the restaurant and when he attempts to patch things up she confesses she was “stupid to think you could change…. [this is] broke. Permanently. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
So, Randy heads back to the ring, despite Pam’s pleas, “What about your heart?” “It’s only out there I get hurt,” Randy replies, pointing to the exit door. Ultimately, neither Pam nor his daughter can cajole Randy to do what’s right for his health – his love of the sport calls him back to wrestling, no matter the emotional and physical cost.
1. The Shining (1980)
Over eggs and toast a few weeks into his stay at the Overlook Hotel, writer Jack Torrance tells his wife Wendy that he feels like he’s always been at the hotel. Director Stanley Kubrick slowly zooms into a reflection of Jack’s face in the bedside mirror until the reflection becomes reality, as if Jack has symbolically plunged down the rabbit hole of the Overlook Hotel’s portal. At this point in the film, things are still sunny and serene – Jack is in charge of the hotel during the winter off-season, accompanied by Wendy and their son Danny. The coming months promise to afford Jack some much needed peace and quiet to write.
Yet, as their stay progresses, Jack’s behavior becomes increasingly hostile toward his wife and son. Early in the film, Wendy reveals Jack use to drink heavily, developing aggressive behavior as a result. He stops drinking after breaking Danny’s arm and adopts a more relaxed and easygoing countenance. Yet, as Wendy and Danny explore the labyrinth adjacent to the hotel, Jack stares down at a model of the labyrinth in one of the room’s, a disconcerting shot that mimics a god’s eye view, predatory in nature, omniscient in viewpoint.
When Danny comes to his mother with bruises on his neck, Wendy confronts her husband to search the hotel. Jack violently turns on his wife and hunts his family down with an axe, announcing in the film’s most iconic moment: “Here’s Johnny!” As he stumbles after his son through the snowy corridors of the labyrinth in the film’s terrifying conclusion, it is the most horrific pursuit of son by father ever to grace our silver screens.