A few years ago, I singled out the all-time worst movie mothers. Parity demands another list, and though I found myself struggling to come up with a shortlist of candidates as compelling as the collection that formed the distaff side, the horror genre alone ensured that there would be no shortage of contenders. (Among the list of those I left off are Jerry Blake in The Stepfather, Capt. Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth, and Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which undoubtedly counts more as a TV entry anyway.)
10. Nathan Grantham, Creepshow
The first story in Stephen King’s luridly entertaining pastiche of the EC horror comics of the 1950s (e.g. Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror) also seems a tongue-in-cheek satire of the then-popular trend of centering horror movies around holidays. In “Father’s Day,” a spoiled clan of old-money types gather to pay tribute to Nathan Grantham, the mean, old, but rich man who had his own daughter’s fiancé murdered. One good turn deserves another, and she kills him on the titular holiday. Years later, and badly decomposed, he returns from the grave to claim a piece of cake.
09. Royal Tenenbaum, The Royal Tenenbaums
Gene Hackman is the emotionally distant patriarch of director Wes Anderson’s most self-consciously Salinger-esque effort, a deadpan multi-generational comedy of human error in which the sins of the father are passed down into the all-too-willing penance of his overachieving but masochistic brood. With “too little, too late” aplomb, Royal tries to make amends with them all … by faking a terminal illness. Nothing says atonement like another dose of duplicity.
08. Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back
In researching this list, I noted that two ubiquitous movie fathers frequently showed up on both “best” and “worst” lists. The first, Vito Corleone, strikes me as a legitimately ambiguous figure who genuinely intends to create a better life for his children but unwittingly dooms them to repeat his mistakes. On the other hand, I have no idea how anyone could mistake Darth Vader for being anything other than one of the all-time baddies.
07. Lester Burnham, American Beauty
When is redemption not enough? I’d argue when it happens to Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham. The ostensible protagonist of screenwriter Alan Ball’s vicious attack of suburban mediocrity, Lester is surely meant to serve as a Howard Beale sort of figure, a suddenly clear-eyed prophet denouncing everything that is shallow, foolish and venal about the American dream. The problem is that his chosen method of enlightenment — quitting his dead end job, smoking weed, lusting after his teen daughter’s best frenemy — are if anything more selfish than anything or anyone Lester decries.
06. Edvard Vergérus, Fanny & Alexander
Ingmar Bergman’s swan song is this gorgeous Swedish TV miniseries, in which two young children watch their idyllic and liberated lifestyle crumble when their lively, dramaturgical father dies and their mother is forced to marry the stern bishop Edvard (Jan Malmsjö). Having been brought up on boundless whimsy and theatrical invention, their new father clamps down with an iron fist, emphasizing pragmatism instead of imagination.
05. Peter Helfgott, Shine
At what price perfection? In Shine, David Helfgott is driven mad by his strict father Peter’s demands as the young pianist-in-training works himself to the bone trying to surmount the mighty Rachmaninoff. Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Peter with an unforgettable intensity; the only thing more terrifying than his authoritarianism is his embrace, a gesture letting his son know the elder utterly owns the younger.
04. Bill Maplewood, Happiness
Bill is without a doubt Todd Solandz’s most troubling creation, a family man straight from the Ward Clever mold who is hiding a secret double life as a pedophile, which certainly complicates Solandz’s depiction of the scenes where Bill’s preteen son sits down for some fatherly advice about the facts of life. Dylan Baker’s performance walks a challenging tightrope, daring audiences to not feel at least some shred of empathy for his twisted soul.
03. Ed Wilson, Natural Born Killers
It’s a small part in a busy film, but Rodney Dangerfield’s standup professionalism anchor one of the most hysterically disturbing sequences of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. The backstory for one half of that tag team gets explicated in typically irony-drenched ’90s fashion, as an episode of “I Love Mallory” condenses decades’ worth of familial abuse and assault into one inappropriate punchline after another.
02. Jack Torrance, The Shining
All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy.
01. Noah Cross, Chinatown
“You may think you know what you’re dealing with, Mr. Gittes. But believe me … you don’t.” It isn’t only the astonishing twist at the heart of Noah Cross’s family tree that puts him at the top of this list. It isn’t just the unstoppable reach of his malignant power. (“He owns the police!”) Either alone would make him a sure shot, but John Huston’s lip-smacking glee embodying the granddaddy of all Los Angeles-bred corruption seals the deal. Seeing him triumph is like rooting for cancer.