In celebration of Father’s Day I thought it best to take a look at the horror film that canonized the day best. “Father’s Day” is one of five short stories included in in the film Creepshow (1982). From the minds of George A. Romero and Stephen King, Creepshow pays homage to the EC horror comics of the 1950s while working out the 1980s challenges to patriarchy. Due to the primacy of the father and obviously the name of the story I will focus on “Father’s Day” and then critique the film’s treatment of the leading representations of patriarchy.
“Father’s Day” introduces us to the Grantham family, an old money family likely to cover their walls in oil paintings of springer spaniels with dead ducks in their mouths. The family sits around the fireplace on father’s day sharing passive aggressive, wine induced quips about one another. Silvia calls Cass and her husband “hogs” and Richard cattily indulges in the family secret. He tells Cass’ husband Hank how years ago on father’s day Bedelia Grantham became the new “patriarch of our clan” after she bashed her father’s head in with a marble ashtray. In their world, the assault seemed justified because her father Nathan Grantham just wouldn’t die. His longevity complicated things when there was old money to be inherited.
Nathan Grantham was the incarnation of an entitled, cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge. His daughter Bedelia is surrounded by hired help, yet she bore the burden of being Nathan’s caretaker. In this Freudian relationship, Nathan has Bedelia’s boyfriend murdered in a “hunting accident” and assumes the position as the only man in her life. The relationship is further exacerbated as her degenerate father acts like an infant and demands a father’s day cake screaming “Where’s my cake…it’s father’s day you promised me a cake…I’m your father, you’re supposed to be taking care of me”. Justifiably Bedelia snaps and bludgeons her father to death.
Out of some sense of remorse or obligation, Bedelia visits Nathan’s grave every father’s day. Some might argue that this father’s day Bedelia awakens the spirit of her father when the bottle of Jim Beam dumps on his grave. I argue that it was two-fold as Bedelia usurped Nathan’s status as patriarch and adds insult to injury with her declaration that Nathan “screwed it all up, you screwed up my mother, you screwed me up”. Not only does she replace him, she overtly degrades his status as the head of the household and provider. The transgression must immediately be remedied to restore natural order.
Nathan restores order by returning from the dead and killing his replacement, Bedelia. Next he must remove any other threats to his status, namely the granddaughter Sylvia, and then his great-granddaughter’s husband, Hank. Not only were these people leeches off his fortune, the masculine Sylvia and the grandson-in-law Hank challenged his patriarchal throne. Cass and Richard are left to live as they are non-threatening to white male privilege. Cass follows the prescription of her gender and Richard is so effeminate that Nathan dismisses them as no danger. Finally order is restored and Nathan has everything he wants; he can have his Father’s Day cake and he can eat it too. They always said, father knows best!
As a sum of its parts, much of Creepshow highlights patriarchy and its challenges. Just when you think there is something subversive, it is reigned back in by the all too often conservative nature of horror.[i] I would like to take a moment to better understand the role of patriarchy as represented by the leading males in the short stories. In each story there is a male stereotype: the father, farmer, rich man, academic and capitalist business man. The stories are different, the outcomes are the same: affluent white males rule. At times there are disturbances, but they are remedied and normality restored. This fits the horror formulas proposed by such horror scholars as Noel Carroll, Robin Wood, and Stephen King. They agree that there is normality, a monster of some sort disrupts it, the monster is defeated, and normality restored. With this in mind, Creepshow highlights patriarchal rule as normality.
In “Father’s Day” Bedelia momentarily challenges the role of her father. Similarly, Nathan is infantilized as he is seen whining for his father’s day cake like a child having a tantrum in Wal-Mart. Bedelia is dismissed as “a little unstable” when I suggest that her greater transgression is that she was de-stabilizing to her father. Nathan has so much white male privilege that he is able to defy death to restore order. In “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”, the lead role (played by King) brings disaster upon himself and the world when he doesn’t heed the advice of his father. Yet again the white male defies death and returns to restore order. His father usurps natural law by appearing in the mirror to offer his fatherly advice and to save the world. Again, father knows best. The outcome is the same, when you don’t listen to your father; you unleash doom upon the world.
“Father’s Day”, “Something to Tide You Over” and “The Crate” offer women as challenges to patriarchal order. We’ve discussed “Father’s Day” at length but the other two are different. They both show the disruptive nature of women but they also paint women as negative stereotypes. (Namely as whores and shrews) In “Something to Tide You Over” Richard Vickers is used to getting his way and when he can’t he buys a solution. So when his wife cheated on him she needed dealing with. He decides to bury her, not in court but literally in the shore of his private beach. When she dies and returns from her watery tomb, his wife Becky is split shotted with a lionfish in a nearby tank. The flora hanging from her and her dead lover resembles the poisonous fish as a reminder of their venomous remnants in Richard’s life. While the corpses get the best of Richard, it’s seemingly because of the putrid actions of one slutty woman.
Mild mannered professor Henry Northrup does not suffer the same fate as Richard Vickers. The only way Northrup is able to tame his shrew is by feeding her to an ancient dwarf Yeti. Henry’s wife defies boundaries. She tells people to call her by the masculine name Billy rather than Wilma. She routinely belittles her husband, offends those around her, and shows no maternal nature other than her constant need to mother her husband. For lack of a better term, Wilma is portrayed as an annoying, castrating, bitch. She serves as the monster destabilizing normality. Upon feeding her to the monster in the crate, Henry appropriately dealt with her and restores order.
The film is bookended by the interactions between a boy and his father. The prologue and epilogue are centered around Billy (played by Stephen King’s son) and his father Stan. There is no disputing the role of patriarchy in this dynamic as Stan says “remember who puts the friggin bread on this table” and “That’s why God made FATHERS babe”. Here order is disturbed by the son who disobeys by reading the horror comics which his father deems as crap. Billy is initially dealt with through reprimand and a slap across the face. Unbeknownst to the father, this doesn’t stop the problem it simply makes it worse. Later we come to find out that the son makes his father pay by using a voodoo doll to inflict pain. On the surface it appears that the son wins. However, upon further investigation we find there are two greater problems. 1) the horror comic was truly a bad influence. Again, for Billy the comic was an escape from his overbearing father but in reality it brought demons and voodoo into his life. 2) all Billy does is replicate and replace patriarchy with a darker, more violent version. This leaves no hope other than the idea that privileged white males are replaced with younger, more vicious white males who will claim their place on the throne.
Needless to say, Creepshow is a great film for Father’s Day. Since the day is a celebration of the father and male parenting then it is fitting that this film celebrates male rule. I guess we can give them this one since the celebration of father’s day only came in response to the more successfully received Mother’s Day. Despite its overt reduction of women and lackluster critique of male authority, Creepshow is a great film to be enjoyed by all.
[i] Stephen King is quoted saying “horror is as conservative as a Republican in a three-piece suit” In Danse Macabre.