This season's Master of Horror series opens with three episodes where the kids suffer for their parents' mistakes, whether in judgment or fate.
No kid should ever have to live being afraid.
-- Kevin (Sean Patrick Flanery), "The Damn Thing"
It's hard to be a kid in horror. Really. Not only do you have to deal with the usual blood and gunk left behind by assorted monsters, but more often than not, one of those monsters is going to be your dad, or someone who thinks he's your dad. Ritually set up as the point of audience identification -- vulnerable, fearful, wanting so desperately to trust in the adults around you -- kids in horror tend also to serve as examples. This is what happens when you turn the wrong corner, believe the wrong man, or live in the wrong household.
Just so, this season's Master of Horror series opens with three episodes where the kids suffer for their parents' mistakes, whether in judgment or fate. In the season opener, Tobe Hooper's "The Damn Thing" (premiered 27 October, based on an Ambrose Bierce short story), the son (Ryan Drescher) suffers mightily, then, no matter his efforts otherwise, he passes that pile of pain on to his own son, a cute tyke named Mikey (Alex Ferris). The original son watches in abject horror as his father (Brent Stait) kills his mother (Georgia Craig) with a shotgun (she gurgles on the floor, blood oozing everywhere), then -- after running through the dark night to escape ("Come on, son, come on out, you bastard!") -- hides in the grass while dad is ripped to shreds by a black-oily monster, apparently the "damn thing" dad has been avoiding.
Cut to 24 years later: little Kevin is now played by Sean Patrick Flanery, who's prone to cryptic voiceovers: "I never knew what it was that got to him," he says, "but it killed him. Wasn't much left of me either that night." Kevin is sheriff of Cloverdale, the same small Texas town where all the mayhem occurred, which means he's got baggage. He's also got all kinds of surveillance equipment set up in his home, so much that his wife Dina (Marisa Coughlan) has moved to a trailer rather than live with it, and she's taken little Mikey with her. Dad's looking dangerous, too tense and too irrational to count on, and so she figures she'll wait it out: maybe he'll turn sane again.
The episode includes all manner of stunning Texasness, the sort of gorgeous, saturated, frightening color that Hooper has made famous. "Everybody I ever met," observes Kevin, "has a wound one way or the other. Thing is, you gotta sew it up good and tight. Otherwise it'll just keep opening and one day, you'll bleed to death." And the dark, pulsing red will seep into the dried out brown dirt, splatter on to the camera lens, and generally mark the collapse of borders, as once-active bodies become part of the ravaged landscape.
The "thing" -- oily, gluggy, connected somehow to land-disturbing drilling in Texas -- is a silly concept and poorly rendered, but in the end, it's irrelevant. The film features a couple of spectacular deaths (one fellow slams himself to death with a clawhammer, a girl is literally ripped in half), but the primary spectacle is the bad dad, his heinousness underscored by shots of the son's wide-eyed, sad surprise: the scariest pater in Cloverdale is local confessor Father Tulli (Ted Raimi), who tells gaping Kevin, "Don't be afraid. God loves you... Don't you fucking ignore me!"
"The Damn Thing" is disappointingly literal and unconvincing, gesturing toward horrors that never quite surface. "It's all chaos down there," observes Kevin of the realm from which the oily entity issues. More immediate and familiar, the horrors of "Family" (directed by John Landis) and "The V Word" (Earnest Dickerson) are also embodied by dads. In Landis' vision, suburban fixture Harold (George Wendt) seems a round, innocuous-seeming neighbor, but in his basement, he maintains a workshop where he manufactures the perfect family, by bleaching and wiring together of the skeletal remains of his murder victims.
The film mostly takes his perspective, as he sees his destruction-creations respond to his queries and, in the case of his wife Jane (Kerry Sanomirsky), manifest jealousy at his interest in the new neighbor, Celia (Meredith Monroe). Blond and slender, an "investigative journalist by trade, she mostly stays home while her husband David (Matt Kesslar), a doctor, works at the local emergency room. They've moved to this middle-American everytown from Burbank, where, their bland conversation hints, terrible things happened.
The rub in "Family," recalling Joseph Ruben's The Stepfather (1987), is that Harold's concept of the ideal family is all about compliance and perfect surface. Harold labors rather gleefully in his basement -- blasting gospel records as he removes skin, blood, and organs, smiling when "grandma" promises to be a better mother to him than that "lousy whore that gave birth to you ever was" -- and keeps a photo of Dick Cheney, his model for effective fathering. When he tires of Jane's carping, Harold sets his sights on Celia, whom he imagines speaking to him the way he imagines his dead family speaking to him: rather than talking about the neighborhood, she's saying, "David has a really small penis. I bet yours is big!"
When his "daughter" Sarah (Hailey Guiel) sees her parents argue and worries that Harold wants to "replace" her, he insists that all he means to do is give her a new sister. The following day, he heads to the local high school where he scopes out potential additions, teenagers who look, to him, as if they need to be rescued (as one appears to address him, "No one will miss me. I hate my life. I'd be better off with you. Come take me. I won't put up much of a fight"). Perhaps most creepily, Harold's faith in his "calling" is figured as pseudo-religious, inspired by his gospel records and sure that he will be saving the girl he follows home in his car, the most mundane and dreadful child predator of our collective, TV-fueled imagination.
Kids in "The V Word" also appear to be in need of saving, which of course leaves them vulnerable to predation. Kerry (Arjay Smith) and Justin (Branden Nadon) spend their time playing "Doom" and imagining life without their deleterious family members. Justin is especially miserable that his father -- now living elsewhere with his secretary -- is so abusive. "You can't pick blood," the boys believe, "But you can always pick your friends." Just so, Kerry encourages Justin to ignore his bad dad: "Don't let your old man make you bitch up."
To prove himself, apparently, Justin gets Kerry to go along with him to see a dead body, specifically, a boy their age currently embalmed at the funeral home where Justin's cousin works. Though Kerry initially resists ("That would be some creepy shit," he notes), they finally head on over in the dead of night, both hoping to find themselves, apart from their families (while Justin's is plainly broken, he says that Kerry's is equally dysfunctional, looking like "rejects from Good Times"). And here they find, appropriately, their next parental figure, the bloody-mouthed vampire Mr. Chaney (Michael Ironside).
The funeral home turns almost instantly scary, its dark hallways suddenly filled with organ music (apparently issuing from the cousin's bloody iPod) and punctuated by stairways designed to ensure leg-breaking falls. Efforts to seek help are useless: when Justin calls 911, the male operator rejects his pleas as a prank ("Halloween was last month, you little shit") and his dad tells him to call back in the morning. Without help from adults (their well-meaning moms leave messages on the answering machine, wondering how they're doing), the boys are on their own, which means they'll be fathering themselves (Mr. Chaney being an absolutely bad dad, understanding his relationship with his victim/progeny Kerry as one of possession: "He's mine").
The dilemma they face is not unusual for movie vampires, but they embody it in a particular way. The black Kerry's family never appears on screen, while the white Justin, abandoned by his father, does appreciate, to some extent, the fact that his mother Carolyn (Lynda Boyd) finally comes home -- too late! -- with his little sister Lisa (Jodelle Ferland), who gives him the finger across the dinner table. That mom arrives bearing garlic pizza is a joke, but also marks her role here as boundary: she represents her son's former existence, among the "living," while his father is the emblem of life-sucking fear and self-destruction.
Dickerson's film is the creepiest of the first three in this season of Masters of Horror. Grappling with the ways that race images and racism still set the terms for familial expectations, it offers, in Kerry and Justin, very different responses to the bad dad problem. They reach very different decisions about their own futures within this system of abandonment and fearfulness, decisions framed by having to "live being afraid."