Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

Ostensibly a sequel to the 1942 horror classic, Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People (1944) is in reality a completely different kind of tale. It's not really a horror movie and not really a sequel to the original film, even though it brings back most of the characters from the earlier outing and carries over some of their concerns. RKO producer Val Lewton, along with directors Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise, engage in cinematic sorcery to weave this sad, sweet story out of the leftover bits of a psychosexual nightmare, but there are still some moments of terror to be found, especially in the sinister performance of Elizabeth Russell as a daughter scorned to the brink of madness.

Ann Carter plays our young protagonist, Amy Reed, whose loneliness and dreamy ways frustrate her father, Oliver (Kent Smith), largely because of his obsession with normalcy after the tragic death of his strange first wife, Irena (Simone Simon). Amy's mother, Alice (Jane Randolph), also worries about Irena's legacy, which she thinks of as a curse visited on Amy, but both parents are counseled by Amy's teacher (Eve March) to have more patience with their only child. Longing for friends, Amy visits an eccentric old lady, Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), but she also begins to see the kindly ghost of Irena, who comforts her when she feels most rejected and alone. When Amy follows Irena into a winter storm, she encounters real peril, especially when her arrival at Mrs. Farren's house leads to tragedy.

RKO wanted a sequel to Cat People to cash in on the low-budget horror's success, but as always Val Lewton had something different in mind. Instead of another story of sexual repression and bestial transformation, The Curse of the Cat People offers a ghostly fairy tale that delves into the psychology of children and their imaginary friends. Amy is a sad Alice wandering through a dismal Wonderland, where adults make little sense with their contradictory commands to believe and not believe what they tell her. Rejected by other children and keenly aware of her failure to be the child her father expects, Amy feels drawn toward Irena, who becomes a friendly playmate and confidante. We never know for sure if Irena is real or imaginary; she tells Amy things that suggest knowledge that Amy couldn't possibly have, but the ambiguity is typical of Lewton's best films.

Whether she's a cat woman, an imaginary friend, or a sympathetic ghost, Irena is never the source of terror in this story. The most frightening characters are Mrs. Farren and her daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell), who make for a Gothic duo of feminine domestic dysfunction. Mrs. Farren likes Amy, but she's clearly mad, fashioned in the Miss Havisham mold in her creepy Victorian home. Russell, who had appeared briefly as a fellow Serbian cat woman in Cat People, here has a larger and more tragic role as the daughter whom Mrs. Farren rejects as an impostor, claiming that her real daughter died years ago. Jealous of Amy and driven to the edge of insanity by her isolation and suffering, Barbara swears she will murder the little girl for usurping Mrs. Farren's affection. Ironically, Barbara serves mostly as a foil for Amy, showing the consequences of parental rejection and neglect. Unless Oliver and Alice change their ways, Amy might become as damaged as Barbara, even if Barbara doesn't kill her. The ending underlines the ways in which Irena, Amy, and Barbara are all connected, and if it doesn't put a lump in your throat you haven't been paying attention.

Oddly enough, The Curse of the Cat People is also a Christmas movie, and it hints at Lewton's deeply literate sense of story with its references to Irving's Sleepy Hollow and the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson. For more of Lewton's eerie best, see I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), and Bedlam (1946). Ann Carter's other work as a child actor includes The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) and Song of Love (1947), but she made her final film appearance at the tender age of 16. Look for the bewitching Simone Simon in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and La Ronde (1950), and see Kent Smith in The Spiral Staircase (1945) and The Damned Don't Cry (1950). If you want more classic horror with Elizabeth Russell, try The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Weird Woman (1944); she also has an uncredited role as a ghost in The Uninvited (1944).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Classic Movie Haunted Houses for Halloween

Last week we spent a few days in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where, at the insistence of my teenage daughter, we visited a commercial haunted house. It's called Mysterious Mansion, but there's nothing very mysterious about it. Visitors pay $16 a pop for 15 minutes of being jumped at and chased around by people in weird makeup and masks. There was the obligatory scary clown, some girls covered in fake blood, and a guy in a Grim Reaper outfit wearing jeans under his robes. My daughter had a good time, but for the adults the most entertaining part was watching a teen girl in the group ahead of us totally lose it and bail a third of the way through the house. The rest was just darkness, narrow spaces, and some irritating strobe lights. The underwhelming experience left me thinking about my favorite haunted houses in classic movies and why they're so much better than these attractions that pop up all over the place come Halloween.

For me, a good haunted house movie has several elements. One is atmosphere that I'm given time to appreciate. Another is a compelling narrative that explains the supernatural phenomena and creates a reason to care about the characters (including, ideally, the dead ones). I like weird effects more than gore; in fact, I'm not much on seeing anyone's intestines or brains, which is why I don't watch slasher films. I want my haunted house to have ghosts, not psychopaths (but I'll forgive the occasional psychopathic ghost). With those criteria, it's probably no surprise that my top shelf haunted house movie is...


Robert Wise's neurotically eerie horror classic wins hands down in the Haunted House Hall of Fame. It has everything, including deliriously Gothic atmosphere and a heroine who is going completely off the rails. Who can forget that moving door, an effect so simple and yet so unbelievable when you see it? I think everyone who runs a haunted house ought to be made to watch The Haunting a dozen times first (and don't let them anywhere near the dopey 1999 remake).


The slow burn of this ghost story might bore some viewers, but for me it's one of the best of the genre, combining elements of classic mystery with its spectral terrors. Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, and Gail Russell star as three people whose fates become entwined with that of a house inhabited by the spirits of the dead.  The Criterion Collection release of this film makes a grand Halloween treat for your plastic pumpkin.


OK, so this William Castle classic is not a very serious haunted house movie, but it's just so much fun, and it does offer a couple of great jump scares. That blind housekeeper gets me every time! Besides, Vincent Price and William Castle have to be on this list somewhere. It's just not Halloween without them. This is the go-to pick for a Halloween party where you want to laugh and shriek in equal measure.


Speaking of Vincent Price, I love the haunted house atmosphere and his Gothic villain in this supernatural tale, even if the adaptation of Anya Seton's novel has some structural issues. Gene Tierney plays Price's new bride, who only slowly comes to understand the ghostly terrors of her husband's home. This is a good one for Jane Eyre fans in particular; it was part of a wave of creepy Gothic romances that followed the 1940 success of Rebecca.

So, if you're looking for haunted houses this Halloween, I suggest you start with one of these instead of standing in line to hand over your cash for fifteen minutes with scary clowns. These are the movies whose worlds I wish a haunted house would take me through, where ghostly music plays and the things you don't see are a lot more terrifying than the things you do.

Looking for related classic horror posts? Try "The Gothic Influences of Disney's Haunted Mansion" and "The Housekeeper in the Gothic Film Tradition."

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Drug Store Delilah: Audrey Totter in TENSION (1949)

Audrey Totter is one of many actresses we naturally associate with noir; her best remembered films include noir classics like Lady in the Lake (1947) and The Set-Up (1949), and she also appears in a supporting role in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Less well known than these other pictures is director John Berry’s 1949 MGM film, Tension, in which Totter stars as one of film noir’s nastiest femmes fatales, an adulterous wife who drives her milquetoast husband to change his identity and contemplate murder. While noir devotees may disagree about the overall merits of the picture, Tension undoubtedly provides Totter with a fabulously unrestrained example of the bad girl type, and her Claire Quimby merits a place in the film noir hall of dangerous dames right alongside Phyllis Dietrichson, Kathie Moffat, and Elsa Bannister.

Totter’s character, Claire, is the wife of Warren Quimby, a mild-mannered pharmacist played by Richard Basehart. While Warren works the late shift at an all-night drug store, Claire carries on an affair with a hairy lug named Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough) because he has money and a more macho personality, and eventually she leaves Warren altogether. Humiliated by a confrontation with his wife’s lover, Warren plots an elaborate scheme to murder Barney, but his plans falter when he meets Mary (Cyd Charisse) and begins to fall in love with her, just as he finally realizes that his wife is no good.

From her very first appearance Totter oozes malice and selfishness; her viper’s eyes brim with disdain for her husband and the life he provides for them. Even the way she eats a sandwich reveals her crass, wasteful nature; she only takes a few bites of it before moving on to pie. For reasons we never quite grasp, Warren lives only to serve her, but she gives him the cold shoulder and sends him scurrying back to his customers. Freddie, the soda fountain jerk, recognizes her ability to wreck men’s lives without a second thought and begs her not to flirt with him. “Don’t stink me up,” he implores. Claire finds his fear of her amusing. “OK, Junior,” she says, even as she makes him lie to Warren when she leaves with another man.

Like many of noir’s bad women, Claire cares most about material possessions and status. “What’s better than money?” she asks early on, and she isn’t being sarcastic. Her eyes linger lustfully on a fur coat in a magazine, but she does nothing to help earn the money she wants to spend. She expects men to give her everything that she desires, and it’s clear that her husband isn’t measuring up. When Warren protests her appropriation of an expensive bottle of perfume from the pharmacy’s stock, she retorts, “A big guy would spend this much on me in one evening,” and then she proceeds to more or less take a bath in the stuff, daring her unhappy spouse to stop her. Claire dominates her husband with a baleful glare, constantly belittling and abusing him, even as she puts on her best, most feminine airs for Barney and, later, the homicide detective Collier Bonnabel.

In another key scene, Totter embodies the femme fatale’s rejection of bourgeois feminine ideals of domesticity and motherhood. Warren has secretly saved his money to buy the couple a real home in the suburbs, which he naively assumes is the kind of life Claire wants. When they arrive at the house, however, Claire refuses even to get out of the car. Once again giving Warren a poisonous stare, Claire drowns out his remonstrances and pleas by leaning on the car horn. She wants no part of middle-class monotony, and very shortly afterward she decamps with her lover, whose beachfront property offers something more like the constant party Claire imagines as the good life.

Audrey Totter’s performance really sells the depth and intensity of Claire’s rotten heart. She never lets us think that Claire has any real class; she’s a two-bit tramp through and through, ready to jump from one convenient lover to the next in order to look out for her own immediate interests. Like the painted doll she carries around with her, Claire is pretty but vulgar, and we’re not surprised late in the picture to learn that she has a long criminal record lurking in her past. Totter plays Claire without any redeeming qualities; she’s a lethal combination of vanity, greed, and deception. AndrĂ© Previn’s score also provides Claire with a slinky theme that highlights her lack of subtlety; whenever she enters a room the music reminds us that she’s all kinds of trouble, especially for Warren. Unlike many of noir’s other deadly dames, Claire never comes across as a strong character; instead, she is grasping and vicious because she is weak. A human parasite, she needs men to earn money for her, protect her, and lie for her, but even as she feeds off of them she poisons them with her own venomous nature.

Totter’s drug store Delilah makes Tension essential viewing for those interested in the femme fatale archetype, and the character provides a pointed contrast to Totter’s turn as the anguished, sympathetic wife in The Set-Up. Totter also offers a different take on the bad blonde in The Unsuspected (1947), in which she plays Claude Rains’ duplicitous, gold-digging niece. Although Audrey Totter never became a huge star, and her film career stalled in the 1950s, she made an indelible mark on film noir with her performances. When it came to being a bad girl, she was truly one of the best.

This essay originally appeared in The Dark Pages, a newsletter devoted to film noir. Follow the link to subscribe.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: OBSESSION (1949)

Released in the United States as The Hidden Room, Edward Dmytryk's Obsession (1949) is an unusual little gem of a thriller, a strangely polite and very English story of murder, jealousy, and revenge. It makes the most of its cast and its setting to craft a thoughtful tale of suspense that never becomes showy or overdone, with especially effective use of Robert Newton and post-war London. In fact, Obsession would probably have enjoyed enduring fame had it featured bigger stars or a different director, but don't let its obscurity dissuade you from spending some time with this unique film.

Robert Newton leads as psychiatrist Clive Riordan, who gets fed up with his wife's affairs and decides to murder the next man she takes on as a lover. Unfortunately for American Bill Kronin (Phil Brown), he happens to be the next man, and Clive soon has him imprisoned in a hidden room beneath a bomb damaged area of London. Clive's wife, Storm (Sally Gray), suspects that Clive has murdered Bill but can't prove anything to the police, while Clive keeps Bill alive as long as there's a chance that Scotland Yard might deduce his role in making Bill disappear. Bill, meanwhile, suffers loneliness and anxiety in his secret prison, even as he hopes that Clive's murderous plans will ultimately fall through.

The consequences and cultural shifts that followed World War II shape the subtext of the film and make it much more sophisticated than a simple murder plot. Like The Third Man (1949), Obsession takes advantage of the ruined landscapes of post-war Europe; Clive's plot hinges on the availability of abandoned and damaged buildings in which to hide his prisoner. The film also captures a strong feeling of English resentment toward American usurpation as a result of the war; not only is Bill poaching Clive's wife, but there are American sailors lolling in the streets, and at Clive's club the conversation inevitably turns to the strange colonials and their omnipotent dollars. Bill, the interloping young American, embodies all that Clive and his peers abhor about the new order of the world, but the American influence proves inescapable, even to the indubitably English Clive.

It's easy to imagine more illustrious stars in the roles, but each actor in the film delivers a compelling performance. Newton, a character actor best remembered as Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1950), here plays a role that would have perfectly suited Claude Rains, but Newton does such a good job that Rains' absence cannot be lamented. Newton keeps Clive in a low register throughout, so that he always seems like a perfectly reasonable human being who just happens to be dead set on murdering his wife's lover. His lethal plans aren't personal as far as Bill is concerned; in fact, he's unfailingly polite to his intended victim, even when Bill cracks under stress. With his slight build, all-American persona, and casual amiability, Phil Brown might be a stand-in for Henry Fonda as Bill, whose inherent decency becomes more apparent after he pays for his caddish dalliance with another man's wife, especially when he rescues Clive's persistent little dog, Monty, from becoming a test subject for Clive's acid bath. The beautiful but unfaithful Storm might have been played by any of the classic Hitchcock blondes, but Sally Gray has the perfect jaw and disdainful gaze to convey Storm's essential nature. Naunton Wayne arrives late in the picture as the Scotland Yard superintendent, Finsbury, but he adds another aspect of the English character to the proceedings as he corners Clive through a series of seemingly harmless exchanges. One can imagine Cecil Kellaway in the part, but Wayne is precisely right for it himself, and to English audiences he would have been quite recognizable from his appearances as the comical Caldicott in previous films.

Edward Dmytryk's directorial career suffered after he was caught up in the anti-Communist hearings of the late 1940s, but for more of his work see Murder, My Sweet (1944), Crossfire (1947), and The Caine Mutiny (1954). In addition to his appearances as Long John Silver in two films and a television series, Robert Newton can be found in This Happy Breed (1944), Oliver Twist (1948), and The Desert Rats (1953). Naunton Wayne turns up as Caldicott in both The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Night Train to Munich (1940), while Sally Gray appears in Green for Danger (1947). You might not recognize Bill Kronin as a young man, but you've certainly seen him; he had in small parts in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Superman (1978) but gained a measure of movie immortality as Luke's Uncle Owen in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).

Monday, September 19, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: LIBELED LADY (1936)

Hollywood has always loved newspaper stories, especially when there's scandal and salacious tabloid gossip involved, and Libeled Lady (1936) delivers all that and more. Directed by Jack Conway, Libeled Lady is a screwball comedy times two, with four big stars in its leading roles, although William Powell and Myrna Loy steal the picture from Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow with their perfect comic dialogue and irresistible romantic chemistry.

Tracy opens the film as newspaper man Warren Haggerty, who has landed his publication in a huge libel suit thanks to a scandalous report about wealthy socialite Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). Haggerty hires smooth operator Bill Chandler (William Powell) to set Connie up in a compromising situation that will derail her lawsuit. As part of the plot, Haggerty even convinces his own impatient girlfriend, Gladys (Jean Harlow), to marry Bill and then pretend outrage when Bill is caught with the unsuspecting Connie. Bill, however, throws a wrench in the plan when he actually falls for Connie, while Gladys begins to behave as if she really were Bill's jealous wife.

For classic film fans, the quadruple leads are the real draw, with Tracy and Harlow playing a rougher, more robustly hilarious pair and Powell and Loy doing their distinctively witty take on romantic comedy. The action moves along at a brisk pace. Tracy and Harlow are both very entertaining, especially when they argue, but the fireworks really go off when Powell and Loy get together. There's just something about them that the camera - and the audience - can't resist. Powell also exercises his talent for physical comedy in an especially funny scene in which Bill tries to fish his way into the good graces of Connie and her father (Walter Connolly). Much of the story is strikingly modern in the sense that it plays some rather shocking ideas for laughs; films of the 1930s often reveal a very casual attitude toward divorce, but here we also get a sham marriage and the threat of bigamy, and neither of them seems like a very big deal.

Jean Harlow gets top billing for this picture, and it's worth noting that the Harlow films - though sadly few in number - do offer some really interesting ensembles of iconic stars. Libeled Lady sets her up with two different leading men - Tracy and Powell - and gives her Loy as a female foil. In the same year, Loy also acts as a counter to Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary (1936), which presents Clark Gable and James Stewart as Harlow's two romantic opportunities. Dinner at Eight (1933), a true ensemble picture, pairs Harlow with Wallace Beery, while Bombshell (1933) sets her between Lee Tracy and Franchot Tone. Her pictures always seem to feature casts that revel in contrast, whether between Harlow and her fellow actresses or between the different men who vie for her affections. Like most of the studios of that time, MGM played mix and match with its stable of performers, but the Harlow movies almost always seem like particularly good efforts at getting the right group into the right roles.

Libeled Lady earned a Best Picture nomination at the 1937 Academy Awards, although a different Powell and Loy picture, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), took home the prize. The elegant duo gained their greatest fame playing Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934) and its numerous sequels, although Powell is also justly celebrated for his performance in My Man Godfrey (1936). For more of two time Oscar winner Spencer Tracy's work in the 1930s, see Fury (1936), San Francisco (1936), and Captains Courageous (1937). Tracy and Harlow also appeared together in another 1936 picture, Riffraff, but Libeled Lady is the happier story of the two. Jean Harlow's career ended tragically in 1937, when the actress died of kidney failure at just 26 years old. See more of her with frequent costar Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932), China Seas (1935) and her last film, Saratoga (1937).

Monday, August 15, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: BRINGING UP BABY (1938)

Howard Hawks' quintessential screwball comedy fell flat at the box office when it first appeared in 1938, but today Bringing Up Baby is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the genre, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in fine form as the unlikely couple thrown together by leopards, dinosaurs, and the relentless persistence of Hepburn's wacky heroine. The non-stop hilarity runs by so fast that it might take three or four viewings to catch all of the gags, but this is a picture that gets funnier every time you watch it. Outstanding supporting performances from Charlie Ruggles, May Robson, Barry Fitzgerald, and Walter Catlett add to the feast of furiously funny scenes, but the animal actors, including the titular Baby and Asta as George the dog, will have even the youngest viewers in stitches.

Grant stars as David Huxley, a scientist whose dry bones life and engagement to the very professional Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) are upended when he meets flighty socialite Susan Vance (Hepburn). Both David and Susan hope to receive a million dollar gift from Susan's aunt, Elizabeth (May Robson), but Susan's interference keeps getting David into trouble. Susan loses a pet leopard meant for her aunt, David loses the last bone needed to finish his dinosaur, and everyone ends up in jail thanks to a series of misadventures and misunderstandings.

Bringing Up Baby offers enough cartoon physical comedy and sight gags to make it entertaining even to modern kids, with Grant and Hepburn romping about the Connecticut countryside and literally falling all over themselves. Grant, a vaudeville veteran, is in his natural element, with a talent for pratfalls and double takes reminiscent of the silent stars. His big round glasses, which evoke Harold Lloyd, further the comparison, especially when we see him carried off on the sideboard of a running car and stepping on the back of Hepburn's gown. As lovely and impossibly slim as she was at that age, Hepburn also dives right into the absurd antics; her "born on the side of a hill" bit is perfectly girlish, a moment of pure silly fun. More robust laughs erupt when the supporting players, especially Charlie Ruggles and Barry Fitzgerald, get their chance to react to the presence of Baby, the leopard on the loose, while George the dog, played by A-list canine star Asta, wreaks plenty of havoc, as well.

Beyond the obvious high jinks, however, the film offers a more sophisticated kind of comedy that springs from verbal sparring and the rapid delivery of naughty Freudian gags. David, after all, is a man who has lost his bone, and only a wild thing like Susan can help him get it back. Susan even goes to the extent of renaming David "Mr. Bone," which underlines the point rather forcibly. He's certainly sexually confused by all the chaos that Susan creates. Sabotaged by her desire to keep him around, David ends up in a feathery negligee, at which point he exclaims that he "just went gay all of a sudden!" Later, when Susan complains about losing her heel, Walter Catlett deadpans, "Don't worry about him." The characters deliver these zingers so rapidly that the Breen Office must have missed what they were saying, but at times it's a wonder that this film got past the censors at all. In a picture where Charlie Ruggles and May Robson exchange leopard mating calls by way of flirtation, almost anything can - and does - happen. This is a movie that proves its point about the love impulse revealing itself in terms of conflict, and not just in men.

Be sure to note Walter Bond looming over the other characters in a bit part as a motorcycle cop. For more of Hepburn and Grant, see Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Howard Hawks also directs Grant in His Girl Friday (1940), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Monkey Business (1952). If you love scene-stealing dogs, catch Asta in The Thin Man (1934) and its sequels and The Awful Truth (1937), which also stars Cary Grant.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Failure of Fathers in STRANGER THINGS

Warning: This essay contains spoilers! Read at your own risk.

The Duffer Brothers' 2016 Netflix series, Stranger Things, takes its cues from a bevy of 80s movies, most notably the films of Steven Spielberg and screen adaptations of the works of Stephen King. The mix also includes iconic pictures from the horror, science fiction, and teen genres like Alien (1979), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the films of John Hughes. The television series reflects the culture of the 1980s as seen through the lenses of these pictures, creating a strong sense of nostalgia for Gen Xers in particular, who were the same age as the show's characters during the era depicted in the series. As a kind of period piece, Stranger Things offers us a chance to look back at the 1980s and consider its essential themes, from Cold War paranoia to the initial rise of geek culture as embodied by Dungeons & Dragons. One of the most telling themes incorporated into the series is the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family and the normalization of divorce, especially as those issues relate to absent or failed father figures in the lives of the children and teens. In fact, while Stranger Things depicts a number of father characters, almost none of its fathers manage to live up to the obligations of paternity, and substitute father figures must stand in to provide guidance and protection to the four young boys who function as the show's core characters.

The series focuses on a group of 12 year old friends who stumble into a bizarre government conspiracy after one of them disappears. Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) vanishes from the small town of Hawkins, but his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), soon suspects that her son is both alive and held captive in some mysterious place, where he communicates with her by flashing electric lights. While the friends conduct their own search for Will, Joyce enlists the help of police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who becomes convinced that a government lab near the town is connected to Will's disappearance. The boys unexpectedly find Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a girl whose strange abilities and sudden appearance link her to both Will and the secretive lab. Meanwhile, the teen siblings of two of the boys discover more clues to the mystery and realize that a bloodthirsty monster is also involved.

The four boys at the center of the story are Will Byers, Mike Wheeler, Dustin Henderson, and Lucas Sinclair. Only two of the four are shown to have fathers at all: Will has an absent, divorced father named Lonnie, while Mike has an older, sedentary father who spends a lot of his time sleeping in a Lazy Boy chair. We never see the fathers of Dustin and Lucas at all, although we can infer from the series that Lucas has a father who is a veteran of the war in Vietnam. Neither Lonnie nor Ted Wheeler can be called a good father in any meaningful sense, although Ted's failures are more sins of omission than anything else. Lonnie takes no interest in Will or older son Jonathan, and his ex-wife, Joyce, asserts that Lonnie used to deride Will as a "fag" before the parents broke up. When Lonnie does return after Will's disappearance, he turns out to be interested only in suing the quarry where Will's body was supposedly found; he doesn't actually care about his missing/dead son. Ted, who is still married to Mike's mother, Karen, and clearly has a good job, seems like a better father on the surface, but he has no emotional connection to his three children and doesn't seem to understand them at all. While Karen doggedly tries to earn the trust of both Mike and older sister Nancy while constantly caring for toddler Holly, Ted merely works and sleeps. He doesn't know how to talk to his children, doesn't seem to interact with them, and is shown in the last episode to be the only person sleeping in a hospital waiting room full of otherwise worried characters. If Lonnie is the stereotypical deadbeat dad of the 80s, then Ted is the stereotypical dad of the 50s and 60s, who leaves all the domestic and emotional work of parenting to his wife. Neither is the kind of father a child wants or needs, especially a boy on the cusp of adolescence.

Dr. Brenner with Eleven

Even worse than Lonnie and Ted is the manipulative Dr. Brenner, who adopts a paternal facade in his relationship with Eleven. Dr. Brenner is not the girl's real father, and no hint of a biological father's identity is provided, but he trains Eleven to call him "Papa" and to think of him as a parental figure. Lonnie and Ted are neglectful, emotionally distant fathers, but Brenner is actively evil and abusive. He encourages Eleven to rely on him, to obey him, and even to fear him, but he repeatedly hurts her and endangers her for his own ends. Part of Eleven's psychological journey in the series is her realization of Brenner's essentially bad nature and her ultimate decision to reject him. A stark contrast is provided for Eleven in the way that Brenner has treated her versus the way Joyce treats her in the seventh episode, "The Bathtub." Brenner has pushed Eleven to do dangerous things simply because he wants the power and knowledge, but Joyce asks Eleven to take risks to save her son. Joyce thanks Eleven for her bravery but also reassures her, holds her, and supports her, while Brenner dumps Eleven into the lab's sensory deprivation chamber and leaves her to confront the monster alone. Joyce's maternal behavior is utterly alien to Eleven; the scenes in the lab always show her surrounded by emotionally blank male scientists, with only Brenner's insidiously abusive relationship as a gross perversion of parenthood. Nonetheless, Joyce's brief relationship with Eleven clearly has a huge impact on the girl and helps her see the truth about Brenner. The last word she says to him is "bad," and the look on his face tells us that he understands that his hold over her has been broken.

Hopper and Sarah

Somewhere in the middle of the set we find Jim Hopper, the emotionally damaged police chief. Hopper has been a good father; we see that demonstrated in flashbacks of his daughter, Sarah. Tragically, Hopper's daughter contracted a terminal illness; her death destroyed his marriage, drove him to self-destructive habits, and closed him off emotionally until Will's disappearance resurrects his paternal instincts. Hopper was such a devoted father that the loss of his child wrecked him; it's clear that embracing the role means accepting the risk of loss and heartbreak. As he searches for Will, Hopper begins to revisit his grief and simultaneously regain his ability to be a strong father figure, even though the child he tries to help is generally unaware of his efforts. Trapped in the Upside Down, Will doesn't know how dedicated Hopper has become to finding him, but we see how Hopper adopts the paternal role that has been callously vacated by Lonnie, not only toward Will but toward Jonathan, as well. Hopper also takes the domestic role in relationship to Joyce, becoming her partner and emotional support. Despite his courage and resolution on Will's behalf, Hopper does not become an ideal father figure. He makes a Faustian bargain with Brenner to get Will back, one that directly endangers Eleven, so his paternal urge is limited in its scope. He is willing to trade one endangered child for another, even though he has learned that Eleven's mother never stopped trying to find her. It's ironic, on some level, that Hopper is willing to sacrifice the life of a girl to save a boy, given that he was himself the father of a daughter. He does, however, reach out to her in the series' coda, leaving food for her in a box in the woods. It might be too late - the show leaves us with a lot of questions about Eleven's fate - but at least Hopper continues to move back toward the role he once filled.

The absence of real fathers, whether physical or emotional, leaves the role to be filled by substitutes. Hopper becomes one surrogate father, albeit one with serious issues of his own, but other characters also volunteer themselves for the job. Will's older bother, Jonathan, steps in to fill the gap left by Lonnie, even though Jonathan still needs a father figure himself. Jonathan goes to school, works, helps to care for Will, and cooks for the family; he functions as a model for a newer, more invested kind of fatherhood that more closely resembles the multi-tasking required of mothers. He nurtures and supports Will, teaching him about music and bonding with him; Jonathan is the one who knows how to find Will's friends using the two-way radios. When Will goes missing, Jonathan searches for him and openly grieves; he is more in touch with his emotions than any of the previous generation of father figures. Jonathan and Nancy become younger parallels of the partnership embodied by Hopper and Joyce, both active, dedicated, and defined by their devotion to someone else. Jonathan's willingness to accept this burden makes us prefer him to Nancy's love interest, Steve, who is selfish and immature in comparison. The science teacher, Mr. Clarke, is also a surrogate father figure, although his role is less emotionally involved. All four boys have a close relationship with him; he provides them with the intellectual nurturing they cannot get at home and even tries to offer some emotional support after Will's disappearance. Ironically, Brenner's lab uses Clarke's dedication to the boys as a way to locate them; they pretend to be looking for talented science students for a fictitious state club. Clarke has no idea that he's actually betraying his favorite students to their enemies, but he - again unwittingly - makes up for it when he helps them design a sensory deprivation chamber for Eleven, even though it's Saturday night. Although the boys lack actual fathers in their lives who fulfill their parental obligations, the show depicts hope in the form of those who willingly take on such burdens, whether they are authority figures, male relatives, or teachers. If Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas become good men in their turn, it's because of characters like Hopper, Jonathan, and Mr. Clarke, not the men who sired them.

Stranger Things offers a dense narrative with many threads worth pursuing, especially in terms of its relationship to the culture of the 1980s, but the failure of fatherhood certainly seems to lie close to its heart. While mothers are generally shown as loving, dedicated figures - not only Joyce, but Karen Wheeler and even Terry Ives - fathers are seen as deeply flawed. They are absent, uninterested, clueless, or even cruel. They leave young boys to fend for themselves in a dangerous and uncertain world, even as the rules for what it means to be a man are in flux. They treat girls as things and betray them to suffering and peril. Still, there is hope. Where some men rush to vacate their roles as fathers, others step in. It will be interesting to see if Stranger Things revisits these themes with a second season or offers us a glimpse of the ways in which the four boys mature to become the fathers of another generation.