Officer Dewey from Scream
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Credit: Dimension Films 

Why are so many dads and brothers terrible cops in slasher movies?

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Mar 18, 2020, 6:00 PM EDT

Slasher movies are full of recognizable archetypes — whether it is the Final Girl, her best friend who is unlikely to survive, or the terrible boyfriend. Another trope of this horror subgenre is the cop relative who is not exactly skilled at the protecting part of their job description. From Halloween to Scream, local law enforcement is far from equipped to deal with whatever menace is tearing through the teen population. Having an officer in the family should be reassuring when a murderer is on the loose, but the relative with a badge and gun is often powerless to stop the bloodbath.

The prevalence of this type of character and how they interact with the protagonist and her friends — sometimes before they are even in peril — range from strict dad to bumbling brother. But what does this say about gender roles within this genre and the representation of the patriarchy?

Starting with the definitive Final Girl venture, Halloween's resident sheriff is also Laurie Strode's (Jamie Lee Curtis) best friend's father. Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers) has the air of someone who has seen some things long before he was in charge of sleepy suburbia. "It's hard growing up with a cynical father," Annie (Nancy Kyes) quips when her father plays down the robbery he is investigating. All that has been stolen is a Halloween mask, a rope, and a couple of knives. Nothing to worry about here, right? Well, Brackett is going to find out the hard way that he should've been less chill about this seemingly benign crime.

Clues about Brackett's inability to see what is in front of his face come courtesy of the undetected pot his daughter and Laurie are smoking in her car — yep, Laurie takes drugs and survives. Annie mildly freaks out when she spots her dad's police cruiser in the distance but is later unconcerned he detected anything after a prolonged conversation, despite Laurie's panic. Weed is not a smell that disappears without some assistance (or time), so he either didn't care or he is very bad at his job. Brackett's playful banter with his daughter makes a change from the overly protective dad vibe that is favored in these movies. He doesn't feel the need to wrap his daughter in metaphorical bubble wrap or treat her like she is weak, which adds another layer of sadness to Annie's demise.

Credit: Universal Pictures 

When Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) emphasizes the danger Michael Myers presents, the sheriff is not overly concerned they have a big issue on his hands. They will take precautions, but never did Brackett imagine the bloodbath that would ensue — or that his own child would be murdered as a result. The blasé attitude is one he doesn't repeat in Halloween II, which begins on this same night and shows him finding out about the death of his daughter.

While Brackett underestimates the monster stalking the streets and has a lax attitude toward Annie smoking pot in her car, other cop dads fit the strict parent stereotype. Dealing with violent acts and criminals on a daily basis could leave you jaded, but it can also result in the paranoid opinion that no one is truly safe. In the case of movies like A Nightmare of Elm Street and Cherry Falls, it isn't just the job that turns these two men into overprotective fathers; rather, their involvement in a crime which has directly led to the present-day horrors reinforces their fears. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Lt. Thompson (John Saxon) was part of the vigilante mob that took down Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). Now, his daughter Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is seemingly in danger, but it isn't her BFF's terrible taste in dudes that should be a major concern: a blast from her father's past is where the danger lies.

Credit: New Line Cinema 

Nancy knows better than her father when it comes to who the culprit is — though he cannot be blamed for not considering a suspect who is long dead. While he thinks he is doing what is best to keep her safe, he is, in fact, putting her in more danger. Instead of listening to her or even sharing pertinent information, he wears both his dad and cop hat in a bid to minimize her "delusions." However, if Nancy had the information about Freddy's demise, they would've known who they were facing off against. Instead, the dark secret caused her mom to self-medicate with booze while refusing to acknowledge why. The Philip Larkin poem "This Be The Verse" includes the iconic lines which sum up Nancy's situation: "They f*** you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do."

The actions of Nancy's parents put the next generation in the path of danger, which is how her boyfriend's bedroom gets redecorated with his blood. When Nancy puts her plan into action to draw Freddy out, her father is preoccupied with his investigation. He might have the years of experience, but nothing tops the Final Girl's innate sense of danger and ability to protect herself.

Credit: New Line Cinema 

As soon as a suspect is determined, any other alternative is dismissed; Tina's (Amanda Wyss) boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia) is the obvious culprit. Nancy goes to bat for Rod, but her parents treat her like a fragile little girl, believing the shock of her best friend's murder and a lack of sleep has fed this delusion. When she does ask her dad to be there for her to catch the killer, he initially reassures her before putting one of his men on watch instead. Rather than believe her plan to catch Freddy, he remarks to a colleague that his daughter is "too far gone to be able to handle this." Protecting is not the same as trust, which is a valuable lesson for a strict parent. The lieutenant might have a gun, but this false sense of security is no match for Freddy's knives.

Nearly 20 years after the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Brittany Murphy starred as Jody in Cherry Falls. As with Nancy, Jody's father has a deep dark secret linking him back to the person who is committing these crimes, and once again, their children are the ones being slaughtered as an act of vengeance. Unlike the Thompson family, Jody's father, Sheriff Brent Marken (Michael Biehn) is complicit in the original crime, a gang rape that went unpunished, which might explain why he has taught his daughter comprehensive self-defense moves. Again, if Jody had all the information — her mom also drinks heavily to dull the pain — she would be better prepared to deal with the impending danger. She doesn't need an early curfew or monitoring; instead, it is her father's shameful past that has put a target on her back.

Credit: USA Films

When the sheriff has a secret history of rape — along with other influential figures like the principal — it is impossible to feel safe. The double standards and hypocrisy have stained this town, and the actions of Marken and his friends led to these events. Not all cops are clean, and not all cops will investigate a crime if the accused are "good boys." The villain is both the killer and the system that let his mother (the rape victim) down after she tried to press charges.

From overprotective to bumbling, Deputy Dwight 'Dewey' Riley (David Arquette) tries his best throughout the Scream franchise. As older brother to Tatum (Rose McGowan), he somehow survives the entire run of movies. The same cannot be said about his sister, who dies in the first outing while he is in the vicinity of this house party. Easily manipulated by his crush (and later significant other), Dewey always gets hurt but pulls through. The odds are not in his favor and yet, he flourishes. Have you ever seen a better example in horror of a dude failing upward?

Credit: Dimension Films

He is sweet but lacks the ferocity of his sister. When the killer rings Sidney (Neve Campbell) while she is staying at the Riley residence, Dewey is of little use — a pattern that will be repeated throughout. This is maybe a little harsh on Dewey's efforts and boy, does he try, but he is no match for either Sidney or Gale (Courteney Cox) in how he fares against each killer. Once again, the guy with the badge and gun is not the hero of the story.

Cops are meant to make us feel safe, but in slasher movies, they rarely save the day. In Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Cherry Falls, and Scream, each law enforcement officer is forced to contend with their impotence in the face of danger. It doesn't matter if they are a strict or cynical dad when Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger is on the hunt because it is going to make more than a gun or handcuffs to stop the violence. Being a father, brother or cop doesn't mean anything in these movies, and these traditional roles are not a shield. Loved ones are lost in some cases, secrets are kept, and ultimately, the Final Girl is the one who has to save the day.

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