Joseph Ruben’s “The Stepfather” (1987) showcases a towering performance by Terry O’Quinn (Locke on “Lost”) and a screenplay by crime novelist and “The Grifters” screenwriter Donald E. Westlake.
Although Ruben’s film often makes an annual list of horror sleepers, it never gained the widespread awareness (for horror fans and just film buffs in general) that it deserves.
Few horror films begin as well as this one, as a crane shot takes us to the second story of a lovely, two-story home in a nice suburb. Inside, we see a bearded man, played by O’Quinn, covered in blood, showering and shaving until he looks like a new man.
Although the hair is a little too neat (he even rounds it in the back), there is eventually an explanation for this. As the man walks down the stairs, we see he’s leaving a slaughterhouse behind him.
It’s a horrifying start. As he casually walks away from the scene of the crime, he whistles “Camp Town Races” and the camera pans up, indicating that this man is going to get away and start over.
We cut to One Year Later, and the monster in the opening scene now goes by Jerry Blake.
FAST FACT: “The Stepfather” barely made a ripple in the box office waters in 1987, generating just $2.4 million stateside.
In the time since the opening crime, Jerry has married a single mother, Susan (Shelly Hack) and now lives in a nice home with Susan and her daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Westlake’s screenplay is smart enough not to waste time with Jerry and Susan’s courtship but, instead, showing us this union is doomed.
It’s just a matter of time before he implodes again.
The movie is 10 minutes old and has its premise set up. This is neat, tight storytelling.
It’s been shot with flair by John Lindley, who would later be the Director of Photography on “The Serpent and the Rainbow” (1988), “Field of Dreams” (1989) and “Pleasantville” (1998).
Patrick Moraz’s score is overly incessant and uses the synthesizer too heavily, one of those ’80s scores that doesn’t hold up. The awful score even blunts the impact of the final scene.
The biggest problem is when the B plot kicks in: the brother of Jerry’s murdered wife comes looking for him. It’s awful, like an intrusion from a bad cop TV show. “The Stepfather” never required the B-plot, as Jerry is so compelling (and the character so unstable), we don’t need the plot device of him possibly being ID’d by outside forces.
He clearly is always just one more breakdown away from ruining his latest façade.
That O’Quinn later played non-villainous characters (like his warm take on Howard Hughes in Joe Johnston’s “The Rocketeer”) is a testament to his abilities as an actor. He is petrifying here.
There’s a scene where he comforts his stepdaughter as she grieves, admitting that the death likely brought them closer together – the misery of others brings him satisfaction. O’Quinn also has scenes where he stares right into the camera, which always make me freeze and hold my breath.
Jerry’s weakness is that he talks too much. The more he yaks about his rock-solid values and self-aggrandizing past, the more he can’t keep his story/stories straight. On the job, he declares “What I sell is the American Dream,” though he’s also selling that off duty, too.
Stephanie calls her Stepdad “Scary Jerry” and says he “wishes we were like families on TV, smiling and laughing.” She’s right. Schoelen’s ’80s teen facing Jerry’s obey-or-else mindset is a black comedy portrait of a generation gap.
A fascinating subplot shows us Jerry’s plan to start over while still living in his current iteration. He takes a ferry to a new location, sets things up elsewhere in disguise, even flirts with a kind widow, then returns to being “Jerry Blake” and is home before dinner.
Even when the script gets pulpy (giving Jerry one liners like “You’ve been a very bad girl” is too Freddy Krueger-esque), O’Quinn is still incredible.
Jerry espouses all-American values over all else. We even see him watching “Mr. Ed” and citing “Father Knows Best’ and “Rin Tin Tin.” While showing a house, Jerry announces “the south side gets the most light,” which makes me wonder if Westlake meant that line to land as social commentary (I’m still unsure).
Whatever the subject, Jerry refuses to acknowledge any perspective beyond his own and turns violent whenever his authority and carefully established domestic pageantry is questioned. When Jerry asks his stepdaughter a question, it’s really a threat or an ultimatum in disguise.
Anyone who disagrees with Jerry that family is the most important thing is in dire trouble. Like Bob Balaban’s “Parents” (1989), here is a brilliant satire that uses the horror genre to illustrate the uneasy power game parents play with their children.
Ruben’s film presents a high-concept horror film that still carries social and dramatic weight: what if a ’50s-era father become the dad of ’80s-era teen. Ultimately, though Jerry is always fascinating and even sort of funny, we’re on Stephanie’s side. She doesn’t want to hear her mom and stepfather from the bedroom next door at night and neither do we.
The botched finale and score aside, “The Stepfather” is solid, smarter than expected and is powered by O’Quinn’s Oscar-worthy performance.
“The Stepfather” made Entertainment Weekly’s 1999 list of “The Scariest Movies Ever Made.” The sequels and the unfortunate, heavily neutered 2009 remake didn’t come close.
At the time of its release, “The Stepfather” was viewed by many as a satire of President Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again in America” view of renewal. The political connection can’t be accidental as there is, after all, a prominent picture of Reagan in the principal’s office of Stephanie’s school.
Actually, Jerry isn’t entirely unlike Chip, the psychopath Jim Carrey played in “The Cable Guy” (1996), who was also raised and educated by too much television and whose real name we never know.
It’s a creepy concept, that the “normalcy” depicted in watered-down TV sitcoms is the same normal Jerry attempts to acquire and maintain, in an age where those values are seen as dated, corny and inappropriate.
This aspect of “The Stepfather” is troubling for how relevant it remains, perhaps more now than in 1987: in the 21st century, there are still people living in the past, who allow nostalgia, long held and unquestioned traditions and an unwillingness to change to create their version of reality. Maintain and submit, or else. Jerry Blake never went away.