There was a massive surge in horror movies in the late 1970s and the early 80, starting largely with original versions of The Hills Have Eyes, Halloween and Friday the 13th, which set much of the tone for the direction the genre would take for decades to come. There came in the wake of success enjoyed by these movies a tidal wave of slasher films, many featuring psychopaths in masks, and many centered around some holiday themes. For fans of the horror genre, there was a never-ending parade of fright flicks to choose from, but unfortunately much of it was the same thing over and over again. By the time the 1980s were over, there had been a total of eight Friday the 13th sagas, which were only part of what had drained the life (and creativity) from the genre. And all of this is crucial in understanding why a little film called The Stepfather was warmly embraced by both fans and critics, who had otherwise grown sick and tired of horror.
Set in the sleepy, all-American suburbs of Seattle, The Stepfather centers around a mysterious psycho (Terry O'Quinn) with a penchant for marrying single mothers, and then slaughtering the family when his notion of the ideal home life falls short. In the film's effectively unsettling opening sequence, the Stepfather is introduced as he cleans himself up from his most recent slaughter. Transforming before the camera's watchful eye, he leaves behind the butchered bodies of his wife and stepchildren as he goes off to start a new life. One year later, the Stepfather is comfortably living a new life as Jerry Blake, new husband to Susan (Shelley Hack), and father to troubled teen Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Jerry's relationship with Susan is almost perfect, with her turning a blind eye to whatever personality quirks he may have. The problem, however, is Stephanie, who may or may not really see Jerry for the creep he is, but definitely sees him as the guy moving in too soon after the death of her real father. She becomes convinced that he is the killer responsible for murdering his family over a year ago--which he is--and she begins to poke around for clues. Stephanie has no real reason to suspect Jerry of being a killer, and in all likelihood, she would suspect whoever married her mother of being a murderer. For her, suspecting that Jerry is really a killer is just a convenient excuse for her to not like him, which causes tension in the household and pushes Jerry to his volatile limits. Being a crazy killer with no compunction about hacking to pieces those that disappoint him, Jerry is a walking time bomb, and it is only a matter of time before Stephanie triggers an explosion. Meanwhile, Jim Ogilivie (Stephen Shellen), the brother of the last woman killed by the Stepfather, is hunting the killer who seemingly disappeared without a trace.
Drawing influence from such Alfred Hitchcock thrillers as Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt and Pyscho, The Stepfather was something of an anomaly within the horror genre when it arrived amidst the hack 'em and stack 'em exploits of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and the other crazed killers of the decade. Revealing the identity of the killer in the opening shot, limiting the body count, and keeping the violence relatively tame by the standards of the day, The Stepfather relied on mounting tension and creeping dread to carry it where other films depended on guts and gore to make their point. The end result is a film that seemed almost revolutionary at the time, relying on psychological horror rather than visceral terror to deliver the scares.
Long absent on DVD, and arriving just days before the theatrical release of a remake, The Stepfather has earned its reputation as a cult movie. It was well received by critics and audiences, but didn't fare well theatrically, only to find life on home video, and even spawned two inferior sequels. Over twenty years later, the movie still holds up more often than not. The scenes that were effectively creepy and downright scary in 1987 are still that way, while some of the more awkward falling-flat-on-its-face moments come across just as bad if not worse than they did two decades earlier. But as a whole, the film works, especially the underlying pitch-black comedy that can be lost on anyone taking the film too seriously. In many ways The Stepfather is a comedy, even more so today, as it reflects the skewered, Reagan-era notion of the ideal family living the American Dream. Crazed killer Jerry Blake is more a byproduct of the just-say-no generation of Reaganomics-nurtured middle class than any of the other killers of the decade, and is in many ways the big brother (or stepfather) of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman.
The Stepfather works for a number of reasons, including a script that is a bit more intelligent than many of the other genre entries of that era, direction and cinematography that work in tandem to create a finely crafted visual aesthetic, and a quirky musical score. But what sells the film, and has allowed it to live on in the hearts of fans, is the lead performance by Terry O'Quinn as Jerry Blake, the murderous Stepfather. At a time when crazed killers on screen were personified by Freddy Krueger--who by A Nightmare on Elm Street III, also released in 1987, had become a wisecracking comedian--O'Quinn's twitchy performance recalls Anthony Perkins in the first Psycho and Jim Siedow as the cook in the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These are the insane murderers grounded in reality, who maintain a relatively normal appearance on the surface but are capable of cracking at any moment, which makes them far more terrifying than a ghost wearing a glove with knives for fingers.
The Stepfather certainly has some moments that don't work, several of them courtesy of Shelley Hack. Hack's performance at times is nothing short of laughable, and unintentionally so. On the flip side, there are other moments of the film that are intentionally funny, but are so dry it may be lost on some people who don't see the film for the black comedy that it is. But despite the moments that either haven't aged well or never fully worked, The Stepfather has held up well over the last twenty-plus years. It is still a creepy film with a dark sense of humor that manages to entertain consistently.