Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn) -- at least, that's what he's calling himself these days -- watched a hell of a lot of TV as a kid. That's one of the only things we're clued into about his past: that he's fascinated with '50s television...of that wide-eyed, cheery, wholesome take on the nuclear family. Mom, Pop, Junior, Rover, a white picket fence, an apple pie cooling on the windowsill...y'know, the American dream. So, like I said, we know two things about Jerry: one is that he wants to be one of the Cleavers three decades too late, and the other is that...well, he's a serial killer. That's what he does. "Jerry" -- or Mike or Bob or whatever other identity he's cobbled together this time -- breezes into some sleepy, wholesome town, wins over a divorcee or widow, and takes over as Pop for his new wife and her kids. Whenever things start to go south from his Father Knows Best daydreams, it's hack, slash, splatter splatter and he starts all over again.
For the moment, at least, Jerry's set up shop in Oakridge, Washington: ranked one of Travel & Leisure's top ten American cities to raise a family! Things seem to be starting off well enough. The checklist includes a blonde wife (Shelley Hack), a brand new puppy, a lovely suburban home, and a gorgeous teenaged stepdaughter named Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Close -- so close! -- but no cigar. Stephanie's been lashing out ever since her father...her real father...died a year earlier, and she spends about as much time suspended from school as she does in class. Steph can barely stomach the sight of Jerry, and when she hears about a family having been slaughtered a couple towns earlier, she immediately suspects that he's the nutjob who did it for no other real reason than she can't stand the guy. The strain of always putting on a gleaming smile...of trying to prop up a '50s American ideal that's collapsing around him...is beginning to take its toll, and it's starting to look like it's time for Jerry to cut his losses again...
The Stepfather spawned a short-lived horror franchise, sure, but what sets Jerry apart from the Freddies and Jasons of the genre is that he's not a fundamentally evil guy. I mean, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm St., and the rest of that lot were ultimately all about the kills...movies where the unrepentant murderer is pretty much the hero of the story, and the goal is to rack up an enormous body count before you fade to black, roll credits, and prep for the next sequel. Jerry doesn't want to kill anyone, really. He only successfully offs a couple of people on-screen in the entire movie too, and we're halfway through before we ever see him truly snap. He's just so hellbent on latching onto the American dream that he'll stab and slash whoever he has to if that's what it takes. This is a man who's been driven insane by his pursuit of the sort of chipper, wholesome families he grew up watching on TV, and he doesn't
It absolutely helps that The Stepfather is headed by such a smolderingly intense performance by Terry O'Quinn, an actor talented enough to sell the beaming smiles without seeming cloying, the depraved ranting to himself in the basement without coming across as deliriously over-the-top, and chillingly menacing when it comes time to whip out the butcher knife. The suspense of The Stepfather is strengthened further by the fact that it's rooted in such a familiar setting. This isn't some otherworldly dreamscape or a cabin deep in the woods...this is suburbia. It's that Hitchcockian fascination with unearthing the horrors in the most mundane places. I grew up devouring suspense and slasher flicks from the 1980s, and The Stepfather has one of the most effective climaxes of any of them. To me, suspense is claustrophobia...knowing that there's a murderer on the other side of the door or on the other end of that junk in the attic where you're hiding...that you're unarmed, that no one's coming to your rescue, and that it's just a matter of time before he finds you and carves you into bloodied, fist-sized chunks. That's exactly what The Stepfather delivers in its final fifteen minutes.
I also respect that The Stepfather doesn't overexplain or try to justify what Jerry does. There are no flashbacks. There's no backstory. There are no rambling monologues. He's so cold and calculating when it comes to resculpting himself for another new life that it's clear he's done this quite a number of times before, but we're not expressly told much of anything about him. Its approach to suspense veers far away from what virtually everyone else was churning out in the 1980s. We're first introduced to Jerry as he walks down a blood-spattered staircase and past the grisly remains of his last family. There's no "is he or isn't he...?" about it that's dragged out: we know from word one what Jerry is capable of, and we know he's going to snap again. The tension comes from waiting for that murderous streak to resurface. The Stepfather doesn't bother with a mystery angle...the movie constantly keeps the audience in the loop with what Jerry's up to, again taking cues from Hitchcock's approach to suspense.
When Jerry does go for the kill, it's savagely brutal...not in a cruel or sadistic way, exactly, but he's very clearly taking his frustrations out on whatever poor bastard happens to be standing in his path. There's also something compelling about the fact that the kills are a means to an end, not just that Friday the 13th rhythm of "well, it's been eleven minutes since we knocked off anyone, so..." I mean, shortly after the first on-screen murder, you could've rolled the end credits right there and called it a dementedly happy ending. Jerry's aggressively moral streak eventually tears down everything he'd built up, and he's ultimately the one to blame for his fantasy crumbling apart in front of him.
The Stepfather was one of my favorite fright flicks growing up, and thanks to a spectacular turn by Terry O'Quinn and a strong sense of craftsmanship, it remains every bit as intense and suspenseful now as it was more than twenty years ago. Highly Recommended.
The Stepfather is uneven but frequently looks solid in high definition. Clarity and detail are generally outstanding when they have half a chance, especially whenever the camera's closed in tight. A handful of shots are awash in a soft, grainy haze that
I'm mixed on a few other things, though. Black levels are deep and inky, but there are quite a few very, very dark stretches of the film, and detail sometimes seem as if it's being completely devoured by the shadows. The grain structure is tight and distinct -- definitely more than a DVD could hope to pull off -- although there are times when it seems to clump together...to look really digital. This only seemed to get my attention from a few feet away. A few of the times when I thought I'd caught some missteps in the compression, I'd walk all the way up in front of my TV and go through a shot frame-by-frame, and everything seemed to be okay. Something about the way the grain is reproduced just doesn't look quite right at times in motion, but I'll admit I could be seeing something that's not actually there. The compression work overall does seem to be pretty solid, even in challenging shots like Stephanie and her mom flinging around buckets of leaves.
The source material used for this transfer looks to be in great shape, but The Stepfather hasn't gotten the sort of additional polish that shops of a similar size like Synapse Films and Blue Underground have spoiled me into expecting. There's a good bit of speckling on this Blu-ray disc...not enough to really distract, but off the top of my head, I can't even think of the last time I give a disc a spin that looked this dusty.
Overall, I'd rank The Stepfather somewhere in the neighborhood of "very good", and it's absolutely worth picking up again in high-def. Keep your expectations in check, though...good but not great.
The Stepfather is presented on a single layer Blu-ray disc, and the mattes have been opened up just a couple of ticks to reveal an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
The flipside of the packaging lists Dolby TrueHD stereo audio. It turns out that The Stepfather sports a stereo PCM track instead, but lossless...uncompressed...not really any difference at the end of the day. My kneejerk reaction is that The Stepfather sounds a lot like what I'd expect to hear if I headed up to Retrofantasma for a revival screening. The audio is really thin -- even with all of the banks of keyboards in the score, there's no heft to the low-end at all, and even the big explosion a little over halfway through the flick falls completely flat. I can't really pin down how I feel about the dialogue. Some stretches seem muffled and dated; others are cleaner but sound as if they're being played at a much higher volume than they were ever meant to be heard. Again, some of that could just be the way the film was shot...that there wasn't a lot of money chucked at sweetening the mix, so there's a lot of rough production sound and really unconvincing Foley work like the crunching of all those leaves. Passable but below average, to the point where I wonder if there'd even be a difference if I pumped it through the built-in speakers on my TV rather than an overpriced home theater rig. On the upside, the track isn't dragged down by any heavy hiss, clicks, or pops, so there's that.
No dubs or subs this time around.
A brief set of liner notes penned by Shout! Factory's Cliff MacMillan offers some additional insight into the long process of bringing The Stepfather to the screen.
The Final Word
The Stepfather -- the original, I mean, not that shitball remake -- gets my nod as one of the best suspense flicks to emerge from the 1980s. There's the brilliant leading turn by Terry O'Quinn, of course, and it wouldn't be recognizable as the same movie without him. The premise itself is intriguing, though. "Jerry" isn't some cackling slasher hellbent on racking up as high a body count as he can...he's more fascinated with the Cleavers on TV than the ones in his hand. This is a sad, lonely man who's desperate to latch onto the sort of idyllic family life he grew up watching on television, and in his pursuit of the American dream, he'll hack apart anyone who stands in his way. At the end of the day, you want Jerry to win...for everything to end happily ever after. It doesn't, of course, and even though it takes a long while for Jerry to finally snap, The Stepfather is astonishingly intense when he does. Highly Recommended.