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The original The Stepfather from 1987 need not claim Cult status to defend itself; it was recognized from the get-go as a superior horror thriller. The elements all click, and not because of blind chance. The intelligent script relies on an interesting character hook with universal appeal. The late 1980s was a time when the notion of family values had a loud voice in the cultural debate; I think that's when I first became aware of the term "dysfunctional family". Although the film's means are modest it gets a real grip on the audience; more money wouldn't make it better. The picture is almost perfect just as it is.
The Stepfather's foremost coup is a sensational piece of casting. Terry O'Quinn, an actor over-used as intelligent but menacing bad guys, is simply fantastic in the role of Jerry Blake, a Seattle real estate salesman and all-round nice guy. Jerry's sincere manner and genuinely warm smile win over his neighbors as well as his customers. New wife Susan (Shelley Hack) is a widow madly in love with this great guy. The only rough patch for Jerry is Susan's teenaged daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). The girl is clearly disturbed by her new dad and is undergoing counseling with Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer). Jerry and Susan react with understanding and patience for their daughter, who harbors irrational ideas that Jerry's some kind of bad guy.
Stephanie's right. We already know that Jerry is a serial killer who has already murdered an entire family. He's successfully changed identities and so far nobody's the wiser. And we wait and watch as Jerry's past slowly catches up. Jerry's ability to guard his dark secret is impressive. When the old case resurfaces in the newspapers he tells his friends that he just can't understand such a tragedy. When Jerry guesses why that "monster" could have attacked his own family he cuts close to the truth of his psychosis: "Maybe they disappointed him".
The Stepfather identifies the power paradigm behind the traditional family we're supposed to cherish: male authority. Jerry Blake is so caring and nurturing that he almost overcompensates; for Susan he's a dream come true. Although he puts on a great show, Jerry subscribes to the notion that "Father Knows Best" -- when it comes down to it, he's a disciplinarian and wants everything to be run his way. When he can't take it any more, he goes to the basement, closes the door, and flies into a frightening rage: "We need to get some ORDER around here!" It's as if Jerry has to let go of all the frustration he generates pretending to be such an angel. Everybody can remember family scenes like this, hopefully in a more benign context. Daddy's a loving and perfect ideal to his kids, but when he suddenly transforms into a normal person capable of spite and anger, he can be really scary. I mean, we depend on him for everything. If he's really not on our side, who is?
The airtight script by author Donald E. Westlake (Point Blank, The Outfit, The Grifters) effortlessly hides the holes in the story, which was based on a true crime from the 1970s. In a brilliant move, Stephanie writes the newspaper to ask for a photo of the notorious family killer, just to see if it looks like her new stepfather. Jerry tricks his way out of that trap like a pro -- with the reward that Stephanie concludes that she's being unfair and accepts her new father.
Thanksgiving is a dream of bliss at the Blake home. All Jerry asks, it seems, is to be the father of a happy family. The creepy thing is that his desire comes with a long list of control issues ... "getting some order around here" means that wife and daughter need to conform to what father expects of them. Significantly, the real-life killer wasn't "disappointed" with his family; he just lost his job and couldn't support them any more without losing face. The crimes on the six o'clock news? It's the economy, stupid.
The Stepfather creates terrific character tension. When Jerry commits another ghastly murder without batting an eye, he seems unstoppable. But he gradually loses his grip. He goes ballistic because Stephanie's boyfriend kisses her on the front porch. That's when we learn that Jerry's control issues have a lot to do with sex. Worse, we realize that his careful impersonation can be shattered by seemingly innocuous events. Jerry is getting ready to change families again when he's suddenly caught in a three-way bind. "Who am I here?" he asks himself after inadvertently mixing up his various identities. It's so hard to keep one's lies straight. Susan realizes something's wrong, which launches a corker of a violent finale.
Terry O'Quinn (Lost) is a marvel in a role that allows him to play Jekyll and Hyde simultaneously; we enjoy watching O'Quinn's eyes for subtle hints about his mental processes. Unlike Robert Mitchum in the nightmarish Night of the Hunter, people don't have to be stupid to be taken in by Blake's personality. O'Quinn seems genuinely sincere when playing the Good Daddy, so we continue to respect Shelley Hack. Jill Schoelen is excellent as the perceptive Girl Who Knew Too Much. Schoelen parlayed her sexy shower scene (an apparent nod to exploitation realities) into a career as a classy scream queen.
The Stepfather is a less fruity The Shining, minus the supernatural trappings and plus a more credible paterfamilias sickus. Different aspects of its family-dynamic also remind us of Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life, as well as a harrowing episode in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. It's a pleasure to watch a fairly modern horror thriller made with such integrity and intelligence. 1
Shout! Factory's DVD of The Stepfather is a good-looking enhanced transfer that restores cameraman John Lindley's beautiful images of the fall season in the great Northwest -- the colorful red and orange leaves add to the aura of domestic peace. Lindley would later DP the fascinating Pleasantville, a movie even more directly concerned with the illusions of the traditional family as propagated in mass media culture.
Director Joseph Rubin is on hand for an okay commentary. He assigns actual credit to the various writers, after acknowledging the WGA's virtual tyranny over the subject (tyranny is my word, not Ruben's). The interview docu The Stepfather Chronicles is a bit overlong but uncovers a goodly number of interesting facts. The exteriors were filmed in near-freezing conditions, something well disguised by both the camerawork and the actors. To shoot the happy-neighbor backyard picnic scene, the crew first had to break up frozen ice. Why nobody's breath is visible is a mystery. Director Ruben, actor Jill Schoelen, the producer and screenwriter contribute. Along the way we see some of the glowing reviews garnered by the film on its first release. Word of mouth was excellent, but as The Stepfather wasn't picked up by a major distributor, most of us caught up with it on cable TV.
An original trailer is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Stepfather rates:
Video: Very Good +
Supplements: Director commentary, making-of featurette, original trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 25, 2009
1. Another similarity with The Shining: a major sub-plot eventually sends an outside investigator racing right into the violent climax -- only to be suddenly rendered irrelevant. Actually, Susan and Stephanie's would-be rescuer does arrive with a useful weapon.
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.