The Stepfather (1987)
Directed by: Joseph Ruben
Starring: Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack, Charles Lanyer, Stephen Shellen
1/2 (out of 4)
The screenplay for The Stepfather was pulled straight from the headlines. On November 9, 1971, John List, devout Lutheran and Sunday school teacher, murdered his mother, wife and three children in New Jersey, and then disappeared. He planned everything so carefully that for a month nobody knew anything was wrong. List considered poverty a sin, so after getting laid off and facing bankruptcy, he “saved” his family by shooting them all with a .22 revolver. 18 years later, he was finally arrested – he had remarried and was working as an accountant. For this 1987 film (which has spawned two sequels and a remake), writers Carolyn Lefcourt, Brian Garfield, Donald E. Westlake, and David Loughery created a character based on List with the religious aspects toned down (but still present) and the sexual hangups/obsessive personality traits turned up. Played by a not-yet-famous Terry O’Quinn, the murdering daddy, going under the alias Jerry Blake, has an attachment to the idea of the ultimate “wholesome” family (dog included), where old fashioned values hold sway, the daughter never misbehaves or dates boys, and there is the appearance of “order” both in the home and in the neighborhood. When we first see him, he’s shaving his beard, swapping glasses for contacts, putting on a suit, and walking out the house past the bloodied corpses of his old family, who had “disappointed” him. Jerry Blake is a psychopath, obsessed with 1950s era concepts – traditional family unit, church on Sundays, and Leave It to Beaver. In one scene, Jerry is engrossed in an episode of Mister Ed, right before he has sex with his new wife Susan (Shelley Hack), an act seen by him as unwholesome but necessary for playing the husband “role”.
That’s what Jerry knows how to do – play roles. His view of the role of daddy is so skewed, rigid, and narrow, that he can’t handle what reality throws at him. It’s difficult not to see The Stepfather as a critique of the era in which it was released – the Reagan 80s, where it was “morning in America” and the culture of conservatism was supposed to make a triumphant return. As Jerry finds out, you can’t go home again. O’Quinn gives a really good performance for the most part; there are a few scenes where he comes close to going over the top, spouting off bits of cliched dialogue, like “When I came here I was a stranger. But now I feel like I’ve lived here all my life.” and “You know something? Until this moment I never really knew what Thanksgiving was all about.” It’s like the guy was raised by family sitcoms. Jerry’s dark side comes out when the stresses of chaotic, messy reality intrude, mostly in amusing freak-outs in the basement, which daughter Stephanie witnesses. Convinced that Jerry is the same guy who slaughtered his family the year prior and then disappeared, she asks for a photograph of the culprit from the local newspaper. Unfortunately, Jerry gets to the mail first and swaps it out with a fake, then serves her Cosmopolitan Magazine. In the meantime, the brother of one of Jerry’s victims sets out to track him down, putting him on a doomed crusade not unlike that of Scatman Crothers in The Shining.
The Shining is the first movie that came to my mind while watching The Stepfather, since it has Stephen Shellen in the Crothers role and O’Quinn in the Nicholson role, but there are also similarities to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (watch the scene where Jerry folds up a newspaper with a story about his past crimes). Not really a slasher film (until the final moments), The Stepfather is a competent when it comes to depicting a psychopath who preys upon women in their moments of weakness. It has one good kill scene as Jerry dispatches Stephanie’s psychologist (Charles Lanyer) while showing him a house for sale (“Well, I don’t think this one is right for you. I think you’d be more comfortable somewhere else. This house is for a family. You know, the family. Home sweet home. All that crap!”) The rest of the movie is held back by bad 80s synth music and characters who are guaranteed not to do the very things that would save their asses. It isn’t that Jerry is so intelligent, it’s that everybody else around him is so stupid. Shelley Hack is also underutilized as the widow Susan who falls for Jerry – quite frankly, I wasn’t sure why she would fall in love with a guy who has such obvious problems. Their scenes together are brief, with not much insight into her way of thinking beyond the need for her to find a replacement dad for stability. Perhaps the movie is telling us that this was enough. Jill Schoelen fares better as the stepdaughter Stephanie, who hates Jerry from the beginning, for good reasons besides his tendencies to lose his mind down in the basement. She’s even kind enough to give us gratuitous breast and ass shots, something that doesn’t quite fit the tone of the flick but I certainly won’t complain about it.
The ending of The Stepfather shows us a sawed off birdhouse, laying on the ground and speaking to us about a tragic man’s broken dreams. I can’t tell you whether this man is a psychopath named Jerry Blake or a president named Ronald Reagan; it feels at home in the 80s even though it is based on a 70s case. Much of it is a reaction to the cultural tendencies of the “moral majority” but I think the bigger lesson is that things don’t work like they do on television. It may also serve as a manifestation of the worst nightmares a child of a divorced or deceased parent could have – here’s mommy with a new daddy who obviously doesn’t belong here – why can’t she see? The Stepfather is a flawed but interesting film, and a calling card for Terry O’Quinn to boot.
- Bill Gordon
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