The Stepfather (1987)
“An All-American Family… He’d Kill For It!”
Director: Joseph Ruben
Cast: Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack
Synopsis: After murdering his entire family, a man remarries a widow with a teenage daughter in another town and prepares to do it all over again.
You get the impression that The Stepfather was one of those movies that turned out being a lot better than anyone really expected it to be. Filmed on a relatively low budget, with a little-known actor — Terry O’Quinn — in the title role, ambitions and expectations must surely have been modest, and yet The Stepfather proved to be one of the 1980s’ better horror-thrillers, spawning two sequels and an inferior remake in 2009. Most of that is down to O’Quinn’s creepily effective performance, coupled with a script from screenwriter Donald E. Westlake that manages to gloss over the less plausible aspects of the story.
The Stepfather of the title is Jerry Blake (O’Quinn), an apparently affable man living with his new wife Susan (Shelley Hack — Annie Hall) and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Susan thinks Jerry is a perfect husband, but Stephanie’s not so sure — and we already know she’s right to have reservations about him thanks to an opening scene in which we see him altering his appearance after slaying the unlucky members of his previous family. At this point, however, Stephanie has nothing but vague misgivings about her stepfather. These misgivings are increased when she witnesses a violent outburst of Jerry’s when he believes he’s alone in the basement, after which she increasingly turns to her psychologist, Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer), for advice. When Jerry evades meeting up with the Doctor to discuss his relationship with Stephanie, Bondurant pretends to be a potential buyer of a house on the books of the real estate company for which Jerry works. But as they’re viewing the property, Jerry becomes increasingly suspicious of Bondurant’s real identity…
It’s virtually impossible to over-praise the quality of Terry O’Quinn’s performance in The Stepfather; entirely convincing as the reasonable family man grateful for all he has, he’s equally persuasive during his fits of rage, successfully understating the insanity beneath the civilised veneer so that Jerry Blake never comes across as a caricature horror figure like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. Blake really is the guy next door — and is all the more frightening because of it. What’s all the more appalling about Blake is that he possesses the kind of traditional values to which most right-thinking adults adhere — he just goes to extreme lengths to acquire the kind of life he believes complements those values and is prepared to go to murderous lengths to preserve them. It’s rational thought taken too irrational extremes, and it works so well because we all share at least some of Blake’s values.
Prolific crime novelist Donald E. Westlake provides a slick, efficiently constructed screenplay which has no fat, and fashions a compelling story around characters who — apart from Blake- are all a little bland. The truth is, they could just as easily be inserted into any horror movie made in the 1980s, but then The Stepfather is a study of the psychological profile of a psychopathic serial killer (or mass murderer, as they used to be known back in the 1980s), so it’s perhaps forgivable that less attention is devoted to those who have the potential to become his victims. Overall, The Stepfather holds up remarkably well after more than twenty-five years, and remains far superior to the 2009 Stepfather movie.
(Reviewed 16th April 2014)