Stepfather, The (United States, 1987)

March 25, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Stepfather, The Poster

Spoilers (including revelations about the ending)!

By 1987, the (first) slasher-film craze had reached its apex. Proven box office winners because of their gory appeal, slashers could be made for next-to-nothing and almost always turned a profit during their first few days of release. Although the “Big Three” dominated the national consciousness (with Halloween gearing up for its fourth chapter, Friday the 13th having released a fifth sequel, and A Nightmare on Elm Street prepping installment #3), there were plenty of smaller entries, most of which are now forgotten. Into this climate arrived a relatively unheralded combination horror-thriller called The Stepfather. Although not technically a “slasher”, it was made and marketed like one. Although its final box office tally, $2.5M, seems anemic by today’s standards, it looks a little different when one considers that its entire production+advertising budget was less than $1M and it did even better business on video than in theaters.

I suppose it’s fair to call The Stepfather a “cult classic”, although the title is better known than many films placed in that category. The devotion of its fans was such that two sequels were made (the first of which was bad, the second of which was unwatchable) and, some 22 years after the fact, an anemic remake showed up in theaters (only to be quickly dismissed by viewers and critics alike). Most of those who pledge their allegiance to The Stepfather found it (as I did) when it reached home video in late 1987.

The Stepfather succeeded by rebelling against the 1980s horror film template. The influence of Hitchcock and Carpenter is evident in its slow-build approach and focus on suspense over blood. If one discounts the dead bodies at the beginning of the film (they were, after all, killed prior to the opening credits), The Stepfather’s body count numbers three. None of the killings are excessively graphic. The most disturbing moments occur at the beginning as the title character, Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn), calmly departs his house after stepping past the bloody corpses of his dead wife and step-children. The movie is not entirely devoid of slasher film tropes, however. For example, the young heroine, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), has a gratuitous nude scene whose sole purpose seems to be to check off a box for things expected in ‘80s horror flicks.

After slaughtering his family and assuming a new identity, Jerry starts the cycle over again by marrying Susan (Shelly Hack, known in 1987 as an ex-Charlie’s Angel). Susan’s 16-year old daughter, Stephanie, is unimpressed by her new “dad.” As she confides to her therapist, Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer), there’s something creepy about him. The psychiatrist takes his patient’s claims seriously and does a little amateur sleuthing. This results in him becoming victim #1 when he gets too close to the truth.

It seems that Jerry has an unhealthy obsession with the American dream – especially the “family” part of it. He marries only women with kids because, as he opines, “it’s not a family without children.” But, after a honeymoon period, disillusionment sets in. Rebellious, difficult offspring and marital strife interfere with Jerry’s idealized vision of how things should be and he opts for a reboot – remove (literally) the old life and start again. As The Stepfather nears its conclusion, Jerry is preparing to do to Susan and Stephanie what he has done before, except they are less naïve than his past victims.

A secondary storyline in The Stepfather follows the investigation of Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen), the brother of Jerry’s previous wife, to track down the killer. We think we know where this is headed – the handsome, reckless hero arrives just in time to prevent the slaughter of innocents. Except that’s not how it happens. Screenwriter Donald Westlake (the author of the novel The Hunter, which formed the basis for the Lee Marvin thriller, Point Blank, and the Mel Gibson remake, Payback) and director Joseph Ruben (Sleeping with the Enemy) delight in tweaking our expectations. Jim arrives just as Jerry is about to start his next killing spree but, instead of saving Susan and Stephanie, he becomes victim #2 as Jerry stabs him to death. It’s left up to the women, not the supposed Knight in White Armor, to dispatch the bad guy.

(Note: It’s made clear at the end of The Stepfather that Jerry is dead. That makes him body #3. However, in order to allow Terry O’Quinn to reprise the role in the sequel, it was decided that Jerry survived his injuries and was confined to a mental hospital.)

Narratively, there’s nothing shockingly original about The Stepfather. It’s a competently assembled thriller with workmanlike direction and a straightforward storyline. There aren’t a lot of surprises outside of Ogilvie’s inglorious end. What makes The Stepfather noteworthy is the performance of Terry O’Quinn. O’Quinn’s portrayal of Jerry is seriously sinister, especially since he captures such a perfect Father Knows Best vibe that we almost find ourselves rooting for the guy. O’Quinn’s approach to Jerry is to play him like a sincere, honest guy who loses it from time-to-time. There are instances when his smiles don’t touch his eyes. At one point, when Jerry says, “Wait a minute, who am I here?” it causes nape hairs to stand on end. O’Quinn delivers that line with the perfect mix of confusion and consternation.

Over the years, stepmothers have gotten a bad rap. Cinderella wasn’t the only one to have problems with them – they have been portrayed as cold, grasping, and vindictive throughout the history of storytelling. But I can’t ever recall any stepmother ever being as twisted and amoral as the stepfather portrayed in this movie. More than 30 years after its release, The Stepfather doesn’t hold up quite as well as it did during the late 1980s (some of the film’s technical aspects are dated) but it still generates tension and suspense and O’Quinn’s performance has lost none of its power.

Stepfather, The (United States, 1987)

Director: Joseph Ruben
Cast: Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack, Charles Lanyer, Stephen Shellen
Home Release Date: 2018-03-25
Screenplay: Donald E. Westlake
Cinematography: John W. Lindley
Music: Patrick Moraz
U.S. Distributor: New Century Vista Film Company
Run Time: 1:29
U.S. Release Date: 1987-01-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1