The Stepfather (1987)
US (dir. Joseph Ruben)
Cast: Charles Lanyer, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack, Stephen Shellen, Terry O’Quinn, Stephen E. Miller
Synopsis: All about a “family values” man Jerry Blake who marries widows and divorcées with children in search of the perfect family. As soon as his new family members show signs of being human and not robots who will march unquestioningly to his tune, his dreams of domestic bliss begins to crumble, and he kills them. Then he alters his appearance, assumes a new identity, and skips to another town to begin the deadly ritual all over again. He marries Susan Maine, who sees him as the ideal surrogate father for her teenage daughter Stephanie, and is soon up to his old tricks when she proves too much of a troublesome teen to handle.
Review: “The Stepfather” is a surprisingly good mid-80s horror movie that is luckily only plagued by a bad musical score and some terrible wardrobe choices. The movie is about the American dream gone awry, specifically one psycho man’s quest to forge a perfect All-American family in a suburban house with a white picket fence (and all that Americana crap). The twist of it is that the man (the stepfather) goes from family to family in search of the “perfect” one and then kills off all the imperfect families that dare challenge his traditional family values. It’s a great movie because it hits you with the horror stuff right in the opening scene, and the general flow of the movie and the development of the main character (the stepfather) is done beautifully. It’s also scary on a deeper, psychological level because it hits close to home – specifically because it deals with domestic violence, the pressures of raising the “ideal” family, and the difficulties of fatherhood.
In the opening scene, we see your average American dad type of guy getting ready for work, shaving, changing clothes, putting on colour contact lenses, putting on fake hair… until you realize he’s not so much getting ready for work as he is getting ready to skip town with a fresh makeover. He walks through what appears to be a normal suburban home, until you realize everyone else there has been butchered and there’s blood splattered throughout. It’s a lovely little introduction scene, and it works so well to set up the premise of the movie and the events that will follow.
Jerry Blake (which is what the stepfather calls himself this time around) finds a new family to join up with (a widow and her troubled teen daughter) and sets himself up as the town’s real estate agent who has som weird, uncanny obsession with families and the traditional family structure. He is played wonderfully by “Lost” actor Terry O’Quinn and he does a great job at appearing both normal on the surface and twisted beyond belief on the inside. He starts losing it when he realizes he has no control over his stepdaughter who has a bit of a troubled past with fighting at school and getting expelled. Jerry tries his best to make her perfect, but he just ends up failing. The psychiatrist treating the stepdaughter tries to get in touch with Jerry to see what the family situation is like, but when confronted, Jerry snaps and kills him off. Ever more suspicious, the stepdaughter tries investigating Jerry’s past and just ends up with some dead ends. Jerry, who is by this point fed up with his new family, starts shopping around for a better one, and he of course plots to murder the current family before skipping town.
Some of the best scenes in the movie are between stepfather and stepdaughter and perfectly depict the tension that is inherent in such a family situation. There’s also a wonderfully twisted part where the stepfather ends up forgetting his current fake name and refers to himself by another name in front of his current wife. He later goes on to ask “Who am I here?” and it makes the scene so perfectly scary and twisted all at once. This is the a pivotal scene in the movie, and it also serves as a lead-in to some of the bigger questions inherent in the movie such as, what is a stepfather’s role in a family that isn’t really “his” own?, what is the role of the father in difficult family situations? and most importantly, who are we within our own families?
While the production value isn’t spectacular (due to some shitty 1980s elevator music and simply terrible wardrobe choices) the movie is still very well done. Another problem that plagues it is the recurrence of a minor character (the brother of one of the stepfather’s previous wives who was killed earlier on) who really adds nothing to the movie. He just goes around looking for Jerry Blake, and then ends up dying swiftly after finally finding him. His only contribution to the movie was dropping a gun on the floor which would later be picked up by Jerry’s new wife. There’s a remake of this movie coming out soon, but I fear that a lot of the good stuff will be replaced with glossy crap. In the meantime, the original is solid and definitely worth checking out.