An intelligent, disturbing
and altogether impressive eighties thriller, one of those rare films
that’s well worth going out of your way to see.
Upon its 1987 release THE STEPFATHER received
near-unanimous critical raves (it was lionized by the late Pauline Kael
in THE NEW YORKER) and a fair measure of popular success. It was largely
responsible for launching the careers of director Joseph Rubin--who went
on to bigger, if not necessarily better, fare like SLEEPING WITH THE
ENEMY, THE GOOD SON and THE FORGOTTEN--and lead actor Terry O’Quinn,
who’s best known these days for his roles in ALIAS and LOST. Quinn
returned (though Rubin didn’t) for a STEPFATHER 2 in 1989, but wisely
sat out 1992’s STEPFATHER 3. There’s also a 2009 remake starring Dylan
Walsh, but you can definitely skip it!
The seemingly upstanding suburbanite Henry Morrison is
first spotted calmly leaving a Seattle house...having just butchered the
family within! He next turns up as Jerry Blake, a successful real estate
salesman. As such he marries the widowed Susan, who has a precocious
teenage daughter named Stephanie. The latter resents Jerry’s intrusion
into her life, and vents her frustrations by acting out in school. Her
behavior gets her expelled, which doesn’t make Henry/Jerry, who’s
obsessed with creating the perfect family, too happy.
Around this time the police inquest into the Morrison
killings, having been dormant for the past year, is reopened by the
murdered woman’s brother. Stephanie hates her stepfather so much she
tries to get the blame pinned on him for the murders, and requests a
photo of Henry Morrison for confirmation. The newspaper follows through,
but Jerry intercepts the photo before Stephanie has a chance to see it.
Don’t think Jerry has left his murderous ways behind!
He kills once again, the victim this time being Stephanie’s nosy shrink.
Jerry offs the guy because he’s nosy and (perhaps more importantly)
because he doesn’t have a family. Jerry makes the killing look like an
accident, which Stephanie doesn’t entirely buy. She does some detective
work and discovers the true cause of the shrink’s demise. Her findings
are concurrent with those of the Morrison woman’s brother, who’s closing
in on Jerry.
In the meantime Jerry is methodically laying the
groundwork for his next identity switch by finding a new town, job and
family. All that’s left is to kill off Susan and Stephanie.
One can quibble with aspects of Joseph Rubin’s
direction, which is a tad bombastic with its restless steadicam visuals
and overpowering music score. One might also bitch about the odd story
construction, which gives away the stepfather’s true nature in the
opening scene rather than let the information be doled out gradually.
This seems doubly odd since the script was worked on by Brian Garfield
(DEATH WISH) and Donald E.
Westlake, both top mystery/thriller novelists.
But those are minor complaints. The film works
extremely well as is, being suspenseful and engrossing to a
Hitchcock-worthy degree. Some critics view it as a BLUE VELVET-like
critique of the conservative Reagan years, but I think THE STEPFATHER is
best viewed as what it is: an unusually good, efficient thriller.
And then there’s the towering performance of Terry
O’Quinn as “Scary Jerry,” surely one of the greatest movie villains
since Norman Bates. O’Quinn is so good we can actually feel and (to a
degree) sympathize with his longing for a traditional all-American
family. Jill Schoelen is also quite good as Quinn’s traumatized
stepdaughter, and model-turned-crappy actress Shelley Hack isn’t even
bad as Quinn’s too-trusting wife.
ITC Productions, Inc.
Director: Joseph Ruben
Producer: Jay Benson
Screenplay: Donald E. Westlake
Cinematography: John W. Lindley
Editing: George Bowers
Cast: Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack, Charles Lanyer,
Stephen Shellen, Stephen E. Miller, Robyn Stevan, Jeff Schultz, Lindsay
Bourne, Anna Hagan, Gilliam Barber, Blu Mankuma