The Stepfather, 1987.
Directed by Joseph Ruben.
Starring Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack, Charles Lanyer, Stephen Sullivan and Stephen E. Miller.
Jerry Blake marries into a new family and all seems well. However, his new stepdaughter Stephanie begins to suspect that Jerry is hiding a dark and terrifying secret.
Step-parents, the awkward strangers who enter our lives that we have to try and make friends with as best we can, or at the very least pretend to, for the sake of our actual parents. All the while saving all the resentment and anger for one particularly explosive argument at Christmas. But enough about my family, for today we’re taking a look at a film that puts this anxiety-inducing predicament at its heart; the cult psychological horror The Stepfather.
Inspired by real-life killer John List, who murdered his family and adopted a new name and life before his arrest, The Stepfather boasts a suspenseful story. It’s no secret that Jerry Blake (as he is called for much of the film, his real name is unknown) is a murderous psychopath, with the film beginning by showing him making a carefully planned escape after butchering his family. The suspense comes from knowing that Jerry is evil and watching him blending into society, winning friends and generally playing the role of the pillar of the community. The flickers of his true murderous nature rising to the surface via the occasional sinister comment or, as in many terrifying moments, violent outbursts in his basement, ranting and raving in a kind of manic argument with himself. I always appreciate when a horror film focuses on the psychology of a killer, and The Stepfather is at its best when it focuses on Jerry’s struggles to keep up his facade as a loving family man and his psychotic obsession with keeping his new family together.
However, the film loses momentum is when it insists on shifting focus onto Jerry’s stepdaughter Stephanie who, in classic horror cliché fashion, is among the few who sees Jerry for who he really is. It’s not an entirely terrible way to keep the plot moving, but I did find my interest waning every time the film cut away from Jerry and his antics. The sub-plot of Jerry’s former brother-in-law hunting him across the country looking for revenge is one that I’m torn about, primarily because I’m not entirely sure that it needed to be there. Again, it’s not a terrible plot, and it keeps things varied but, after spending 90 minutes watching this poor guy hunting desperately, its climax is abrupt and underwhelming. Although this could very well be a deliberate move on the film’s part to add an extra surprise to proceedings, however, had this subplot been cut, it honestly wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
The pacing is what really lets the film down. Although relatively short at 90 minutes, The Stepfather, after a brilliant and shocking opening sequence showing Jerry shedding his previous life, moves along at a snail’s pace, taking its sweet time to get its plot moving again. The glacial pacing is especially prevalent in the climax, which, after a long slog, the film suddenly comes to life in the final ten minutes as all hell breaks loose. The slow-burning psychological horror of the previous 80 minutes turning into a full-blown 80s slasher, complete with corny one-liners that would make Freddy Kruger roll his eyes.
The musical score is an area where I have mixed feelings, it being a fun 80s horror score but so lacking in subtly that it almost feels like a parody of one. That and the opening theme seems like something you’d hear from a Castlevania knock-off on Super Nintendo.
While The Stepfather has many flaws, it has one thing that makes it worth watching; Terry O’Quinn. O’Quinn (best known nowadays for his role as John Locke in Lost) dominates the film with his terrifying and hugely entertaining performance as Jerry, the titular Stepfather. Part of O’Quinn’s brilliance is that he is essentially playing two characters. The public face of Jerry is friendly, welcoming, sentimental and a generally pleasant guy who just wants to be a loving husband and father. It’s honestly quite unsettling how well O’Quinn plays this public face, being genuinely charming to the point where you find yourself starting to like him a little. Yet, when we see behind that friendly mask at the real monster lurking in the shadows, O’Quinn really grabs your attention. His basement rantings and mutterings being trouser ruining as he paces, muttering and snarling about ‘daddy’s little angel’ and being a ‘good boy’. O’Quinn is at his most menacing when he says nothing, with just a glance or the flash of that false friendly smile of his being genuinely creepy. Although, the climax is where even O’Quinn starts to lose his shine, albeit only a little. The script turns Jerry into a knife-wielding slasher with the actor not quite suited to dishing out one-liners such as ‘you’ve been a very bad girl.’ Although, I do love the scene where Jerry starts to lose track of his lies and false identities, calmly and disturbingly asking: ‘Wait a minute. Who am I here?’
The Stepfather is a severely flawed film. The pace is slow to the point of a snail waiting behind it waiting to overtake. The plot, while strong, undermines itself by resorting to horror cliches with a sub-plot that feels ultimately pointless and a musical score that has all the grace and subtly of a sledgehammer to the bollocks. However, all of this is almost saved by Terry O’Quinn, whose brilliant and terrifying performance makes the slog worth it in the end.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★