The Stepfather October 15, 2018
1 Hr., 29 Mins.
The unnamed antagonist at the center of The Stepfather (1987) is as much of a master of disguise as the eponymous chameleon in Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983). He (Terry O’Quinn) is a serial killer, and his modus operandi has long-required him to change lives, and appearances, with vaudevillian perfection. For years, he has seduced, then married, lonely and beautiful single mothers in picturesque American towns. When the family into which he has barged proves to not cater to his needs after a while, though — the man wants one’s kinsfolk to always be the highest priority, no matter the situation — he murders them.
In The Stepfather’s opening scene, we watch as the antagonist washes blood off his hands in the second-story bathroom of his suburban home. He slips into the shower, shaves off his overgrown beard and locks, and changes into a freshly tailored suit. He walks out the front door, his newly hatcheted “family” strewn about the living room and foyer, and promptly goes about targeting his next fractured clan.
In The Stepfather, he will take on the identity of a bland real-estate agent named Jerry. The film is set a year after the movie’s opening, on the outskirts of Seattle. (Though the feature, unusually quaint-looking, was shot in Vancouver, B.C.) Jerry has married a 40-something-year-old blonde named Susan (Shelley Hack) and has become a stepparent to Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), the former’s troubled 16-year-old daughter. Susan considers herself lucky to have met a man as nice as Jerry; Stephanie, who is still recovering from the recent death of her father, is distrustful of her replacement Dad. “I’m scared of him,” she admits to her doomed psychiatrist, Bondurant (Charles Lanyer), early in the movie.
Stephanie’s slow realization that her suspicions have weight is accompanied by a subplot involving the brother of one of Jerry’s victims (Stephen Shellen), who spends the movie frantically looking for his sister’s killer, determined to prevent further tragedy.
The movie was directed by Joseph Ruben and written by the pulp-fiction whisperer Donald E. Westlake; neither attempts to find the nuance in the story, which, as pointed out by the critic Roger Ebert, might have otherwise propelled a fascinating character study with subtler thriller touches lining the action.
The stepfather character, played ferociously by the sly-eyed O’Quinn, is a novel idea for a more low-key slasher movie such as this, but he is rarely more than an underwritten grotesque of a villain who must be defeated by the film’s end. (He will not meet his end when these 89 minutes are up, though: the 1987 feature was followed by two sequels, one released in 1989, the other in 1992.) I would have liked if the movie, even if its methods were pithy, attempted to delve into its antagonist’s psyche. Or, better yet, try to explicate what has caused this villain’s murderous obsession with becoming part of a “perfect” family. In The Stepfather, the titular character is simplistically beastly.
Still, the movie is an enjoyable, competently made genre picture bolstered by O’Quinn’s performance, which is so ardent that it makes this caricature of a foe ring with a kind of plausibility that could only exist in a mainstream horror feature with a B-movie heart. B