[We're celebrating some of the most memorable horror and sci-fi movies of 1989 this month in Daily Dead's Class of 89 retrospective series! Check back on Daily Dead throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversaries of a wide range of horror and sci-fi films!]
Sequels are always a tricky proposition, and one that most fans meet halfway with more than a little trepidation; we want something new, while still retaining the qualities or spirit that originally drew us in. And then there’s Stepfather II: Make Room for Daddy (1989), which tells the same familial terror tale, but in such a way that we don’t mind the repetition—as a matter of fact, we embrace it.
Well, I do, anyway; there are some folks that dismiss Stepfather II as a gorier clone of its predecessor, which is simply not true. It’s also much funnier. Critics naturally had their woodworking tools ready to chisel away at the goodwill the first film had accrued, and many claimed it merely rehashed the events of the first with a bloodier perspective. Given a limited release in theaters, it brought in $1.5 million—not terrible for a limited release and a supposed “rehash.” But regardless of its reception at the time, the years have been very kind to Stepfather II; it stands tall as a continuation and a humorous redux that puts our titular antagonist through the wringer.
First, let’s play some catch-up: somehow, Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn, back for more punishment) survived the events of the first film, and is locked away in a mental facility. He sees a ray of hope when a new shrink takes over, and he slowly gains his trust; so much so that he ends up stabbing him with a homemade shiv and makes good on his escape. Jerry soon becomes Gene Clifford, a family therapist new to a suburban paradise housed by mother Carol (Meg Foster – They Live), son Todd (Jonathan Brandis – Stephen King's IT), and always close by, Carol’s best friend and local mailperson, Matty (Caroline Williams – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2).
Gene soon starts to ingratiate himself to the neighborhood women through his group sessions; he particularly takes a liking to Carol and Todd, since the husband/father is no longer in the picture (don’t forget, our favorite stepdad likes ready-made households). Matty has her suspicions, though; and being the mailperson, she has access that others do not. As Gene and Carol’s wedding day approaches, his perfect plan starts to unravel before the champagne has time to go warm. Can’t the perfect family man catch a break?
The Stepfather worked because of its shocking impact and explosive performance by O’Quinn; II does not have surprise in its favor, so instead it leans into the audience’s awareness of Jerry/Gene and the trouble he goes through for perfection. It’s the unhinged desperation that drives him and the film; we’re eager witnesses waiting to see what he’ll do to achieve his utopian ideal of the nuclear unit. And how he’ll screw it up.
This is where the humor comes in. For those unfamiliar with the first film, II will probably play as a straightforward slasher with a suitable comeuppance, but for viewers dancing again with the “who am I?” guy, it plays as a glorious waltz, our antagonist confidently leading the way until he trips on his pant legs. Jerry, Gene, however you name him, is just not very good at this killing stuff.
I take that back, he’s good at killing; he’s just not the most efficient at covering his tracks. And the beauty of II is that director Jeff Burr (From a Whisper to a Scream) and writer John Auerbach use this to showcase him for the rather pathetic monster he is; troubled to be sure, O’Quinn’s character throws a tantrum at the slightest hint that things aren’t going his way—he’s a proto incel.
But what gives II its juice is the glee with which Burr, a very muscular director, takes in dismantling Gene’s dream before our very eyes; he’s very much the center of attention in nearly every scene, and as the threads of his plan unravel, so does his tenuous grip on reality. Burr captures the hysterical impulses of a man far beyond the edge.
Stepfather II is only a comedy, though, if seen as the Desperate Measures of a Madman; otherwise it plays as an effective suburban slasher, thanks to a superb cast of veterans. Foster brings her ethereal beauty and placidness to Carol as a protective mother and confused love interest; the late Landis invests Todd with a natural sweetness that immediately endures, and Williams is electric as the nosy but very correct Matty. As for O’Quinn…
The first film is mainly remembered for his performance; it’s a good movie made great by his layered take on insanity and loss of persona. He brings the same coiled intensity here; behind his vanilla smile is a monster ready to build his American Dream at any and all costs. Stepfather II: Make Room for Daddy shows that not everyone is meant to be a parent, no matter how many do-overs they need.
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 89!