Without question, being a stepparent can be rough. It’s a balancing act between wanting what’s best for the child, and the need to ingratiate oneself and hopefully, earn and obtain love. This is a tightrope that Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn) has no interest in walking – if he can’t implement his perfect family plan, he switches policies in the most violent way possible. Welcome to the world of The Stepfather (1987), a pretty good thriller elevated to classic status due to a legendary performance by O’Quinn.
And while Jerry Blake has little patience for deviation from his ideals, so too do Henry Morrison and Bill Hodgkins – all identities that our stepdad creates in his twisted pursuit of perfection. (If at first you don’t succeed, kill and kill again.) The Stepfather proves that home is where the hurt is.
Released by New Century Vista Film Company in June, the film eked out a total of just under $2.5 million in its theatrical release, despite some glowing reviews from critics. It fared better on home video, with the suburbia soaked atmosphere playing perfectly to the manicured lawns and white picket fences crowd. If you were, are, or will be a teenaged suburbanite, The Stepfather is for you. (Having a murderous parent is not necessary to enjoy the film, but I suppose it would add a little resonance.)
Our tale opens in a home bathroom, as Henry Morrison shaves and prepares for another work day. The only problem is he’s shaving off his entire beard, getting rid of his glasses, and washing blood from his hands. We see him dress in a suit and head down the stairs. As he passes the hallway towards the front door, he passes a living room filled with his deceased brood, and the camera lingers on a dead child before Henry opens the door to greet the day. Whistling “Camptown Races”, he heads off down the street in search of a more obedient family.
Cut to a year later, and we meet Jerry Blake and his new family: widowed wife Susan (Shelley Hack – Troll) and her daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen – Popcorn), who, being a normal teenager, is naturally suspicious of her new stepdad. Her mom writes it off to grieving over the loss of her late father, feelings that Stephanie shares with her psychiatrist, Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer – The Astronaut’s Wife). Stephanie is sure that something is wrong with Jerry, though; she witnesses him explode with rage in his basement workshop (where he makes birdhouses), and his demeanor is sickeningly square and anachronistic for the ‘80s. Meanwhile, Henry Morrison’s ex brother in law Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen – American Gothic) is trying to track him down since the police are at a dead end. Will Jerry Blake finally find his ideal familial unit, or will he have to wash his hands of them as well?
The Stepfather is an interesting hybrid; part family drama (well played), sleuthing (so-so), a character study of madness (off the charts), and finally a bow to the slashers of the day (back to so-so). The family dynamic is the central focus here; all the other strands weave through it, from Jim’s search for his sister’s killer, to Stephanie coming to grips with the new man in her mom’s life and the death of her father. Screenwriter (and noted crime author) Donald E. Westlake (The Grifters) also manages to throw a few good jabs at then-president Ronald Reagan’s ideology on society’s need for ‘old fashioned values’; Jerry’s hysterical overreaction to Stephanie being kissed by a boy (“This punk was trying to rape our daughter!”), or his reaction to her troubles at school (“Expelled? Girls don’t get expelled!”) shows an unwillingness to change with the times. To be fair to Jerry, his slippery take on reality guarantees he never had a chance to see the world beyond the façade of a 1950s sitcom (in one scene he wistfully watches a rerun of Mr. Ed). Which makes The Stepfather even more intriguing; we never do find out what makes old Jer’ tick, or set him off down the path of ‘perfecting’ the family unit – it only makes him unpredictable and terrifying. And while the film is not overly violent until the climax, when it does hit the impact is all the more powerful, due to Joseph Ruben (Dreamscape)’s taut direction. The only gratuitous thread in the film (besides Schoelen’s shower scene, of course) is the Ogilvie sub plot. It does end up putting the finale into motion, but with a little tinkering could have arrived there without his presence.
But that really doesn’t matter because the film’s brightest lights are the performances. Hack is good, even though Susan is a little underwritten; she’s not much more than the oblivious mom/wife until it’s too late. (Parents – they never believe you!) Stephanie, however, is so well fleshed out that you won’t notice – and Schoelen is up to the task. She was 22 years old at the time of filming, but she pulls off 16 easily; by turns insolent, sad, petulant, or angry, she conveys the heightened range of emotions that all teenagers feel. I doff my hat to Westlake for giving Stephanie a depth often lacking in teen roles, and to Schoelen for bringing her to life.
By this point in his career, Terry O’Quinn had played a lot of supporting roles; a sheriff here, a coach there, but hadn’t really been given a part to showcase his full range of talent. The Stepfather has O’Quinn breaking the glass on the showcase and running away with the film. Which isn’t to say he plays it over the top (and he easily could have) but instead brings out the satire and absurdity of a character stuck in time, clinging to the American Dream with a bloodied Black & Decker and a smile. O’Quinn portrays Jerry’s disconnect as a symbol of the pitfalls of nostalgia; could his past have been all that swell if he ended up the way he did? If we’re going to lump characters into generic categories like ‘Screen Psychos’, then Jerry Blake and the brilliant, subversive performance of O’Quinn deserve to be held in the same lofty regard as Norman Bates and Anthony Perkins.
By the time Jerry utters his pivotal question, “Who am I here?” during the suspenseful (but sort of routine) slasher finale, we realize we already know the answer: one of the greatest actors to grace a horror film, playing an all-timer in the Deranged Hall of Fame. The Stepfather isn’t perfect, and neither is Jerry; but they both build a pretty good birdhouse. And like the sweetest bird, Terry O’Quinn can sing.
The Stepfather is available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957)