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Retro Review: THE STEPFATHER (1987)… Leave it to Meat-Cleaver

Posted on January 29th, 2013
Posted on January 29th, 2013

by Chris Moore

The Stepfather opens with a bearded man (Terry O’Quinn) washing a whole lot of blood off, trimming his beard, putting in colored contact lenses, and casually strolling out of his home, leaving the grisly corpses of his family (and his former identity) behind. A year passes and we learn the same man has now become Jerry Blake, a charming small town real estate agent. With new wife Susan (Shelley Hack) and stepdaughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen) in tow, Jerry seems to have it all, but as his new family begins to disappoint him, Jerry starts having those murderous thoughts again.

To make matters worse for poor Jerry, Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen), the brother of Jerry’s slain ex-wife, is on a mission to track him down and expose his secret to the world. Little does Jim know that anyone who tries to expose Jerry’s secret ends up having an “accident”, including Stephanie’s kindly shrink, Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer).

You see, all Jerry wants is the perfect 50’s family and he doesn’t think that’s too much to ask. When stepdaughter Stephanie gets expelled from school and suggests attending boarding school, Jerry won’t have it. After all, the perfect family must stay together…no matter what.

The Stepfather is a thriller that depends on a strong leading performance by its titular character and veteran character actor Terry O’Quinn is more than up for the challenge. With O’Quinn (best known for playing John Locke on TV’s Lost), The Stepfather couldn’t have possibly chosen a more charming actor. He tows the line between terror and camp shockingly well, giving us the scariest horror film father figure since Jack Nicholson axed down the bathroom door in The Shining. It’s truly a remarkable performance and, had the Academy been more friendly to the genre, O’Quinn could have possibly secured himself an Oscar nomination. He’s that good.

Shelley Hack, a former Charlie’s Angel, does her best with a thankless role as the love starved widow. She’s instantly likable, which certainly helps the audience care for her when the time comes. With her charming presence and raspy, whiskey voiced delivery, 80’s/90’s scream queen extraordinaire, Jill Schoelen, is suitably plucky as Jerry’s new rival, Stephanie. Schoelen made a career out of these horror/thriller films, following up The Stepfather with The Phantom of the Opera and Popcorn.

Director Joseph Rubin (Dreamscape), who’d use this film as a launching pad to a career in Hollywood, keeps the pace tight and intense. He has a knack for building suspense as he’d go on to show in Hollywood thrillers such as the underrated Julia Roberts vehicle Sleeping With The Enemy.

With its main character’s insistence on traditional “family values”, the film feels quite timely. I mean, how many times have we seen some clearly deranged politician talk about how our “family values” are being challenged by some mysterious “other?” They seem to be a chip off the ol’ Jerry Blake block. After all, they appear to be fighting for the same cause. A shame the loathsome 2009 remake did nothing to capitalize on this.

If there was anything to critique about The Stepfather, it would be the music score by Patrick Moraz. In fact, it’s probably the only thing that really dates the movie. While I love a good 80’s synth score (the works of John Carpenter, Goblin, and Alan Howarth are in my collection), Moraz’s compositions mostly sound like something from an upbeat children’s cartoon show from the same decade. It frequently takes one out of the film and ruins a lot of tense sequences.

The Stepfather is a gem that’s worth re-discovering. Thanks to its cult following, it was released to DVD and Blu-Ray for the first time a few years ago by Shout Factory. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. Horror/thriller fans won’t be disappointed.

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