The Stepfather ★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Part of Hoop-Tober

“Wait a minute, who am I here?”

Behind door number one is a beautiful woman, inviting but with a glint of something off-balance in her eye. She is composed—too composed, too tightly wound, too...something. You cannot quite put your finger on it—you’ve nothing overtly wrong to which you can point—but something about her distresses you. Behind door number two is a snarling beastie, a jagged creature ready to tear limb from limb anything it encounters. It is the embodiment of heartless sadism (or it would be, were sadism without heart not an oxymoron). It distresses you, and you can put your finger on exactly why. Neither option is desirable—your fate is almost certainly sealed. So, which door do you choose: the lady, or the tiger?

Horror audiences of the late-1970s/1980s overwhelmingly chose the tiger. It is one of the great curiosities of the slasher movement that its focus stayed so resolutely on killers that were otherworldly or otherwise somehow overtly monstrous. The evil next door, smiling as it trims the hedges, seems infinitely more terrifying than a boogeyman who exists only in your wildest imagination, but for a period of time the former sort of evil appeared to fall out of favor with filmmakers.

Then again, maybe it was familiarity. With men like John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy in the news, perhaps moviegoers preferred to process their fears from a distance, safe in the knowledge that Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger were unlikely to show up on their doorsteps. Maybe it was just escapism, like 1930s audiences flocking to frothy musical comedies rather than watch films about the Great Depression surrounding them at home.

Not all of the era’s films focused on supernatural or unlikely marauders, however. Some turned their sights to the smiling, affable small-town killer in the grand tradition of Uncle Charlie and Reverend Harry Powell and Norman Bates. Perhaps the best-remembered of these is The Stepfather, from writer Donald Westlake and director Joseph Ruben. If only the era had something a bit better to offer.

That is no fault of Terry O’Quinn, whose performance as Jerry Blake is finely modulated and layered. Nor is it the fault of the captivating opening scene: Jerry (operating under the name of Henry Morrison—like Jerry, one of presumably many aliases) is spattered with blood. He trims his shaggy hair and shaves his beard. He removes his thick eyeglasses and replaces them with contact lenses. He showers and dons a conservative suit. He packs his bloodied old clothes in a suitcase. He descends the stairs and walks out the front door, passing horrific carnage—the hacked-up corpses of his wife and children. And he walks down the street, cheerily whistling “Camptown Races.” It’s a dynamite beginning, quickly establishing the villain as both unhinged and composed, violent and methodical. Sadly, it makes a promise that the rest of the film cannot keep.

Jump ahead a year, and Jerry is selling real estate in an idyllic small Washington town and married to widowed Susan (Shelley Hack) and stepfather to Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Everyone adores Jerry, his plasticine smile, his aw-shucks fondness for birdhouses and Mr. Ed, his soft-spoken yet hard-charging crusade in favor of old-fashioned family values. Everyone, that is, except Stephanie. From the outset, it is apparent to Stephanie that Jerry is sinister, though she can’t quite put her finger on why or find any evidence to support her suspicions. Sure, he flashes her a dark-eyed glare when she gets expelled from high school, but who wouldn’t be frustrated by such recklessness? Sure, he yells at himself somewhat scarily in the basement, but everyone needs to blow off steam in private now and then, right? No, Stephanie knows that Jerry is disturbed. It’s just so obvious to her.

Fitting, since obviousness is the modus operandi for The Stepfather. It takes no great insight to see Ruben’s film, released in 1987 at the height of Reagan and the Religious Right’s efforts to create a “Morning in America” resembling a Thomas Kinkade painting, as a comment on the dangers of idealism stripped of pragmatics. And on that front, The Stepfather succeeds reasonably well. Jerry’s insistence on keeping the family together and projecting a perfect Leave It to Beaver vision of all-American wholesomeness masks violent rages and hints of a difficult childhood that he’d rather block out than confront and move past. But as with all forms of absolutism, its application to the complexities of the real world is limited, leaving Jerry with nothing but judgmental fury. It focuses on justice at the expense of mercy—a certain recipe for a scorched earth.

Unfortunately, obviousness extends as well to the film’s predictable, clunky plotting: Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer) obviously lying about his identity while asking weird, probing questions of Jerry at an isolated location—hmm, wonder how this will turn out for the poor doctor? The thoroughly meticulous Jerry leaving behind an obvious clue as to his new whereabouts at his abandoned homestead, ready for his former brother-in-law Jim (Stephen Shellen) to find (after the police conveniently overlooked it)—my, how unlikely yet agreeably plot-friendly of him. Jerry failing to check that Susan is dead, failing to pick up Jim’s loaded gun, failing to step on the solid attic flooring rather than the flimsy insulation—you can practically watch Westlake and Ruben’s flipping through their handy “Guide to Thriller Climaxes” (the disappointing purchase of many a frustrated lover).

While it would probably be unfair to criticize a slasher for vanquishing (or at least appearing to vanquish) the villain at film’s end, turning Jerry into a howling banshee is at odds with the carefully calibrated character that O’Quinn has created to that point. It’s reminiscent of another of the year’s successful thrillers, Fatal Attraction—a reasonably smart, reasonably interesting film with an excellent central performance derailed by the need to deliver the safest, most bombastic finale imaginable. Westlake and Ruben leave you with a bit of a hodgepodge—a clever premise; iffy dialogue; a fine lead turn from O’Quinn; unmemorable supporting performances; some nice social commentary; rote, obvious plotting. Jerry asks himself who he’s supposed to be—perhaps the filmmakers should have asked themselves the same question.

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