Stepfather, The (1987)

“All we need is a little order around here.”

Stepfather Poster

Synopsis:
After brutally murdering his wife and daughter, a sociopathic killer (Terry O’Quinn) moves to another town, where he assumes a new identity and marries a widow (Shelley Hack) with a troubled teenage daughter (Jill Schoelen). Will Hack and Schoelen be O’Quinn’s next victims — or will his ex-wife’s brother (Stephen Shellen) locate him in time to stop him from killing again?

Genres:

Review:
Based on a screenplay and story by prolific crime-writer Donald Westlake, The Stepfather plays on the worst fears of every child living in a blended family: what if the new “parent” living in your house turned out to be a sociopathic killer? O’Quinn delivers a memorably creepy performance as a would-be-Ward-Cleaver desperate for a picture-perfect family while perpetually on the edge of pathological insanity (those knives… those tools…). John Lindley’s cinematography perfectly captures the dichotomy between O’Quinn’s desired pastel Americana (complete with a home-made bird house, Thanksgiving turkey, and block party) and the darker recesses of his sick psyche; meanwhile, director Joseph Ruben handles the entire narrative with tension and expert pacing, producing some genuinely freaky scenes. While not quite a gem like its Hitchcockian inspirations, this horror-thriller deserves its status as an ’80s cult flick, and is worth a revisit every now and then.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Terry O’Quinn as Jerry (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
    Stepfather O'Quinn
  • Jill Schoelen as Stephanie
    Stepfather Schoellen
  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Stepfather Cinematography
    Stepfather Cinematography2
    Stepfather Cinematography3
  • Many effectively chilling sequences
    Stepfather Creepy

Must See?
Yes, as an enjoyable cult favorite.

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One Response to “Stepfather, The (1987)”

  1. A once-must, as a relatively modern cult classic.

    I’d seen this once before, many years ago, and remembered it as a solid film, so that was a good sign it would hold up on a revisit, and it does.

    With a rather short running time (85 minutes), it handles what it has to say in a very compact, economic manner, with nothing there that doesn’t need to be there (including one very significant shock).

    O’Quinn is indeed very chilling as the stepdad, and the supporting cast is solid in a way that doesn’t draw attention as anything but believable. ~although Hack’s character reveals herself as kind of a dope – a very nice person but perhaps a love-starved dope. At one point, she says to O’Quinn, “You never talk about your past.” ~and she doesn’t find that disturbing?! And she married him?? What’s wrong with her?!!!

    This movie is rather adept at showing a real sociopath…with a unique problem: he’s obsessed with having the perfect family. One might wonder…why? Doesn’t that run against the grain of being a sociopath? But it’s perhaps to the film’s credit that the character’s condition isn’t explained; no need, I suppose, to repeat the kind of ending that ‘Psycho’ has…explaining everything in complete detail in the police station.

    ‘The Stepfather’ also plays into the very real problem people face when they see sides to people that others don’t or don’t want to see, whether those ‘face-changers’ are actually dangerous or not. There are many people who change their nature depending on who they are dealing with at the time. Perhaps we all do that, either to a considerable or a very small degree. But it would be very scary indeed if someone has everyone around him liking him (or her), and you have a good reason not to…and no one believes you. That would be very unsettling and potentially very scary indeed.

    The film is well shot and edited and also boasts a particularly effective score by relative unknown Patrick Moraz.

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