The Stepfather

“You know, a house like this should really have a family in it.” —Terry O’Quinn, The Stepfather

A moment near the end of 1987’s The Stepfather crystallizes the elusive fantasy that motivates Jerry Blake, the damnably old-fashioned serial killer of the title. Played with deranged wholesomeness by Terry O’Quinn, a great character actor who most will recognize as Locke on Lost, Jerry moves from one tree-lined, family-friendly town to another, searching for single mothers in need of a decent, hard-working husband to stabilize the house. As one family situation falls apart, Jerry creates a new identity (along with a convincing disguise) and begins setting up shop elsewhere, then slaughters the women and children who have so bitterly disappointed him.

After spending much of The Stepfather trying and failing to work his way into the heart of recently widowed Susan (Shelley Hack) and her teenage daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), Jerry has reached that ugly transitional phase once more. Strolling along yet another tree-lined street in the flush of autumn, he spots a scene right out of a commercial, perhaps for life insurance or real estate, his trades of choice: a father pulling into the driveway, his daughter bounding out the front door (“Daddy!”) with smiling mother in tow, all in slow motion. Suddenly, Jerry’s face softens from anger into a kind of wistfulness. This is his dream, to be Ward Cleaver of ’50s lore, a type which existed on television but isn’t possible in the real world. He doesn’t know how that family of three lives behind closed doors, and the complications that animate (and probably enrich) their household; all he sees is the commercial, and he eternally strives to be its star.

There are stock elements aplenty to The Stepfather—cheesy synth-based ’80s music cues, a disappointing slasher-movie climax, an entire subplot that knocks off Scatman Crothers’ doomed journey in The Shining—but the Jerry Blake character stands out for his brittle idealism. In those moments when Jerry gets to play the role of upstanding father and community leader—whether he’s erecting a birdhouse carved in his basement workshop/freak-out space, or delivering a soaring oratory on family at a neighborhood cookout—we can see his twisted psyche salved for an instant. And if it were possible to build a life on Saturday Evening Post covers, maybe he could transcend his clearly traumatic childhood, which the film wisely hints at but never fully reveals. But what he can’t accept is that part of being a parent that involves inviting a measure of chaos into your life, and his narrow, rigid thinking on being a father and husband drives him quickly to madness.

The pulpy opening scene finds Jerry cleaning up after his latest bloodbath: trimming his shaggy beard and curly hair (strange that his wife would allow him to look like a hobo), trading thick glasses for contacts, and neatly discarding his clothes and hairpiece into a bag for disposal. As he descends the stairs from the upstairs bathroom, he passes a tableau of unbelievable carnage: three bodies gutted, blood all over the walls, every indication of a horrific crime of passion. In one sequence, writer Donald Westlake and director Joseph Ruben reveal the fascinating contradictions of Jerry’s character: He’s both fastidious and completely out of control. Some switch in his head allows him to shift from a rampaging maniac to a clinical thinker with an instinct toward self-preservation. O’Quinn’s face registers these changes transparently; he’s scary when his eyes go dark with rage, but scarier still when life disappears from them altogether.

After leaving the grisly crime scene behind, whistling “Camptown Races” as he goes, Jerry resurfaces a year later in small-town Washington, where he’s managed to set up a new homestead with Susan and Stephanie. Susan sees Jerry as a decent, old-fashioned man who can stabilize their lives in the wake of her husband’s death; Stephanie immediately recognizes that there’s something seriously creepy about this guy. Of course, Stephanie’s worries get brushed off, like most children who are naturally wary of a stepfather usurping their dad’s place in the family. And the fact that she’s getting into fights at school doesn’t enhance her credibility—though sadly, Schoelen never comes close to pulling off that character element. A newspaper article reviving Jerry’s now-cold murder case ignites Stephanie’s imagination, but his response to it is the compelling part. In this scene, during a triumphant cookout he hosts for families that have bought houses from him at American Eagle Realty, Jerry reacts to a report of his own murderous exploits with a mix of dissociative horror, burbling anger, and icy calculation:

Here’s my theory about The Stepfather: It’s basically The Night Of The Hunter, except instead of religion, Jerry preaches the gospel of Reaganism. The parallels between the two films are many, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Westlake, an esteemed name in crime fiction, and Ruben, who came to specialize in genre thrillers, were keenly aware of them. Like Robert Mitchum’s sinister preacher in the earlier film, Jerry insinuates himself into a widow’s life with the promise of a clear, moral vision for the future. The widows in both films are too vulnerable and needy to question his motivations, but their children see right through their new stepfathers, yet have no credibility. The two stepfathers even have their own eerie themes: Mitchum’s deep, insinuating presence is announced with the hymn “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms,” while Jerry cheerily whistles “Camptown Races” as if it expels the cobwebs from his mind.

Coming seven years into a Reagan Revolution that attempted to turn back the clock of American culture, The Stepfather presented Jerry as the perverse face of family values, a proudly “old-fashioned” guy who still watches Mr. Ed, talks about real estate as “selling the American Dream,” and goes so far to protect his stepdaughter’s purity that he confuses a goodnight kiss for attempted rape. Throughout the film, Jerry tries to impose his reactionary ideals onto a family—and if you count those he’s murdered or will murder, families plural—that can’t function within those tight parameters. Whether through death or divorce, Jerry tries to patch together broken homes like the birdhouses he crafts in his workshop, but it can’t be done. People are just too complicated and irreducible to conform to the platitudes of campaign commercials, especially when their families have been torn apart. Nevertheless, Jerry’s persistent vision (and psychosis) comes through in an excellent scene where Stephanie’s therapist, posing as a prospective homebuyer, gets under his skin:

Appreciating what’s special about The Stepfather involves accepting—or at least tolerating—some clunky moments. None of the actors apart from O’Quinn leave a good impression, save maybe Charles Lanyer as the therapist, and the film too often bows to the conventions of the period or the genre. With only a few minor tweaks, a distracting subplot featuring the crusading brother of Jerry’s previous wife could have been cut out of the movie altogether; his slick hair and 5 o’clock shadow makes him look like a Miami Vice castoff, and his sleuthing takes away from a conflict that Jerry’s new family ultimately needs to resolve. Then again, the resolution is a brain-dead showdown that reduces Jerry to a Freddy-like boogeyman who spouts one-liners and just… won’t… die. (Bonus points for the awkwardly shoehorned-in shower scene.)

Nevertheless, the sins of a tough decade in American cinema shouldn’t be held against the film so much that it obliterates what O’Quinn and the filmmakers bring to this character. O’Quinn isn’t supported by the masterful atmosphere and suspense that elevated Mitchum in The Night Of The Hunter, or Joseph Cotten in Shadow Of A Doubt, but there are few more memorable performances from the ’80s, and even fewer that comment so unmistakably on that era. Take away that pesky little habit of brutally slaughtering everyone who inevitably disappoints him, and his character could be Dan Quayle.

Next week: Army Of Shadows
October 29: Ginger Snaps
November 5: Hedwig And The Angry Inch
November 12: In The Company Of Men

Filed Under: Film

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