Starring: Terry O’Quinn, Shelley Hack, Jill Schoelen, Charles Lanyer
Director: Joseph Ruben
You think you know someone? You might think twice after viewing Joseph Ruben’s (“Sleeping with the Enemy”, “The Good Son”, “Money Train”) low-budget thriller, “The Stepfather”. Released to little acclaim (it grossed $2.5m in 1987), this B-movie has developed a significant cult following on video over the years. It yielded two sequels ? one mildly inferior, the second hugely inferior (suffering from the absence of lead actor Terry O’Quinn) ? and has experienced a further following as a budget DVD release.
So what’s it all about? Terry O’Quinn (“Young Guns”, “The Rocketeer”, TVs “JAG”, “X Files” and “Millennium”) is Jerry Blake. Jerry is a real-estate agent, a man who sells homes and with it, in his eyes, the American Dream. He’s living with Susan (Hack ? TVs “Charlie’s Angels”, “Annie Hall”, “The King of Comedy”) and subsequently has become stepfather of sorts to her daughter, Stephanie (Schoelen). But Stephanie is not that keen on the man she calls “Scary Jerry”. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Bondurant (Lanyer ? “Die Hard 2”, “The Astronauts Wife”), tries to help Stephanie find some balance and reason in her feelings towards Jerry but she’s not for turning.
And she hasn’t even seen what we’ve seen. The opening scenes of the movie show Jerry in a house somewhere, cleaning blood off his hands, shaving his long beard, trimming his over-grown hair and swapping his glasses for contact lenses. He then leaves the house, stopping only to pick up some toys that are on the ground, leaving behind blood-soaked bodies, whistling a happy tune as he goes. The Stepfather is off to find a new family to make him happy. God help them if they fail.
Jerry is a believer in family, a home and discipline. He doesn’t so much love Susan and Stephanie as love the idea of a happy family. He tries everything to win over his stepdaughter but failure only drives him in to a private rage. Will the monster inside Jerry rise again?
I know people will dismiss “The Stepfather” for numerous reasons. Its low budget, corny dialogue and unknown cast being primary of them. But there are several reasons why this horror/thriller is compulsive viewing and one of the best movies of its genre.
First amongst these is the performance of Terry O’Quinn. A familiar face on TV through the nineties, O’Quinn delivers an absolute tour-de-force as deranged Jerry Blake. Whether it is the delivery of his lines or the subtle facial expressions, he gets it down to a T. This is a frightening, thoroughly convincing, top class performance from a moderate actor ? and that makes it all the more remarkable. And O’Quinn has to be on top form because his supporting cast is under whelming at best. Schoelen is an inexperienced young actress, Hack a paperweight.
Secondly, Ruben creates plenty of tension through various techniques ? slow camera panning, sound effects (although the music is typical eighties fare) and angled-close ups on the demented O’Quinn. He shows himself to be hugely adept at maximizing the realistic performance of O’Quinn and the bizarre nature of his behaviour.
Thirdly, the interplay of the characters is intriguing. Susan knows that Jerry and Stephanie don’t see eye to eye, but she assumes it is the typical teenage reaction to a stepfather. Jerry knows that Stephanie doesn’t warm to him and it tears him up ? but he keeps on trying, while in the background manipulating whatever he can to try and get them closer together. To his family he seems to do it so subtly ? but unknown to them he is calculating and sick.
A criticism I can aim at the movie is the lack of depth that is offered regarding Jerry Blake. Why don’t we investigate Jerry’s psychosis more? He doesn’t speak of his past or, more specifically, his childhood although we find that he loves 1950s TV and shows all the hallmarks of someone who had a strict upbringing. Seeing as the movie never delves into this, I’ve always felt that an intriguing project would be a biopic based on this fictitious character and a look at what made Jerry Blake who he is.
“The Stepfather” is a wonderful movie, a cult classic with the sort of gritty tension that is all too often lost in the heady world of Hollywood. What might be nice is a modern-day remake of the movie ? maybe Gary Oldman playing the Jerry Blake character. I’m excited by the prospect of seeing Oldman down in the basement banging his fists and screaming ‘we need a little order around here!’, or referring to himself by the wrong name before staring in to space and asking: ‘Wait a minute. Who am I here?’.
One of my all time favourites.