The Stepfather (1987)

23 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“It’s like I have Ward Cleaver for a dad.”

In the low-budget thriller “The Stepfather,” teenager Stephanie Blake doesn’t know the half of it when she delivers that simile about her new stepfather. This new man in hers and her mother’s life seems like the perfect family man, or he just wants the perfect family. It seems like he wants his family to be like those in “Father Knows Best.” But there’s something we know that Stephanie and her mother don’t. The stepfather Jerry is undoubtedly an unstable, sick mind. As we see in a creepy, gripping opening scene, this man has murdered his family (we don’t see the murders, but we do see the bodies in the living room), changed his appearance (shaved his beard and wears contact lenses), and went off to find a new family. One year later, he has changed his identity and remarried Susan Blake (Shelley Hack) to come across, possibly yet again, as an ideal family man. Susan falls for it, but daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen) sees right through him—she complains to her mother, “It’s not even our house anymore—it’s his.”

The stepfather goes through the notions of an ideal family man, fooling everybody in the neighborhood. He hosts dinner parties with his real-estate clients, gives Stephanie a puppy as a present, and even calls her Pumpkin, which creeps her out even more. Stephanie’s therapist (Charles Lanyer) thinks she’s just having trouble adjusting to having a stepfather to replace her deceased father, and her acting up in school—and getting expelled—doesn’t make her any more credible. But she knows that something is wrong with this man.

“The Stepfather” has its share of effectively disturbing moments—the most memorable is that opening scene I described. Just as tense is the scene in which Stephanie comes across the stepfather having a mental breakdown before immediately snapping back into character when he sees her. But it also has one other, very important thing going for it, and that is the performance by Terry O’Quinn as the stepfather. O’Quinn is great in the role—chilling, subtle, and even strangely likable at some points. He’s convincing as a psychopath who acts as a normal person but has an unbalanced mind that resorts him to murder when everything goes wrong. The tension is always there when he’s on screen.

Not particularly strong is the subplot involving the brother of his latest victim trying to track down the killer, by using a newspaper reporter and a police detective to try and track him down. It’s not particularly interesting and pretty distracting, compared to the family aspects and tension.

What really satisfied me about the film was that the characters weren’t necessarily idiots to figure this guy out, especially when the film shows the audience right from the start. I feel like this man could fool anybody; of course, that includes Susan. And Stephanie does her own detective work. She has a sure plan to figure him out, which backfires, making her feel like she was wrong about him. This helps raise the tension level.

“The Stepfather” isn’t like the usual slasher films you come across. Sure, it does have a rising action that comes down to a climactic confrontation between the psychotic killer and his family, and you could use that for the climax for any other film of this sort. But what makes “The Stepfather” special is the characterization and performance of the title character, its successful scary moments and haunting feel, and a sharp script by Donald Westlake. It’s an effective thriller.

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