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'The Stepfather' (1987): A Review

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The Stepfather

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Today is ‘Father’s Day’, that yearly occasional wherein we all show our fathers’ our appreciation for all their hard work, and sagely wisdom they have bestowed upon us. It can be all too easy to take our father’s love for granted, their dedication to our well-being sometimes appearing invisible to us for various reasons. That being the case, there are few films out there that will make you appreciate your father than Joseph Ruben’s horror thriller ‘The Stepfather’ (1987), which proves that not all of us are lucky enough to have a father that loves us, and cares for us.

The film’s opening scene not only sets the mood for Ruben’s movie, but also remains one of the horror genre’s most interesting and memorable sequences to caught on film: Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn), a seemingly normal man, washes up in the bathroom, shaving and dressing himself impeccably before packing a few things and then leaving his home. However, in a dark and bizarre twist, we seen the newly transformed Jerry’s family laying brutally murdered (by Jerry’s own hands, no less) about the house, and realize instantly that the seemingly normal Jerry is anything but that.

Leaving his old life and (now very dead) family behind, Jerry adopts a new identity, and meets Susan Maine (Shelley Hack), a widower with a teenage daughter named Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Integrating himself with the Maines, Jerry soon after becomes Susan’s husband (and titular Stepfather to Stephanie), though his old life and past crimes haven’t given up searching for him – nor has Jim Oglivie (Stephen Shellen), the brother of Jerry’s murdered wife, ceased to look for him either. His old ways and old family catching up to him, Jerry seems like he’s on the brink of ‘snapping’ once more, though the question is can Susan and Stephanie escape Jerry’s wrath, or are they too doomed to suffer the same fate that Jerry’s first family endured?

Much of the ‘The Stepfather’s success relies on O’Quinn’s quiet and disturbing performance as Jerry Blake, his subdued behavior and quiet demeanor performed perfectly, and making his occasional ‘outbursts’ that much more intense and frightening by comparison. Like a ticking time-bomb, anytime O’Quinn is on-screen there’s a chance of him ‘losing it’, and O’Quinn manages to keep the audience on the edge of their seat by refraining from showing any hints or giving any clues as to when he’s going to snap and murder someone.

Equally responsible for the film’s success is the performance of Jill Schoelen as Stephanie, Jerry’s stepdaughter. Inquisitive and rebellious, Schoelen manages to portray Jill not as a victim, but rather as a naïve detective who’s cynical enough to suspect there’s something wrong with her new father, and yet hopes (for her mother’s sake) that there isn’t. Although portraying her with some strength, Schoelen also manages to inject some vulnerability into her performance, heightening the growing tension between her and O’Quinn, and leading the audience to believe that she too might become one of Jerry’s many victims.

But while O’Quinn and Schoelen both give performances equally worthy of praise, Ruben’s ‘The Stepfather’ is not without its flaws, most of which can be traced back to the script, with several plot-holes and contrivances that weaken the tension of the story. One of the more infuriating aspects is that fact that Jim Oglivie, an amateur detective, is able to discover a vital clue to Jerry Blake’s whereabouts in a matter of minutes, something that neither the police nor the FBI apparently could be bothered to do or figure out despite the fact it’s their friggin’ job to do so. Then there’s the last act of the film which, although dark and violent enough, is also predictable and too formulaic, and thus a rather disappointing end to a film that started out with such an intense and original opening scene.

Although Ruben’s ‘The Stepfather’ is far from perfect, the twin performances of O’Quinn and Schoelen, along with the deft direction of Ruben himself, make it a film worth seeing. It might not be the perfect thriller, but with its strong acting, suspenseful atmosphere, and occasional interjections of dark humor, Joseph Ruben’s ‘The Stepfather’ is far more entertaining and interesting than most of the other psychological thrillers to come out of the 1980’s, and a film that’s sure to make you appreciate the fact that your own father isn’t a blood-thirsty monster like Jerry Blake.

Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.