The Stepfather (1987)
Directed by: Joseph Rubin
Premise: A psychopath (Terry O’Quinn) murders his family, changes his identity, and moves to a new town where he meets a woman and tries to form the perfect family with her. But when the stepfather’s new family fails to live up to his expectations, he becomes increasingly erratic.
What Works: In the 1980s, American culture swung rightward and became more conservative. The era of Ronald Reagan saw a backlash against the cultural liberties of the 1960s and 70s, in particular the women’s movement, paralleled by a rise in nostalgia for the 1950s, or at least a mythological version of the post-war years in which communities were safer and families were more stable. This desire for traditional family values was embodied by a lot of sitcoms of the time like The Cosby Show and Growing Pains and it was critiqued by horror movies of the 1980s like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Poltergeist. Among the best and most subversive of these horror pictures was 1987’s The Stepfather. The title character of this film is a twisted version of the suburban dad; he’s a man who has bought into the idealized version of the nuclear family—and the ideology associated with it—and then is driven to murder when his expectations aren’t met. The concept sounds like a sick joke and there is a lot of mordant humor in The Stepfather but not so much that it ruins the film’s tone. The Stepfather is not a mystery; this man’s terrible secret is revealed in the opening scene which creates a “ticking bomb” plot device as the character inserts himself into a new family. This storytelling choice also puts the psychosis of the killer at the center of the movie and The Stepfather features a great performance by Terry O’Quinn. The character is truly a psychopath in that he doesn’t have empathy for other people and acts out the way he thinks a suburban father should be. O’Quinn plays that terrifically. His character fakes earnestness to conceal his madness and O’Quinn does so in a way that is obvious to the viewer but not so obvious to the other characters. The stepfather’s psychotic mindset plays into the political ideas of the movie; his obsession with the perfect family is a patriarchal pipedream that is divorced from reality. If anything, the character’s expectations seem informed by the fictional lives of the Huxtables and the Seavers. And to take that pleasantly banal fantasy and turn it into a horror show is quite subversive. Thirty years later, the movie’s implications are just as strong. O’Quinn’s character is the middle class white male who bought into the suburban dream peddled to him by the culture only to find out that it wasn’t real and that leads him to murderous rage. Despite the ways American culture has changed since the 1980s, The Stepfather remains a potent work and it is especially relevant for the 2017 audience. The violent disillusionment of the title character feels remarkably contemporary, much more so than the 2009 remake.
What Doesn’t: The Stepfather is largely a showcase for Terry O’Quinn’s performance in the title role. The rest of his new family is rather generic. The movie works along the lines of a lot of slasher horror from the 1980s in which a killer invades a domestic space and kills off the cast one-by-one until the final showdown with the Final Girl. That formula is at the heart of The Stepfather and the movie could have benefited from greater focus on the daughter played by Jill Schoelen and the mother played by Shelley Hack. There is an implication in this movie that the mother and daughter need each other and can form a stable and safe home without a man. Had the movie developed their characters more fully it would have enhanced the stakes and given the movie’s political subtext a little more depth.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurette, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: The Stepfather is one of the best and most subversive horror pictures of the 1980s and it remains an entertaining and relevant thriller. The movie has a memorable performance by Terry O’Quinn as a character whose madness is remarkably pertinent to our current cultural moment.
Episode: #668 (October 8, 2017)