The Stepfather (1987)

And the big deal is… ?
Joseph Ruben
Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schelen. Shelley Hack, Charles Lanyer
The Setup: 
Man adopts new identities and marries into new families, and if it doesn’t work out, he kills ‘em.

This movie has become somewhat of a classic, and frankly I really don’t understand why. I saw it back in the day, and found it quite average, and then I recently watched it again, hoping to see this time what I had missed the first. And while I can see that it’s fun and it reflects teenage anxieties [which you could say about virtually any horror film] and it has a good central performance, I still think it’s ultimately quite average. I just don’t see what the big deal is.

I will admit the opening is quite good. Terry O’Quinn as the guy we’ll know most as Jerry trims off his beard, takes a shower, does his hair differently, then goes downstairs, where an entire family lays strewn about the room, slaughtered. We then meet our heroine, Stephanie, teen daughter of Susan, played by Shelley Hack, best known for replacing Kate Jackson during the waning years of Charlie’s Angels. The music becomes quite jaunty as we meet Stephanie on her way home from school. Then Jerry has bought her a puppy in order to win her affection, but Stephanie still doesn’t like him one bit [and barely says thanks, the ungrateful wretch], because her real father died a year prior. Jerry does a good job with his “aw shucks” persona to his new wife, especially as we know that he’ll eventually turn evil. Turns out she is also supposed to be somewhat of a delinquent [I love the 80s movie convention of these perfectly-scrubbed 80s teens supposedly being “delinquents”] and expelled for fighting. She asks to go to boarding school as a way to get away from home, but Jerry forbids it. Later, Stephanie is just trying to quietly read The Outsiders but it bothered by the sounds of her mother and Jerry doing the wango tango.

So we introduce this brother of one of Jerry’s last victims, who is trying to follow his trail and bring him to justice. Meanwhile Stephanie is pouring out her feelings to her therapist, Dr. Bondurant, and later catches Jerry having a total angry freak-out in the basement, which only adds to her feeling that he’s deeply disturbed. She also writes to a paper in Jerry’s old town to have them send a picture of the killer—which can only seem quite old-fashioned and quaint now. A printed photo? By postal mail? Jerry intercepts it, and the next day has replaced it with a picture of someone else before it gets into Stephanie’s hands. And now we arrive at that midpoint of the horror film where Stephanie admits that she was wrong and Jerry is actually trustworthy just as we the audience discover for certain that she’s right.

Dr. Bondurant decides to find out what Stephanie is so upset about, so he decides to make an appointment to have Jerry show him a house [Jerry’s a real estate agent]. He makes some anti-family comments that annoy Jerry, and eventually Jerry realizes that he’s not on the up-and-up. So he bludgeons him to death. It’s fun—it’s always fun when someone gets bludgeoned—but it also comes a little from out of the blue and lends to the disjointed feel that will continue to the end of the film. By the way, by now we’ve had cause to note that Shelley Hack is a serious contender for worst actress of all time. Meanwhile, Jerry’s perfect family isn’t working out as he planned, what with Stephanie’s attempt to run away and all [let’s not go into it,] so he is already setting up another identity, job and family in another town.

Okay, now it’s time for our sudden and somewhat arbitrary conclusion! Mom calls Jerry’s job and finds out that he no longer works there! When he comes home, she asks about it, and only gets a vicious bonk on her head for her concern. Unfortunately she doesn’t die. Meanwhile, Stephanie has come home and, as a horror film heroines must do just before a film’s climax, she decides to take a shower and expose her breasts to the camera. Then Jerry attacks, blah, blah, and Stephanie stabs him—in the ARM? Come on, this girl is supposedly a hardened delinquent, and she’s gonna stab this maniacal killer in the ARM? She hasn’t seen a single movie before? One good touch is that the investigative brother, who has been closing in on Jerry throughout the movie, finally comes in—and is promptly killed. Then Jerry is on his way up the stairs to kill Stephanie when mom kills him by shooting him in the back, and Stephanie gets in a few stabs. I suspect that this is because technically Stephanie is an adolescent, and it would be wrong to show her killing anyone by herself. There’s some wrap up, some very 80s music, and then it’s over.

I can see that this movie has its strengths—it successfully plays on distrust a kid naturally has about a replacement parent, came out just as stories of men leading double lives were starting to come out in the news, O’Quinn gives a very good, disturbingly chipper performance, and the movie has some good surprises and nice touches. Unfortunately, as I was reminded while writing this review, the film is also a bit of a half-baked mess. The first half begins okay, then it starts meandering, without much really happening, until a certain someone is bludgeoned, which is cool, but a little bit out of the blue. And out of character—Jerry is smarter than that, and now he has to hide the body. Then things continue somewhat unremarkably, but so loosely structured it just feels like we’re stumbling from haphazard point to haphazard point. It’s not awful, but it doesn’t have that feeling that we’re in a really tight narrative that is expertly laid out. Then the climax comes pretty much out of the blue, without much lead-up, and the whole thing just kind of ends.

Normally I wouldn’t think much of any of this, except that somehow this film enjoys some sort of status as being pretty good and somewhat of a classic. Not only do I not get what others like so much about it, I also only think it’s barely worth watching. Yeah, so there you go—I just don’t get it.

Should you watch it: 

You can, it’s a perfectly average 80s horror film that may be tiny bit more fun than some.