Night of the House Hunter: THE STEPFATHER

June 29, 2017 - 5:12pm
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on The Stepfather (1987) were written by WUD Film Programmer Vincent Mollica. A 35mm print of The Stepfather will screen in our film series tribute to writer Donald E. Westlake on Wednesday, July 5 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is free and open to the public.

By Vincent Mollica

Speaking of the Seattle-set 1987 thriller The Stepfather, producer Jay Benson said: “I’ve never budgeted a movie for filming in Seattle, but I know the costs were definitely less in Vancouver”. Like its setting, the film – about a man who changes his identity to marry into different families and murdering them if they do not fit his standards – speaks to a kind of hidden cheapness. Both in the film’s satirical meaning, and in its style, something nasty lies beneath a more pristine surface.

The most memorable element of the film, and the focal point for many warm reviews, is the contrast between the kindly exterior of the Stepfather character (Terry O’Quinn), who goes by Jerry Blake in the film, and his hideous inner nature. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker wrote “Jerry the model citizen who’s out in the open whistling ‘Camptown Races’ becomes more frightening the more we see of him” and Vogue evocatively speaks to O’Quinn’s “Cheshire Cat face”. There’s political level of this contrast as well. In his four-star review for the Chicago Tribune, Dave Kehr writes of the “1950s sitcom” quality to Blake: “Yet once that world leaves the box and collides with reality, its distortions, its oppressiveness and its murderous refusal of human complexity become clear, and chilling”. In a very short write up of the film for Film Comment, director Guillermo Del Toro echoed this by calling the film a “Brave, unflinching attack on our pastoral illusions”. As all these authors suggest, what makes The Stepfather compelling is the way that it upends Blake’s character and reveals what he truly represents. 

As this high praise might suggest, there is an air of classiness to The Stepfather. This is helped in part by a fine lead performance by O’Quinn, who was widely praised for the role (in an otherwise negative review, Roger Ebert singles out O’Quinn’s performance as the film’s “one wonderful element”). Cinematographer John Lindley provides an autumnal quality to much of the film which is clean and easy to watch. As discussed in the film’s DVD commentary, beyond allusions to several of Hitchock’s films, Ruben also borrows his clever use of doubling characters throughout that also speaks to a kind of formal substance. The film even contains a degree of legitimate emotionality, most notably through the purposeful emphasis on the family that is found through different spaces in the film. However, there’s undoubtedly an unhinged quality to the film as well. 

In an LA Times article about attempts to properly advertise The Stepfather, as it was flopping in its first few weeks, the marketing director of the film’s distributor (New Century) claimed audiences were turned off by terms used in otherwise positive reviews like “B-movie” and “low budget”. The critics who used them have a point though. The film does have a certain “B-Movie” looseness, that can border on comic. For example, when Blake’s stepdaughter (an excellent Jill Schoelen) is expelled from high school, it is met by reactions that never amount to much beyond mild disappointment.

More interesting, though, are the films sharply emotional turns, which seem similarly “B-Movie”. In an early fight scene between two girls at a high school Lindley uses handheld photography in a way that’s unexpectedly visceral. In a moment that Ruben claims was even made less brutal than it was before, Blake’s first on screen murder, in which he batters a man with a plank of wood in an empty house, climaxes in a disturbing image of his victim’s vaguely contorted body finally collapsing on the floor. At another point, the brother of one of Blake’s previous victims holds up a picture of his deceased family while a sad version of Patrick Moraz’s synth score plays. Benefitting largely by the wonderful use of music, the moment is so openly manipulative it forces an emotional reaction. These “B-Movie” moments offer unpolished cheap thrills, but O’Quinn’s performance and the witty and satirical script by novelist and crime specialist Donald Westlake regularly remind us that the movie has more on its mind than mere exploitation. Westlake and his original collaborators Carolyn Lefcourt and Brian Garfield were, in fact, inspired by the real life case of mass murderer John List who disappeared and relocated under a completely new identity after murdering his wife, mother and three children in 1971. List evaded arrest for nearly 18 years until his crimes were recounted on America’s Most Wanted.

The Stepfather had a productive afterlife. Ruben claims this is the film that pushed him into big studio filmmaking, and he followed it up with Sleeping with the Enemy and The Good Son for 20th Century Fox in the early 1990s. Star Terry O’Quinn would appear in other films, but his most notable credit afterwards would come long after as John Locke on the show Lost. The Stepfather would also have two sequels (although O’Quinn only appeared in the second one) and a 2009 remake, all featuring the same character. O’Quinn regretted starring in The Stepfather II: Make Room For Daddy, but this first sequel maintains a light, funny, sensibility. However, most of the remakes and sequels lose the focus of satire and of Jerry Blake’s central goal, which is not to murder more people, but to truly create the perfect family. This is what provides the first film with its staying power.