Directed by Joseph Ruben [Other horror films: Dreamscape (1984), The Good Son (1993)]
I might not be surprising anyone when I admit to being a big fan of this movie. Both my my banner here, along with my signature on HorrorMovieFans.com, use a ‘Who am I here?’ image of the movie, and perhaps more than any other movie (aside from maybe Burnt Offerings), I wear the fact that I love this one on my sleeve for all to see.
And I don’t feel a bit ashamed.
I’m not going as far as to say this movie’s perfect, but I will say that Terry O’Quinn’s performance is without flaw. I love the idea of an insane man trying to encapsulate the perfect, Leave It to Beaver family unit, only to undoubtedly become disappointed, kill them, and start over again. He tries his best to create the picture-perfect family, one without discord, one with strong traditional values, but he’s never able to, no matter how wistfully he looks at other seemingly-happy families.
O’Quinn’s performance here is fantastic. He seems a clean-cut guy, whistling and shaving while the bodies of his discarded wife and kid are sprawled on the floor. He can’t take much in the way of criticism (just look at the house showing sequence with Charles Lanyer), and he’s corny as all hell (‘I sell the American Dream’), but he’s also pretty intimidating. When he’s having his mini-breakdown in the basement (unknowingly in front of his shocked step-daughter, Jill Schoelen), he’s obviously furious and mentally unstable (at the mere thought of his happy world crumbling down), and god, that breakdown at the end, resulting in the ‘Who am I here,’ line?
Really, the only character here that didn’t really blow me away was Jim, played by Stephen Shellen, whose main mission in the movie was to find the killer of his sister and bring him to justice. He certainly had a solid motive, but I don’t know if his scenes add all that much to the film (though certainly, without his persistence of getting the story of the murder ran again, there wouldn’t have been a story to begin with). He was still a decent character, and I felt bad for him throughout, but he was the least interesting individual here.
I sort of wished Jeff Schultz was more involved in the story, but after attempting to rape Schoelen’s character, I can see why he stepped out. 😛 Charles Lanyer, playing Schoelen’s therapist, was very solid, and when she said that her step-father scared her, you could tell he was devoted to helping her out, and boy, did he go the extra mile for her (speaking of which, when Jerry’s beating the guy with a four-by-two, talk about a solid sequence). Shelley Hack was decent as the mother, and she shared a touching moment or two with her daughter, but she was far from a crucial player here.
Once we move past O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen is the second-best performance here. She’s a troubled girl in a bad situation with almost no one on her side (her therapist being the one exception, and when she’s told that he died, you can’t help but feel for her), but she finds the strength to fight back, and it’s just solid stuff. It didn’t hurt they threw in a bit of nudity for some reason, but what the hell, it was welcomed. Even without that, she was a stand-out character, and it’s great to see her finally be vindicated come the end.
Related, she has a somewhat solid resume of horror films, such as the somewhat underrated Popcorn, co-starred in the 1989 Phantom of the Opera with Robert Englund, along with appearing in Curse II: The Bite, Cutting Class, Chiller, and When a Stranger Calls Back. She never seemed to reach A-list status, but she certainly had her fans, and though I’ve not yet seen many of her other movies, I suspect this was one of her finest roles.
Personally, I don’t know exactly why I love this one as much as I do. At times, I can’t deny that this feels more like a television movie than one that got theatrical release, because it can be a bit tame, and perhaps sluggish, but I still adore every second of it (and like I said, the ending as a whole is spectacular). The idea of a disappointed father quitting his job, scoping out a new family, then killing his existing family in order to move on was engaging, and I sort of wonder how many times Jerry’s done that before (I suspect the opening to the film was not his first infraction). In fact, much of Jerry’s history is uncovered, which only intensifies the mystery (aside from the fact he had a self-admitted strict upbringing, we’ve got nothing).
The Stepfather is a movie of high value, and certainly a movie that I’ve always enjoyed, and always will. All we need is a little order around here, and this movie brings it.
This is one of the films covered on Fight Evil’s podcast, so listen to Chucky (@ChuckyFE) and I discuss this one below.