Back in the late eighties and early nineties, a local syndication station (Cleveland’s WUAB) would celebrate every Halloween with a week of horror films. Each night at eight, they would run a relatively recent horror film in a two-hour time block. Usually, they would climax the week on Thursday or Friday with a network premiere of a particularly popular recent scare fest. Since I was not allowed to see uncut R-rated movies at this time, this was a rare opportunity to see what I had been missing in mainstream horror. Among those on the annual rotation was The Stepfather. The last one always seemed to feel out of place among the fantastical slasher flicks. Even back then, I knew it did not belong amongst the Nightmare On Elm Street sequels, Friday the 13th chapters, or Prom Nights. Even then, I noticed the better than average acting from one Terry O’Quinn. Even at a tender age of nine, I recognized it as a real film.
Viewing it again for the first time in many years, I am struck by how well it holds up and how little it dates. At the very least, Terry O'Quinn (in his first lead role) created one of the all-time classic cinematic psychopaths, one who should and could stand alongside Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter. Aside from a couple scenes with 1980s synthesizer music, the film has a truly timeless quality. Of course, this could be considered a sad thing. Is it really a positive fact that five decades later, the idea of an unhinged man willing to kill for the non-existent 1950s family ideal isn’t that unusual? In an age where the “nuclear family” is slowly becoming a minority, what does it say that a character such as “Jerry Blake” still seems somewhat plausible?
What I find most pleasing about the film is how subtle most of it is. So little is spelled out. We are never told outright why “Jerry” is so utterly miserable, yet we are given enough hints to form a worthwhile theory. We are never told how often he plays this game, but he has done it enough to form a genuine identity crisis. The violence is surprisingly subdued, and what is shown has a specific thematic purpose. By barely showing the gruesome remains of his last family and not showing the actual murders, the audience is also denied the knowledge of what led up to them and what in fact set him off. Thus, for the remainder of the film, the audience is constantly on edge, unsure if or when or why “Jerry” will next explode into a violent rage.
If the film has flaws, it is only those occasionally inherent in the thriller structure, which necessitates that characters must occasionally do dumb things to advance the plot. Does it make sense that a newspaper publisher would waste space on a warning about a known mass-murderer and then not even bother to print a picture? Would it make sense that the school counselor would trick a stranger into meeting him alone in a secluded location with no witnesses around and not tell anyone where he was going? For that matter, was it really in character for the methodical Jerry to immediately hammer said counselor to a bloody pulp with a two-by-four without inquiring as to whether anyone knew of the victim’s whereabouts?
But these idiot-plot moments do not matter as much because, in the end, the film is more a character study than run of the mill slasher flick. And as a character study, it is a nearly flawless examination of a sad, broken, pathetic, violent man. Terry O'Quinn deserved an Oscar back in 1987, and The Stepfather deserved better than to be lost in a sea of forgotten horror pictures.
*Here is an interview with director Joseph Ruben on the eve of the DVD release.