We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.
THE STEPFATHER: DIRECTED BY JOSEPH RBEN
STARRING: TERRY O'QUINN, SHELLEY HACK, JILL SCHOELEN, STEPHEN SHELLEN
So, who out there currently lives with or has, in the past, resided with a second dad? Any chance he’s a bigger prick than Terry O’Quinn in the darkly absurd 1987 horror joint THE STEPFATHER. Is that even a possibility? Lord I hope not!
All I know is this. THE STEPFATHER turned 30 years old this January, and despite the effort to sully its namesake via the inertly eventless 2009 remake, the OG Terry O’Quinn is still beyond reproach for his deliciously disturbing turn in Joseph Ruben’s semi-cult classic. But the more pertinent query still looms: what of the film as a whole? Sure it’s won the blackened hearts and corrupted minds of us hardened horror heads over the years and even decades, but seen today with a fresh set of orbs, does the movie still live up to its reputation? Does it still retain its overall quality?
More relevant yet, has the movie adequately reflected the real life story on which it was based? How many of you were aware that THE STEPFATHER was inspired by a real life killer named John List, who, in 1971 murdered his entire family in cold blood before fleeing New Jersey and staying on the lam until 1989? How many of you knew that it was the TV show America’s Most Wanted that actually led to List’s eventual arrest? Anyway, not to digress, but as THE STEPFATHER enjoys its 30th birthday, we’re stacking this mean ol’ sumbitch against the most difficult of exams. Let’s see how that bastard Scary Jerry Blake endures The Test of Time!
UNDER EXAMINATION: THE STEPFATHER
THE STORY: Brilliantly simple. Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn) is a man of impeccably high standards when it comes to family values. As the movie opens, he wipes his bloody façade of the slain gore left in the wake of brutally murdering his own family. Yes, his own wife and children. Now unburdened of their faulty ways, Jerry is free to assume a new identity, relocate to a new town, court a new lady and worm his way into the lives of another unsuspecting family in order to start all over again. He meets Susan (Shelley Hack) and her 16 year old daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen) and slowly ingratiates himself to their lovingly open arms.
Thing is, this dude is Ward Cleaver by day, Bored Cleaver by night. That is, whenever his obsessive compulsion ratchets up, Jerry holes up in his basement woodshop and blows off more steam than Bennett in COMMANDO. He spouts obscenities, breaks shit, violently stalks around, etc. And when Jill happens to witness this dark side of her new Stepfather, she unravels a host of clues that lead her to suspect Jerry might be something far more sinister than initially let on. Upon more familial disappointment, Jerry aims to gorily waylay Susan and Stephanie before packing up and moving on to a new family.
WHAT HOLDS-UP: Quite frankly, a lot! In re-watching it just the other day, I noticed that one of the most durable aspects of THE STEPFATHER is just how matter of fact and straightforward the narrative drive and editing style is. This isn’t a flashy flick filled with fanciful camera flourishes and stylistic distractions, oh no, it’s very a solid meat-and-potatoes type of flick that tells its story with little frills and great efficiency. The screenplay by Donald E. Westlake is very focused, singular and easy to follow, which gives it a lasting re-visitation quality. In other words, at a jaunty 89 minutes, the film is lean, mean and absolutely obscene!
But come on, what really shines today just as it did in 1987 is the two-pronged, Jekyll/Hyde performance by Terry O’Quinn as the maniacally pernicious paterfamilias. After all, it rightly earned him a Saturn Award and Independent Spirit Award nomination. On one hand, the dude chipperly whistles “Camptown Races” as he strolls down idyllic suburban streets. On the other hand, he’s bashing the brains of a local doctor with a two-by-four before stuffing his body in a car, lighting it ablaze and launching it off of a cliff. All this while keeping a straight face and projecting a dulling anodyne Mr. Rogers vocal tone. Dude’s sick! But the thing is, both psyches play. O’Quinn is brilliantly believable in both, darkly comedic at times, often turning on a dime and showcasing both comportments at once or in a single scene. The sequence referenced above, the prolonged death of Dr. Bondurant, was supposedly so violently shocking at the time that it reportedly caused many moviegoers nightmares after seeing it. I wouldn’t personally say it’s that powerful by today’s standards, but it leads us to examine the final standing pillar of THE STEPFATHER’S house; the vicious finale!
To the point about induced nightmares, word is star Jill Schoelen was so perturbed by the final act of violence in the film that she had recurring nightmares for a week after in which, much like the scene in question, Terry O’Quinn relentlessly chases her down. And honestly, we can see why. The final 10-15 minutes of THE STEPFATHER is among its absolute strong suits, and easily one of the aspects of the film that has retained most-to-all of its potency over the past 30 years. The way in which Scary Jerry bashes Susan’s face with a phone receiver, pulls a large butcher blade that he jousts into the gut of neighbor Jim (Stephen Shellen), chases her around the house before fixing his sadistic attention to young Steph (not so young actually, as Schoelen was 23 playing 16). He aggressively breaks down the bathroom door, swipes the blade at Stephanie, misses, before she lunges a mirror shard into his shoulder. He pulls the shard out, aims at Jill and chases her up into the attic, grunting, growling, maundering foully under his breath. He falls through the floor, catches a bullet or two from Susan before ultimately getting lethally punctured with the knife by Stephanie atop the staircase. It’s a masterful sequence that’s just as affecting now as it was in ’87!
WHAT BLOWS NOW: For what it is relative to its aim, namely an unabashed low-budget B-movie thriller, not a whole lot has tarnished THE STEPFATHER since 1987. Now, if you want to talk about the tepid 1989 and 1992 sequels or the embarrassingly bad 2009 remake, and how by proxy, they lessen the overall STEPFATHER brand, that is perfectly reasonable. But other than a few anachronisms about the casting – Schoelen only 11 years younger than O’Quinn in real life, playing 16 at 23 (only 16 younger than Shelley Hack in real life) – there isn’t a lot about the original to grouse negatively. It does too much right!
THE VERDICT: 30 years later, THE STEPFATHER is still remains the standard for terrifyingly abusive horror movie patriarchs. Due to the swiftly economical direction from Joseph Ruben, the genuinely unnerving 10-15 minute finale of abject violent eruption, and most importantly, the deeply disturbing dual-performance by Terry O’Quinn as Scary Jerry Blake – THE STEPFATHER may have technically aged, but it’s shown little wear and tear over the past three decades. In far more ways than not, it’s defied the Test of Time!