CATEGORIES HorrorI love holiday horror films. To me, they demonstrate the genre's ongoing commitment to ruining even the happiest of occasions with visions of nightmarish terror. There was a time when Halloween was the only holiday associated with evil and darkness and that set it apart as the isolated capsule of fear. But then, one by one, the other, more joyful holidays became targets for horror interpretations. It's gotten to the point that no festive celebration is without its own signature slasher or identifiable bloodbath.
For today's seasonal slaughtering, we celebrate Father's Day with The Stepfather.
The premise of The Stepfather is fairly basic. A maniacal psychopath named Jerry Blake makes a habit of weaseling his way into broken families. His primary targets are divorcees with children. His weapon is his undeniable charm and it doesn't take long for him to marry into the family. The problem is our wayward patriarch has quite the checkered past and, should any member of his new nuclear unit get wise to his pretenses, he wastes no hesitation before butchering the lot of them. But his newest family comes standard with a teenage daughter who is more suspicious and tenacious than anything this Bluebeard has encountered before. Couple that with a face from his past hunting him at every turn, and it may take more than the edge of a knife for the perpetual surrogate father to once again escape.
Everyone knows about Father's Day, but the absence of a day celebrating the importance of stepfathers is a downright travesty. Clearly no one is more affronted by this oversight than Terry O'Quinn who plays the homicidal family man. You may recognize O'Quinn from his recent television work on Gilligan's island or some damned thing. I want to throw out a familiar caveat here and warn that there will be spoilers afoot. This warning is especially necessary as The Stepfather just found its way to Blu-ray this week.
I love this film. It is exactly the type of small-scale, cult 80's horror that winds my clock. Yes, I said clock. This is the type of film that, had you heard nothing about it, you would go into with zero expectations. Even in the face of all the cult praise I had heard regarding The Stepfather, I still wasn't expecting much and I was thoroughly impressed with this, my first viewing. To ensure that my opinion of this film was not potentially colored by the awe of a beautiful, high-def transfer, I opted to watch the film on VHS rather than its brand spankin' new Blu-ray. Even between the tracking lines and the sound that only barely surpasses mono, The Stepfather shines.
The opening shot of The Stepfather is one of the best of any horror film I have ever seen, and that is no overstatement. We see a very bearded Terry O'Quinn step into a bathroom and quietly wash what appears to be blood from his hands. He then showers, shaves, and tosses all personal items into a suitcase. As he walks down the stairs, the camera stays fairly tight until he reaches the landing near the front door. The camera then pulls back to reveal the living room to his immediate right and the bloody, horrific carnage strewn across that room is jaw-dropping. The effect is strengthened by Terry O'Quinn's disturbingly stoic performance in that moment and the last glimpse of a dead child lying on the floor as O'Quinn casually walks out the door. I was floored by this scene and it perfectly established the tone for the rest of the film.
What really makes this film is Terry O'Quinn. His performance throughout the film is staggeringly varied and he maneuvers through each facet with brilliant skill. Like any serial killer, Jerry Blake knows he has to be charming to get close to his victims. If you can find a more likable guy than Terry O'Quinn when he is wearing that particular mask I would love to meet him. Then, when he is alone in the basement, he lets loose with a fury of psychosis that is truly unnerving to observe and, again, O'Quinn delivers in no small way. Finally, when we actually see Jerry Blake at the end of his rope and resorting to violent measures, O'Quinn has no trouble making the audience believe that his character had employed these tactics before. The scene where he beats the man to death with the 2X4 is insanely realistic and therefore unsettling. I've seen Terry O'Quinn in many films and I have watched my fair share of Lost, but this is easily his best work.
The daughter in the film is played by Jill Schoelen whom I cannot seem to get away from of late. I had seen her in When a Stranger Calls Back long ago and far away but had all but forgotten about her until now. She was in Popcorn, which provided fodder for my last What We're Watching and also in a little film called Cutting Class that I recently viewed. As adorable as she is, her I'm-not-quite-Winona-Ryder-but-close screen presence gets a little tiresome. I do empathize with her as the daughter struggling to adjust to a new father figure and then having the added nightmare of that father figure turning out to be worse than anything she could have imagined, but I don't buy her as a troubled teen who is constantly getting in fights and causing endless anxiety for her teachers. She is just too damned cute to be a bad girl; grating voice or no grating voice.
The movie is not without problems, but they are notably few. The music is my biggest issue with the film. I know it's the 80's and all, but could we scale back on the non-sequitor Casio moments please? The generic, digital tones would crop up in the middle of a scene regardless of the content or mood. There were also a goodly amount of music cues that seemed plucked from a made-for-TV movie. I also could not believe how remarkably ineffectual was the crusader from Jerry Blake's past. The guy spends the whole movie basically going door-to-door on a tireless quest to find Blake and when he finally does, he's killed within seconds. I mean there's irony, and then there's just plain silly writing.
I kind of see The Stepfather as someone putting an 80's slasher twist on Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter. In that film, Robert Mitchum plays a Bluebeard that marries rich widows and then kills them and their families for the inheritance. He is ultimately foiled by the widow's two children much as O'Quinn is foiled by his new daughter. It has a remarkably different tone but still amounts to a statement about the "perfect family" and a character study vehicle for a great actor. I wonder if O'Quinn drew any inspiration from Mitchum as his deceptive speeches wherein he champion the all-American family are similar to the sermons of Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. All in all, this is a phenomenal film that I will be picking up on Blu-ray.
So biological or by-marriage, give your father a hug today and make sure you make no sudden movements. Should he get one whiff of your suspicions, he will beat you to death with a telephone. Also, I would forgo the traditional necktie and give him a gift that he couldn't so easily kill you with.