Daddy’s home and he’s not very happy.
In June 1989, FBI agents arrested an accountant by the name of Bob Clark in Virginia. A friend of the Clarks had watched an episode of America’s Most Wanted where host John Walsh had presented an age-progressed clay bust of a murderer. The friend found it eerily similar to Bob and was startled enough to contact authorities. The FBI soon learned that the accountant was indeed John List, a New Jersey resident who had killed his mother, wife and three children in 1971. I wonder if, when The Stepfather was released in 1987, “Bob Clark” ever saw it and recognized himself in Terry O’Quinn’s brilliant portrayal.
The film begins with a blood-stained man (O’Quinn) looking at himself in the bathroom mirror before taking a shower, shaving off his beard and replacing his glasses with lenses. As the man calmly leaves his home, we see his wife and children lying in a pool of blood in the living room. After a while, the murderer (who now calls himself Jerry Blake) has found a new family, Susan Maine (Shelley Hack) and her teenage daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). On the surface, everything is fine. Susan is head over heels in love with Jerry, and he’s created a nice little new life for himself. However, Stephanie is acting up in school and tells her therapist that she can’t stand Jerry. In fact, she’s afraid of him, but can’t figure out exactly what it is about him that scares her so. As time passes, Jerry begins to realize that his dream of having the perfect 1950s family may not be fulfilled this time either… and the brother of his last wife is on a mission to find his sister’s killer.
Opening sequence is truly chilling
Director Joseph Ruben allegedly hesitated before agreeing to make this movie, fearing it would end up another cheap slasher. Which is ironic, since it’s really the only great film he’s ever made. His contribution is valuable; that opening sequence is truly chilling, the thrills keep coming with even pace and Ruben stages most scenes very well. The story was invented by Carolyn Lefcourt together with two seasoned crime writers, Brian Garfield and Donald Westlake (the latter then wrote the screenplay), who drew inspiration from the then not yet solved List case. The movie suffers a little bit from its painfully 80s music score, but the story is well structured with a convincing portrayal of Jerry and his attempt to shape a family into a conservative role model, while at the same time trying not to reveal too much of his insanity. This process is also treated with a sense of humor, even by O’Quinn who walks a fine line between comedy and intimidation without ever falling on his face. He is genuinely creepy and outshines everyone else in the cast, even though Schoelen and Hack make us care for them as potential victims.
The Stepfather has become somewhat of a cult classic. My favorite scene has to be near the end when everything’s unraveling for Jerry and he temporarily forgets his current identity. Many younger viewers may think of Lost when they see O’Quinn, which isn’t a bad role for him… but The Stepfather should make him immortal. The last half-hour is standard, but even then (psychotic, clumsy, and in a pink shirt) O’Quinn carries the day.
The Stepfather 1987-U.S. 98 min. Color. Produced by Jay Benson. Directed by Joseph Ruben. Screenplay: Donald E. Westlake. Cast: Terry O’Quinn (Jerry Blake), Jill Schoelen (Stephanie Maine), Shelley Hack (Susan Maine), Stephen Shellen, Charles Lanyer.
Trivia: Followed by two sequels, starting with Stepfather II (1989); remade as The Stepfather (2009).
Last word: “Nobody wanted to play this guy. Every name or semi-name actor we approached turned us down because, I guess, he was just too bad a guy and they didn’t want to play him. So we eventually realized that we were going to have to find somebody. For me, Terry O’Quinn’s talent just jumped out at me. He’s just one of these actors who cannot give you a false look. It’s just his talent, you can’t explain it, but Terry has a ton of talent. He also has that magnetic smile, which I think every good salesman needs.” (Ruben, MovieWeb)