Around the time that The Stepfather was released, the slasher film was the preferred vehicle for providing horror to an audience. A Nightmare of Elm Street 3, Hellraiser, Evil Dead 2, and Slumber Party Massacre 2 were all released in 1987, the same year of The Stepfather. It is not horror’s best year, but it does encapsulate a lot of the trends in horror of the time. Mainly, gore and terrifying, monstrous killers.
Then there was The Stepfather, a somewhat well-received film critically that nevertheless failed to achieve much popularity during its time. Its one success was that it strayed rather drastically from the trends of the time, focusing more on drama and character exploration than on violence and gore.
It’s a shame, then, that it doesn’t hold up to the myriad newer films that have done exactly this, only much, much better.
The Stepfather opens with Jerry (Terry O’Quinn) immediately after he has very gruesomely butchered his entire family. He leaves behind the bloody scene and begins a new life with a new family, where everything seems great. However, he continues to be disappointed in his lack of control over the family, and soon he starts to lose control of himself.
Watching Jerry lose control is really the only true highlight of the film. O’Quinn does a fantastic job of playing both sides of the character and transitioning between them seamlessly. Oddly, he spends a great deal of the film playing Jerry as a rather normal husband and stepfather, which increases the impact of those moments where he’s overcome by rage. He’s truly a joy to watch.
The problem with this, however, is that all of the other moments are really quite lifeless, especially those involving any character other than Jerry. Jerry’s new wife, Susan (Shelley Hack), and her daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen) really don’t provide anything for the film other than a family for Jerry to attempt to fit in to. The mundane subplots involving Susan and Stephanie really characterize the main problem of the movie: the characters are boring.
The plot itself doesn’t rise much farther above the quality of the characters. Jerry longs for a simpler time where fathers controlled their families with iron fists, and he struggles with his inability to create a perfect family. It’s a decently intriguing foundation for a story, but the film does little to build upon this foundation. Jerry is motivated by little else, and glimpses into his professional life show nothing more than the image of a normal guy. While it serves to create a contrast for normal Jerry and crazy Jerry, it doesn’t make a strong story.
Perhaps the most offensive part of the plot is the character of Stephanie, as the film spends a great deal of time on her to no avail. It’s hard not to actively hate her character and actually long for her demise as she is truly, truly obnoxious. The film attempts to paint her as a sympathetic character by showing her struggling in school, getting into fights, and whining at a psychiatrist, but all of this effort has the opposite effect. The viewer just wants someone to stab her already. It’s not solely the fault of the script, Schoelen’s acting, or any other single factor. It’s just a mashup of failures.
So while The Stepfather is enjoyable for O’Quinn’s performance, it’s not a particularly good horror film, nor is it a particularly good character film. I can definitely recommend it for fans of O’Quinn, especially for those who might notice the parallels between his performance here and his multi-faceted performances on the ABC series LOST. Otherwise, there are far better ways to enjoy your Halloween that involve better horror, better characters, and a better script.
Overall Score: 5.90 – Bad (5s are movies that either failed at reaching the goals it set out to do, or didn’t set out to do anything special and still had many flaws. Some will enjoy 5s, but unless you’re a fan of this genre, you shouldn’t see it, and might not even want to rent it.)
Are you a fan of LOST? Do you like Terry O’Quinn for any other conceivable reason? If the answer is yes, then there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half. Otherwise, you’ll get little in the way of enjoyment out of The Stepfather, which succeeds at nothing other than casting O’Quinn.
Overall Score: 4.75 — The Stepfather is required viewing for fans of Terry O’ Quinn, who went on to play the role of John Locke in NBC’s LOST, and for anyone who thinks Hitchcock’s early films would have been better in color. To the rest of you, I recommend Strangers on a Train or, while we’re on the subject, LOST. You can read his full review here!