Review: The Stepfather


The Stepfather (1987) is a movie I would find as a kid among the grocery store VHS tapes. I would sneak a peek at the back of its box, hoping for some slight taste of madness, a single bloody frame of a movie I would never be allowed to watch at that age. It would be nestled between Return of the Killer Tomatoes and Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie, but The Stepfather is about as closely related to those films as anything by Alfred Hitchcock.

I associate this film with Hitchcock not for a measure of quality, but content. Many of the shots, environments, and lighting conditions are ripped straight from the classic director’s filmography. The result is a strange sort of copycat. It’s the villain from Shadow of a Doubt, with a personality from Strangers on a Train’s antagonist, stirred with considerable Psycho camerawork and a bit of The Birds for little more than a wink. One of The Stepfather’s victims even looks like actor Joseph Cotton.

All of this homage is on borrowed time. The film is padded with unoriginality to such a degree that it barely stands on its own.  There is only one saving grace, in actor Terry O’ Quinn’s title role. It’s the most down to earth portrayal of a serial killer I’ve ever seen.  Silence of the Lambs and Badlands were superior films by an ocean’s length but Lecter was always too much the monster for my taste, and Badlands is difficult to describe without ruining it. I’ll only say that the psyche of a murderer is purposefully omitted.

The Stepfather lets your guard down, or at least he would if the audience wasn’t informed of his true nature in the first shot. He’s a likeable kind guy that you might wish was your stepdad. It’s only from his trying too hard that the daughter in this scenario is repelled. Without her cues to remind us he’s the bad guy, what’s left is an old fashioned guy who just can’t tolerate the disintegration of family values. He watches Mr. Ed because he longs for the era in which it was televised.

Sounds pretty interesting, doesn’t it? I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by some choices in The Stepfather, but repulsed in so many other ways. Worst of all is a script that feels like it was written during the same time period that character is obsessed with. With the stepfather’s behavior this is amusingly dark humor but the rest of them look like they’re on the set of The Truman Show.

The film even half-nominates one of these characters to be the leading role. The movie isn’t sure if this is about a sick man or an endangered daughter, a would-be Nancy Drew who is far too cheerfully investigating someone she believes to be a murderer living in her home. This girl doesn’t have the survivalist trait of Nancy Thompson from A Nightmare on Elm Street. She’s just a brat with a mother who cares more about her own fresh start than her.

The setup is Hitchcock, but the presentation is cheap television fare. If more focus were put on the widower he’s dating (or married to, I’m not sure) it would be a Lifetime channel movie. It’s never more evident than in the horribly acted roles of the boyfriend-type and the hard-boiled-cop-type. Both, like the endangered daughter, shift randomly between concerned and ridiculously happy for no reason. 

When the second of these isn’t throwing a cigarette to the ground in disgust, it’s “Tra-la-la we’re off to get photographic evidence of my dismembered sister’s killer.” Is he a psychologically broken man in dire need of a shower, or a chipper, smooth talking pearly white smile of a man? The answer is both, depending on which awful soundtrack accompanies him.

Audiences looking for campy slasher fare were probably disappointed by this in 1987, and film buffs would have found it contrived. I can imagine a critic making a case for this film as a counter-point to 80’s bloodbath franchises, but that person would be inflating what quality The Stepfather has to offer, and ignoring out-of-place moments that court the mainstream audience of its time.

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.

Overall Score: 5.05 – 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.)