StepfatherAn intelligent, disturbing and altogether impressive eighties thriller, one of those rare films that’s well worth going out of your way to see.

Upon its 1987 release THE STEPFATHER received near-unanimous critical raves (it was lionized by the late Pauline Kael in The New Yorker) and a fair measure of popular success. It was largely responsible for launching the careers of director Joseph Rubin—who went on to bigger, if not necessarily better, fare like SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, THE GOOD SON and THE FORGOTTEN—and lead actor Terry O’Quinn, who’s best known these days for his roles in ALIAS and LOST. Quinn returned (though Rubin didn’t) for a STEPFATHER 2 in 1989, but wisely sat out 1992’s STEPFATHER 3. There’s also a 2009 remake starring Dylan Walsh, but you can definitely skip it!

The seemingly upstanding suburbanite Henry Morrison is first spotted calmly leaving a Seattle house…having just butchered the family within! He next turns up as Jerry Blake, a successful real estate salesman. As such he marries the widowed Susan, who has a precocious teenage daughter named Stephanie. The latter resents Jerry’s intrusion into her life, and vents her frustrations by acting out in school. Her behavior gets her expelled, which doesn’t make Henry/Jerry, who’s obsessed with creating the perfect family, too happy.

Around this time the police inquest into the Morrison killings, having been dormant for the past year, is reopened by the murdered woman’s brother. Stephanie hates her stepfather so much she tries to get the blame pinned on him for the murders, and requests a photo of Henry Morrison for confirmation. The newspaper follows through, but Jerry intercepts the photo before Stephanie has a chance to see it.

Don’t think Jerry has left his murderous ways behind! He kills once again, the victim this time being Stephanie’s nosy shrink. Jerry offs the guy because he’s nosy and (perhaps more importantly) because he doesn’t have a family. Jerry makes the killing look like an accident, which Stephanie doesn’t entirely buy. She does some detective work and discovers the true cause of the shrink’s demise. Her findings are concurrent with those of the Morrison woman’s brother, who’s closing in on Jerry.

In the meantime Jerry is methodically laying the groundwork for his next identity switch by finding a new town, job and family. All that’s left is to kill off Susan and Stephanie.

One can quibble with aspects of Joseph Rubin’s direction, which is a tad bombastic with its restless steadicam visuals and overpowering music score. One might also bitch about the odd story construction, which gives away the stepfather’s true nature in the opening scene rather than let the information be doled out gradually. This seems doubly odd since the script was worked on by Brian Garfield (DEATH WISH) and Donald E. Westlake, both top flight mystery/thriller novelists.

But those are minor complaints. The film works extremely well as is, being suspenseful and engrossing to a Hitchcock-worthy degree. Some critics view it as a BLUE VELVET-like critique of the conservative Reagan years, but I think THE STEPFATHER is best viewed as what it is: an unusually good, efficient thriller.

And then there’s the towering performance of Terry O’Quinn as “Scary Jerry,” surely one of the greatest movie psychos since Norman Bates. O’Quinn is so good we can actually feel and (to a degree) sympathize with his longing for a traditional all-American family. Jill Schoelen is also quite good as Quinn’s traumatized stepdaughter, and model-turned-crappy actress Shelley Hack isn’t even bad as Quinn’s too-trusting wife.

Vital Statistics

ITC Productions, Inc.

Director: Joseph Ruben
Producer: Jay Benson
Screenplay: Donald E. Westlake
Cinematography: John W. Lindley
Editing: George Bowers
Cast: Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack, Charles Lanyer, Stephen Shellen, Stephen E. Miller, Robyn Stevan, Jeff Schultz, Lindsay Bourne, Anna Hagan, Gilliam Barber, Blu Mankuma