Shout! Factory // 1987 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 9th, 2009
He wanted a perfect family. But they couldn't measure up...
I would happily be the conductor on the "I hate remakes" train, but I'd like to pause for a moment to discuss one good thing that comes out of Hollywood's obsession with unoriginality: nice releases of otherwise neglected movies. We didn't really have a release of My Bloody Valentine until My Bloody Valentine 3-D, and I suspect that even the latest release of the classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre was influenced by remake hype. Now we can add The Stepfather to the pile of films being released thanks to remake treatment. It's also a film that we can cross off the "classic '80s horror films that still haven't seen the light of digital day" list. Fans of the film are sure to be thrilled with this excellent release of a neglected shocker.
Jerry (Terry O'Quinn, Lost) wants the perfect family so bad he's willing to kill for it. When his family doesn't work out just right, he kills them and finds a new family to love. It's been a year since he had to dump his last family, and things seem to be going well with his new wife and daughter, Stephanie. Stephanie, however, is suspicious of how perfect Jerry seems to be, so she starts digging, which is only going to threaten Jerry's perfect little family.
The Stepfather is an odd little film. In many ways it fits perfectly into the slasher genre, with a perfect suburban existence threatened by a brutal killer (in this case the figure of the stepfather). There's quite a bit of violence, and a final girl who stands up to the monster in the end. However, unlike many other slashers, the focus in this film is distributed equally between the "monster," Jerry, and the victims (or potential victims). This is also one of the few slasher-style films that doesn't try to paint the victims as somehow deserving of punishment through sexual or social deviance. No, in this film, unlike other slashers, we don't really root for the killer, which makes it an oddity in the slasher canon. This alone is a good reason to watch the film.
The other good reason to watch the film is Terry O'Quinn's performance. I admit that I've never seen an episode of Lost (or The West Wing, or Millennium, or the other shows he's been on) before, but watching The Stepfather, I am not at all surprised that he's had a long career as an actor. There are numerous actors out there who can sell bat-s*$% crazy, and even more who can sell boring normalcy, but the actor who can sell both with equal skill is rare indeed. O'Quinn accomplishes it with apparent ease, switching between boring real estate salesman and homicidal maniac at the drop of a hat, with equal conviction. It's really a marvel to watch.
This DVD release is also a feather in The Stepfather's cap. The video presentation is surprisingly strong for a fairly low-budget film from the late '80s. The film is set in the Northwest, and the cinematography shows off the foliage with amazing color rendition. Although the detail isn't as high as contemporary films, the strong colors and lack of compression problems put The Stepfather among the better-transferred '80s horror films. The audio is only a stereo mix, but that perfectly suits the tense thriller as the dialogue and atmospherics are easily audible. The extras don't seem extensive, only a commentary and a featurette, but between the two cover just about everything anyone would want to know about the film. Director Joseph Ruben goes solo for the audio commentary, discuss the project's origins in the headlines as well its production. He returns for "The Stepfather Chronicles" which includes interviews from most of the major cast and crew on the film and its legacy. There's also a booklet included in the case with a short essay on the film's origins.
I think the whole not-quite-a-slasher thing sets The Stepfather apart from the crowd, but it's also a bit of a liability. The pacing is definitely more Hitchcockian than the average slasher film, so fans looking for lots of blood-soaked footage have to wait most of the film to get their thrill. On the other side, those looking for a more suspenseful kind of film might be a bit turned off by the violence at the film's climax. In general, contemporary viewers might find the film's more suspenseful pace a bit off-putting simply because the audience is aware from the beginning that Jerry is a killer. This certainly ratchets up the tension as we wonder about what is going to happen to Stephanie, but it removes some of the mystery so we want to get to the resolution faster than the film is willing to take us.
The Stepfather is an odd little late-'80s gem that deserves a wider audience thanks to its bizarre, factually based premise and its brilliant star performance from Lost actor Terry O'Quinn. The film's long been M.I.A. from the digital scene, but the folks at Shout! Factory have done fans and newcomers alike a wonderful service by providing a DVD with a strong transfer and some quality extras.
The Stepfather is guilty of being a little overbearing, but I'm not going to be the one to mention it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R