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The Stepfather (1987)

Shout Factory!
DVD Released: 10/13/2009

All Ratings out of
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 10/13/2009

Here's today's question: Am I a movie-party person? The answer is: sort of. If I'm watching a movie for the first time, I prefer to watch it with my wife or alone so that I can fully focus and take it all in. The only time that I like to watch a movie with a group is if I've seen it before, and preferably if it's the kind of quotable movie that's fun to watch with others. Many years ago, I attended a get-together (party would be a strong word), where a group of friends got together to watch some movies. Someone had rented The Stepfather, a movie that I'd heard of and wanted to see. Despite the talking, people going to the bathroom, and Mystery Science Theater 3000-esque jokes, I still found the movie to be very powerful. I immediately rented it again, and was taken with this subtle horror film. The movie has become a cult classic and still discovers to find an audience. Thankfully, it's getting its first official U.S. DVD release from Shout Factory!.

As The Stepfather opens, we see a man shower, shave his beard, cut his hair, put on a new suit, walk past several dead bodies, and leave the house. The story then moves forward one year. The man, Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn), has married Susan (Shelley Hack), and lives in the suburbs selling real estate. Jerry is jovial, friendly, and seems to truly love life. However, his step-daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), doesn't trust him. Unfortunately for her, Stephanie is a trouble-maker who is in therapy, so her Mom doesn't put much credence into her fears. Stephanie watches Jerry's every move, and she eventually begins to see chinks in his well-groomed exterior. Stephanie learns of the murders from the film's opening, and begins to learn more about them. Fearing that his new life is going to crumble, and facing the disappointment of the fact that Susan and Stephanie aren't perfect, Jerry starts to turn back to his homicidal ways.

You younger readers need to understand what the mid-80s were like...well, for movies (we won't truly delve into what the mid-80s were like!). By 1987, the slasher cycle had pretty much run its course, save for some late entries and the late Friday the 13th entry. Thus, film-goers, especially horror film fans were fed up with these movies. Also, many, many movies where the title contained the word "the" and one other word (The Shining, The Nesting, The Funhouse, etc) had been released in the 80s. Therefore, the "the" title and the fact that it sort of looked like a slasher film doomed The Stepfather from the beginning. The movie received good reviews and some teenagers rented in on video, but it never deserved the credit that it deserved.

For starters, this isn't a slasher movie. (If anything, Jerry falls closer to being a serial killer who is dealing with some serious identity issues.) This is a finely tuned psychological thriller which isn't afraid to be violent when the time comes. The script (written by mystery writer Donald Westlake and author/screenwriter Brian Garfield, along with Carolyn Lefcourt) takes an unusual approach, as this isn't a murder-mystery. We know from the outset that Jerry is a cold-blooded killer. Instead, the movie takes a two-step approach. First, we must wait to see who will discover his real identity and when, and secondly, we must wait to see when Jerry will snap again. Thus, this is truly a suspense film as the audience as more information than the characters, but we have no idea when, where, or how the murders will begin again.

This approach works thanks to the performance of Terry O'Quinn. We know him today from Lost, Alias, and Millennium, but in 1987, he was a relatively unknown actor. He succeeds here by playing Jerry as very normal and happy for 95% of the film. We know that Jerry is a killer, but he never acts like one. We see him helping others, going out of his way to be nice to Stephanie, and working hard at his job. Thus, when he does snap, despite the fact that we know it’s coming, it’s quite shocking, and without a doubt the best scene in the film. The fact that he makes Jerry believable and even likable makes the violent parts of the film even scarier. Director Joseph Ruben, who had scored a minor hit a few years earlier with Dreamscape, shoots most of the film like a drama -- again, making the shocking scenes even more shocking.

Now, The Stepfather is getting the remake treatment, and again, we have to ask "Why?". (As usual, it looks as if the new movie is simply using the old story as a jumping off point.) I find this idea to be crazy when most people have had the pleasure or opportunity to discover the original. If you want to see the movie which set a new standard for the “crazy person who doesn’t act crazy” movie, then check out The Stepfather.

The Stepfather wants to move in with your family on DVD courtesy of Shout Factory! The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer has been enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. I will go ahead and say that as someone who has been waiting years for this movie to come to DVD, this transfer is disappointing. Is this really the best print which they could find? The image is somewhat sharp and clear, but the picture shows a notable amount of grain and minor defects in the source material, small cuts and white dots, abound throughout. The colors are OK in some shots, but slightly washed-out in others. The image is flat and somewhat dark at times. Technically this is an improvement over my old VHS, but that tape featured a better print. The DVD features a digital stereo audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. For the most part, this is a serviceable, but lackluster track which only shows a slight bit of distortion and nicely presents the dialogue.

The Stepfather DVD contains a few extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Joseph Ruben and Fangoria magazine's Michael Gingold. This is an OK chat, but Ruben states that he can’t remember specific details from 20 years ago too many times. (They should have worked out the questions before-hand.) He does give some good information about the locations, the production, and O’Quinn’s performance. "The Stepfather Chronicles" (27 minutes) opens with Screenwriter Brian Garfield (who wrote Death Wish) describing the real-life story on which the script was based. Then, Ruben, Producer Jay Benson, and Director of Photography John Lindley begin discussing the preparation for and shooting of the film. Jill Schoelen pops up to comment about her character and what it was like to work with Terry O'Quinn. The participants then look back at the film's legacy. This is a fairly good featurette, but it would have been great to have heard from O'Quinn. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film which has been squeezed into a 4 x 3 frame for some reason.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long