Daddy Knows Best?
The trick when crafting a good slasher is to give them just enough motivation to fuel their desire to kill without explaining too much about who they are or what drives them. Knowing why they want to kill is key because if they’re just killing without motivation then their killing spree is hollow. Freddy wanted revenge on the parents that killed him. Pamela wanted revenge on the counselors that killed her kid (and then Jason wanted revenge on the counselors that killed his mom). Michael was pure evil, through and through. Knowing what drives them makes them more interesting. A shapeless void has less to connect to than someone with just a hint of drive.
You don’t want to explain too much, though. If you delve too deeply into the what, why, and wherefore, the slasher becomes over explained, their motivation less interesting. Michael was more interesting when he wanted to kill on Halloween night. But the more the films delved into his connection to his family, his twisted childhood, the magic cult that might have been fueling him, he went from a dark shape that was interesting to a convoluted mess of motivations and conflicting backstories. It can be a tricky balancing act with only the best slashers actually handling the task right.
While no one would call The Stepfather a good slasher – it’s a bit slow, a bit off-putting, and certainly a tad low on the kill count – the one thing it gets right is that it keeps much of our lead character’s motivation and history shrouded in mystery. We know he kills the family we see at the start of the film, and we know he married that woman after she lost her previous husband, but what life was like in that household, or what he was doing before that marriage is kept a secret. It’s hinted, but never explained, so we don’t really know who he is outside the context of his actions. That works well. It keeps us guessing, wondering, trying to piece it together ourselves. That helps keep the energy of the film up even when it gets a bit draggy in other areas.
The film opens with the man we know as Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn) cleaning himself up after he’s just killed his whole family. He cuts his hair, shaves his beard, puts in contacts, and then showers, drastically changing his look in the process. By the time he leaves the home, walking off down the street to a new life, no one recognizes him at all. When next we see him it’s a year later and he’s living with a new family – mother Susan Maine (Shelley Hack) and daughter Stephanie Maine (Jill Schoelen) – in a new town in Washington state. While everyone else seems to love Jerry, Stephanie thinks there’s something off about her new stepfather. Something very wrong, indeed.
She wants to escape, to move off and go to boarding school, She acts out at school and gets herself repeatedly suspended until, finally, they expel her. Her hope is to get sent to boarding school, but when Jerry is able to smooth things over at the school, that plan fails. Then she starts digging into him, trying to find out who he might really be, but Jerry is able to fool her there, too, giving her false clues so she can’t figure out the truth. But as he’s forced to start killing again, and the lies he’s telling begin to build up, he realizes he might just have to move off and try yet again in a new town. That would mean he’d have to clean house in his current life, though, and Susuan and Stephanie won’t like how that turns out.
When I was a kid I used to see The Stepfather at Blockbuster whenever my family went there. Although I was technically too young to rent horror movies I still wandered through the section, looking at all the cool, and scary, covers. It’s not like my mom would have stopped me from getting any of these films, I just always had something else (like an NES game) to rent instead. But I remember seeing The Stepfather on the shelf, every time I went there, and I was always just a little curious what the film was like. I will say that, for 1980s slasher horror, the film was worth the look. It’s not great, but it’s nowhere near as bad as so many other slasher films I’ve seen from the era.
Most of the credit for that has to go to Terry O'Quinn. He’s been a reliable character actor in films and television since 1980, and you can see why in this film. He takes an underwritten character and turns him into someone creepy, strange, and interesting. His performance as Jerry – the ticks, the lines he says to himself, the far away look whenever he has to figure out who he’s playing that day – all works in the character’s favor. He could be simple, broad, and silly, but O’Quinn actually crafts the character into someone that feels real, even when he’s acting like a traditional horror villain.
In fairness the small cast is full of decent actors. The other one I’d single out, though, is Jill Schoelen as Stephanie. She’s solid, playing a girl who lost her father over a year ago but who still hasn’t gotten over it. There’s pain, and grief, and pathos in her performance, so much more than you expect from your standard scream queen, final girl. She takes this teen and makes her someone you care about, who you want to see survive this film even opposite O’Quinn’s great performance as the villain. The two, working against each other, give the film some of its best moments.
With that said, the film could use some tightening up. There’s a subplot about Jerry’s previous brother-in-law, Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen), coming to find Jerry and get justice for his dead sister. This would be an interesting storyline if Shellen were up to the task of playing a grieving brother. He’s not, and his scenes feel like they come from a different production. Plus, when he finally confronts Jerry it all amounts to nothing. Just another body on the floor before Jerry moves on. Yes, one pistol is left behind (which comes into play later) but we didn’t need twenty minutes of an otherwise pointless B-plot to get a gun into the movie. There had to have been better ways to handle that.
And the film also makes the awful decision to lust after Stephanie. A scene at the midpoint of the film has Jerry blast her new boyfriend, scaring him off, all because he was kissing Stephanie. “She’s only sixteen!” But then, in a late scene, we see Stephanie go into the bathroom and take a shower and, yes, we get to see her naked. The film made a point of telling us her age before giving us a gratuitous shower scene, and it feels really gross. In fairness, I think it would have felt gross having that scene with her at any age (even if she were an adult in the story of the film) because we’ve seen her grieving and struggling and this feels wrong. It’s even worse, though, when the character is underage.
I think if the film could have been tightened up, and gotten rid of that shower scene, it would have been better. It certainly would have provided more time for a few more deaths to help ramp the horror. It’s got a couple of decent moments but not nearly enough to truly call this film scary. It’s a sleeper horror film, with moments that work, but most of what it goes for is building vibe. At times that works, but nowhere near as well as it could. It’s close, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not quite there and I almost find that more disappointing than if the film had been outright bad.
Still, overall I found the film to be a decent little work of horror. It has its moments, and a couple of really great performances, that help to elevate it above the dross and flotsam of the genre. I doubt any casual fan of the genre would care about The Stepfather, but I enjoyed it well enough that I don’t even dread going in to watch the (presumably much worse) sequels. That’s better than I could have expected, a nice reward for my curiosity about this film all those years ago.