By Scott Dorward
The Stepfather (USA, 1987)
“Wait a minute. Who am I here?”
The Stepfather is one of those films I remember passing over repeatedly at the video store, back in the late ’80s. The premise made it sound like any one of dozens of similar thrillers about families in peril. A few months ago, however, I watched the excellent documentary In Search of Darkness, which chronicles the bloody explosion of horror that came out of the USA in the 1980s. Their discussion of The Stepfather made it sound like a cut above the average slasher. When I looked the film up, I saw that it was written by legendary crime novelist Donald E Westlake, whose Parker and Dortmunder series I adore. So, with rekindled interest, I decided to give The Stepfather a long-overdue chance.
The film opens with Henry Morrison giving himself a makeover — shaving off his beard, changing his hairstyle, swapping glasses for contact lenses and washing the blood off his face. We’ve all been there. As he walks out of his home, he passes the butchered remains of his family and heads off to a new life, whistling a jaunty tune.
A year later, Morrison has reinvented himself as Jerry Blake, an estate agent. Is there no limit to this man’s evil? He has insinuated himself into a new family, marrying widow Susan Maine and becoming stepfather to Stephanie, her teenage daughter.
Stephanie is hostile towards her new stepfather. While this starts off as pretty normal resentment, it escalates into full-blown suspicion as she witnesses Jerry having psychotic arguments with himself and losing his temper over anything that threatens the perfect image of their family life together.
As Jerry feels the family disintegrating, he prepares to clean house once again and build yet another new life for himself. But with the brother of his previous wife on his trail and his stepdaughter’s psychiatrist taking an interest in his background, will he manage to escape before his past catches up with him?
While the story structure of The Stepfather will be unsurprising to anyone who has seen a thriller from the ’80s, Jerry Blake is a fascinating character. His pathology of inserting himself into existing families, using them for emotional gratification, and then destroying them when they fail to be perfect is chilling. He feels like something out of the kind of nature documentary that gives you nightmares — a cross between a cuckoo and a parasitic worm. Terry O’Quinn does a terrific job of portraying both the banal mask of sanity and the seething madness that roils beneath.
I don’t know if it was Westlake’s intention, but I found myself thinking about mutations and reproductive strategies while watching this film. The portrayal of Blake as a parasitic entity made me wonder how many other weird reproductive strategies from nature could map onto human pathologies. Maybe Blake represents some evolutionary gambit that, if successful, could lead to a monstrous new species of humans that survives through such parasitism. Of course, The Stepfather doesn’t really explore these ideas but it does open up some interesting possibilities. I wonder what this film could have been like if it had been directed by, say, David Cronenberg.
It’s a shame that so much of The Stepfather follows the standard family-in-peril tropes of the time. While we do see Blake’s machinations, it doesn’t feel like enough. He is by far the most interesting thing about the film. Watching his stepdaughter playing teen detective feels drainingly mundane whenever focus switches to her.
Sadly, my fears about The Stepfather being just another ’80s thriller weren’t entirely baseless. Outside of the weirdness of its antagonist, there’s little here that I haven’t seen dozens of times before. I had hoped that there would be more of the sardonic humour and clever plotting that fill Westlake’s novels, but most of The Stepfather is very by-the-numbers.
That said, the character of Jerry Blake, and Terry O’Quinn’s performance as him, save the film from being totally generic. The moments where we see him struggling to maintain the appearance of the perfect family and then cracking as the illusion cracks are genuinely chilling. He is as interesting a human monster as I can remember seeing in a film.
The Stepfather is also a little darker than most of its ilk. While it delivers exactly the ending you might expect, the journey there is a brutal one. Blake stabs, beats and crushes his way through all opposition to his vision of the family, leaving a trail of blood and bodies. The depiction of all this violence owes more to horror films than standard Hollywood thrillers.
For all its faults, The Stepfather is still interesting enough to warrant watching. It may feel dated and even trite but Jerry Blake will stay with you long after the film is over. Hell, he may even marry into your family.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – The Mortuary Collection (2019)
- 24 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 25 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 26 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
- 29 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!