The Stepfather is another movie I remember watching frequently at my friend’s house throughout my high school days, and it’s one that, more than 25 years later, we still mention occasionally. I can’t remember exactly what it was about the movie our teen-aged selves liked, although I imagine the presence of the totally crushworthy Jill Schoelen had something to do with it. But I’m a grownup now (more or less) and many times the things we think are great at 16, don’t look nearly as shiny when viewed through the lens of adulthood, so I was curious to see if the movie still holds up after all these years. I’m happy to say it did – and then some.
Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn, Silver Bullet, Pin, The Forgotten One, Stepfather II) doesn’t ask for much. All he wants is a decent living, a few good friends, and for his goddamned family to stop disappointing him. But hey, that’s all in the past, at least with that old family anyway – they’ve been “taken care of”. Now with a new name and a new family, things couldn’t be better. Except for maybe his stepdaughter (Jill Schoelen, The Bite, Cutting Class, The Phantom of the Opera). She’s been doing some disappointing things lately. Well, it’s nothing ol’ Jer can’t fix with a little effort and fatherly guidance because he’d sure hate to see this family get broken up. But he’s moved on before and, if need be, he can move on again. Sooner or later he’ll find a family that appreciates everything he does for them.
The Stepfather is loosely based on the story of an accountant named John List who, in 1971, quit his job, killed his entire family and then seemingly vanished. It had been supposed by many that List may have been hiding in plain sight with a new identity and maybe even a new family, and it was this idea that became the central plot of the movie. Finally, in 1989 a segment on the show America’s Most Wanted lead to List’s capture and the confirmation that he had indeed been living the life of a simple family man under a different name. Of course, List’s whereabouts had still been a mystery when The Stepfather was released two years prior, so the movie isn’t biographical, but knowing the fiction more closely resembles fact than was previously thought makes the movie seem that much more eerie.
The Stepfather is well-executed in pretty much every way you can think of, but for me (and probably for most), its biggest strength is Terry O’Quinn’s performance in the lead role. It’s simply masterful, and I’m not hyperbolizing when I say I think it belongs in the same conversation with Anthony Perkins’s performance in Psycho and Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining. I really do believe it’s that memorable, if not as well-known. His ability to transition from syrupy sweet, all-American family man to raging psychopath and then back again is captivating, but his true brilliance lies in the way he walks the fine line between the two, allowing the slightest glimmer of underlying evil to show through before pulling it back behind the mask of wholesome father. It’s the subtlety he displays in that middle ground that is the strongest aspect of his performance and it’s the biggest reason the movie is so effective. The fear we experience in The Stepfather is not the fear of the monster lurking in the bushes waiting to sneak inside, it’s the fear of the monster who fooled us into inviting him in. For us to be afraid of Jerry Blake, we have to believe he could fool us, and O’Quinn skillfully makes us believe just that.
But you can’t have the stepfather without the stepdaughter and Jill Schoelen’s excellent portrayal of Stephanie is, I think, not given the credit it deserves simply because O’Quinn is so outstanding. Schoelen was 22 during filming, but unlike many other older actors playing teens, she is actually convincing as a 16-year-old. The interaction between stepfather and stepdaughter is the driving force of the movie, and where a lesser actress might be swallowed up by O’Quinn’s amazing performance, Schoelen is right there with him every step of the way. After all, Stephanie is the only person in Jerry Blake’s life who realizes something isn’t quite right about the guy, so we have to believe she is more than just a troubled, self-absorbed teen. I think Schoelen pulled it off brilliantly and the movie really wouldn’t have been the same without her (As a side note, she also seems to be a very lovely person).
The Stepfather lived up to and even surpassed my memories from all those years ago. It’s tense, exciting, and one of the best-acted horror movies you’ll see (Not to mention the fact that Jill Schoelen is still totally crushworthy). It’s one to add to the must-watch list if you’ve never seen it, or one to consider revisiting if it’s been awhile – you may see it in a new light. Maybe more thriller than horror, it frequently gets classified as a slasher movie, but it’s really a different animal and should be approached as such. There’s not much onscreen violence or gore and most of the best parts are somewhat subtle, so watch when you can give it your full attention and appreciate its strengths – you’ll be glad you did. I, for one, won’t be waiting another 25 years to watch it again.
“Maybe they disappointed him.”