The Stepfather opens with a calm but blood-covered man ritualistically removing his beard and showering. He swaps his glasses for contacts, packs a few belongings, and leaves his home walking without acknowledging the horror of what he has left behind laying on the floor and covering the walls and furniture. After stopping briefly and nonchalantly to pick up the morning paper from his lawn, he walks off to a new life.
Six months later, Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn) is living in a new home with his girlfriend, Susan (Shelley Hack), and Susan’s daughter Stephanie. While Susan is unable to see past Jerry’s meticulously crafted facade, Stephanie is (as stepchildren usually are) suspicious of Jerry. It is her watchful eye and snooping that start to pry at tiny cracks in Jerry’s psyche. When he realizes his struggle to maintain a wholesome family are in vain (again), he begins preparations to move on to a yet another fresh start which includes getting rid of the one he is going to leave behind.
There are some movies that are inseparable from a key central performance. Imagine Night Warning without Susan Tyrrell or any Daniel Day-Lewis movie without Daniel Day-Lewis. Such is the case with The Stepfather, a thriller with slasher elements lost in a sea of cheap horror in the ’80s that still stands tall above many of the others not because of an overly-impressive script (which draws on the real-life case of John List) but because of Terry O’Quinn. He is Jerry Blake (or the man that calls himself Jerry Blake for the majority of the film) and is able to portray more with the raising of an eyebrow or a particular inflection on a single word than through any single bit of dialogue. The most chilling moment comes when Jerry uncharacteristically slips-up and confuses his current and future personas in front of Susan. At this point he drops all identity and settles into a blank, emotionless stare (which we can only assume is the real “him”) and says, “Who am I here?” It’s a truly horrific moment, one that’s every bit as scary as a monster leaping out of the dark.
All of the loving discussion of O’Quinn in The Stepfather is not meant to imply that other elements are otherwise lacking. The script does have moments of supreme cleverness and sets up an understated cat and mouse came between Jerry and Stephanie. Without the writers (which include novelist Donald E. Westlake who is no stranger to mysteries and thrillers) moving the players into place, no actor would be able to pull tension out of completely thin air. Moments of violence are infrequent prior to the exciting third act but when they do come they are quick and brutal. It’s a fine balance between thriller and character study and it delivers in both areas. Director Joseph Rubin (Dreamscape, The Good Son) ramps up the tension by focusing on the strong tools at his disposal (again, O’Quinn) and never rushing a stressful scene to get to the stinger.
Rather than rely on shock value, the creators of The Stepfather realize there’s truer terror in mystery and subtlety. Outside of the aforementioned seconds-long break in his masquerade, we never really know who the man being “Jerry Blake” is. In a roundabout way, though, we understand his frustrations at the decline of family values even if we don’t agree with the violent lengths he will go to to preserve them. It’s certainly a film that deserves to be lifted from obscurity (by way of Shout! Factory’s wonderful DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film, not through the shitty remake starring that dude from Nip/Tuck). It’s horror that feels like it could really be happening in a home near you and that makes it more unsettling and effective that almost any ghost or goblin.
The audience ate this one up. Frequent fits of laughter (of the nervous variety) were heard during the most chilling bits and applause was plentiful during the film’s exciting finale. It was rather obvious much of the audience was surprised at just how truly good the film is, a collective tension made for an awesome screening.