It’s an obvious statement that any effective horror flick is one that in at least some fashion relates to a real-world stress or fear; kinda tough to be afraid of something that you can’t imagine happening, right? This relation can be as simple as the fear of getting an icepick shoved through your temple, or as complex as the stress created from knowing that the world around you is being taken over by a sinister intelligence, but no one believes you; soon you begin to doubt your own sanity, and reality itself becomes the fear. It can take on the most fantastic of proportions, such as Alien showcases the almost universal fears of mistrust and isolation in a dirty, futuristic setting, using a killer monster and a deceptive corporation to elicit that perfect combination of fear and loathing; on another level, a film like The Amityville Horror coats its fearful aspects in a veneer of supernatural influence, but with less prominence preys upon the very earthly stresses of blended family mistrust and the headaches of home ownership. The whole slasher subgenre is based on a teenaged variant of the old Boogeyman; instead of being punished by the sinister creature of darkness for not eating your peas or putting up your toys, it’s now implied that premarital sex and pot-smoking will get you a visit…with a much more visceral (and decidedly more final) punishment in your future.
Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather was one film that played well into this relatable zone in the minds of film-goers back in 1987, turning the idea of a parental re-marriage into a living hell and giving us a plausible horror that we could all in some sense relate to.
Widowed mother Susan Maine can’t believe her good fortune; she’s found the happiness that she thought was gone from her life when her husband died. Jerry Blake came into her life a year ago, and with his gentility, kindness, and high-end family values, swept her off her feet and became her husband. Susan’s teenaged daughter, Stephanie, isn’t quite as impressed; this is the 1980s, after all, and Jerry’s 1950’s-era idea of a nuclear family seems to come from old television shows. Stephanie is not interested in living Father Knows Best. Moreover, she still misses her father, and even the relationship she and her mother had before Jerry showed up. Feeling left out, she often shies away from Jerry’s “family” functions; it’s during one such time that she’s witness to Jerry having a frightening, violent episode in the basement, not knowing she was there. She tells her therapist her concerns about her stepfather, and the psychologist makes arrangements to meet with Jerry, just to discuss Stephanie’s concerns; the darkness in Jerry, however, rears it’s terrifying head at potential discovery. With the threat of his “perfect family” dissolving around him, Jerry’s true colors come forth…and unknown to Stephanie and her mother, this isn’t the first time…
This flick does a great job of bringing terror to suburbia, playing beautifully into a finely-embedded stressor that was high on the minds of the target audience of the time; a lot of teens and young adults of the period could easily relate to the angst of accepting a “replacement parent”…fold in the fact that this particular “replacement” was as crazy as a shithouse rat, and POW! Instant horror in the minds of a generation who was highly likely to either have had experience with a step-parent, or be friends with someone that had. Imagining the perceived intruder into your life as a psychotic monster was a small leap for young minds; still, the script is intelligent and thought-provoking enough where adults could also find horror in it’s story. I imagine the older crowd that watched this back then could readily put themselves in the Susan’s shoes, finding that the man she thought she knew and loved was not only a stranger, but a dangerous threat to the life of her and her child.
Ruben has said of this film that he didn’t want to make “just another slasher”, and his direction shows that he’s a man of his word; his clever set-ups, intelligent use of shadow and close-up to showcase the violent side of Jerry, yet bright, almost Brady Bunch filming to highlight his “public” face. Add to this Ruben’s overall creative camera positioning and scene movement, and the flick has a credence to the narrative that rises far above the standard hack ‘n’ slash fare of the period. Keeping with this mentality, the film isn’t a gore-fest (although there are a couple of pretty effective scenes); instead it’s a psychological horror tale where betrayal takes on a whole new meaning, and the fear is intimate and unexpected. The acting was high-end, with at the time 23-year-old Jill Schoelen effortlessly pulling off the attitudes and angst of sixteen-year-old Stephanie, showing a range of emotion and sympathy that is tough to ignore. Veteran Shelley Hack, despite being somewhat underutilized by the script, gives us a portrayal that’s convincing, heartfelt, and sympathetic.
Most impressive, naturally, is the villain of the piece; Terry O’Quinn excels in the role of Jerry…congenial, smiling, friendly Jerry. He seems so much the kinda dad everyone wishes they had…until he gets pissed off, and then it’s down to the basement where his temper flares and the voices in his head cry out until the “nice-guy” visage melts into a mask of psychotic rage. O’Quinn manages this masterfully, creating one of the screens most frightening and convincing madmen since Nicholson’s turn in The Shining.
If you’re in the mood for a relatable, close-to-home disturbing flick, with a good story, solid direction, and some great performances, you could do a lot worse than this unheralded film from back in the day.
That’s my two cents for this one, folks.