Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn) is a real estate salesman who aspires to live "the American Dream" by crafting the picture-perfect suburban home and family, a la what he grew up watching on 1950's and 1960's television. In short, a fantasy that can't exist and never did. He's married to Susan Maine (Shelley Hack, late of CHARLIE'S ANGELS), whom he met about a year ago, shortly after her husband died, and along with that commitment comes her high school-aged daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Stephanie is having issues with her dad's death and repeatedly causes disturbances at her school, which leads her to being forced to see an analyst. She reveals to the analyst that she is indeed having problems getting over her father's death and consequent absence from her life, but part of the problem is the presence of Jerry and his aggressive Ward Cleaverism. The two regularly butt heads and Jerry tries to make things work with his new family, but Stephanie instinctively senses that there's just something not right about Jerry, a fact driven home when she witnesses him utterly lose his shit in the basement during a neighborhood cookout, the basement being his "man cave" and also where he goes to be alone and let his hair down...
You see, we, the audience, are informed from Frame 1 that "Jerry" is too good to be true, as we see him with shaggy hair, a 'stache, and glasses, washing off the blood he's covered with, the blood of his previous "family," who all lay dead and butchered in their house's living room. "Jerry" is a serial killer whose M.O. is to insinuate himself somewhere in and around Seattle, Washington, where he changes his appearance, assumes a fake name, gets a job and sets himself up as a well-liked and trusted new citizen, and becomes involved with widows or divorcees with kids, in a never-ending obsessive quest to create the perfect American family of his twisted fantasies. While things with a given family go swimmingly, he's the model husband and father, but if anything happens that threatens to shatter his fabricated white picket fence paradise, it's murder time and the quest begins anew.
Jim Ogilvie, the brother of his previous murdered wife is beside himself over the loss of his sister in such a brutal and senseless manner, so he embarks on his own investigative crusade to find her killer. He even approaches the detective who handled his sister's case, but all that the cop can tell him is that the killer has done this several times, under several different identities, and he's so smart about what he does, they have nothing on him other than his false names. Meanwhile, Stephanie, spurred by witnessing Jerry's basement meltdown and having heard of his previous unsolved murders, sets about investigating him herself, so it's only a matter of time before the two amateur investigations yield some sort of fruit. But Jerry's behavior is becoming more and more erratic and unhinged, so it may be time to clean the slate and start all over again...
I last saw THE STEPFATHER on VHS 31 years ago, having
skipped it in the theater due to being oversaturated on slasher films
during their '80's domination of the the screen, and many of them were
outright cheapjack trash. THE STEPFATHER looked like it would be another
"nothing special" effort, but that snap judgement was proven quite
wrong when I finally saw it. (A friend wanted to see it, so she rented
it and invited me over.) It's leagues better than the majority of that
era-defining sub-genre's efforts and should
more properly be considered a psychology horror film and a compelling
character study of a would-be idealized father and husband and those
within his twisted orbit. As opposed to the majority approach of
slathering the screen with as many gory kills and as much gratuitous
female nudity as they could get away with in order to excite its
audience, THE STEPFATHER benefits from a rock-solid script first and
foremost, penned by legendary crime author Donald Westlake (aka "Richard
Stark," author of the deservedly-famous Parker series), and that effort
is capably carried by the entire cast. Terry O'Quin is terrific as the
chameleonic "Jerry," being the Ward Cleaver-esque patriarchal ideal in
public and around friends and family, but there's always a note of
overripe phoniness about his persona that Stephanie twigged to early and
has confirmed when she witnesses his assumed-to-be-private freak-out.
He's clearly unhinged and it's made quite clear that his veneer of
impossible perfection is never too far away from shattering and
unleashing a savage monster in the all-too-familiar form of "dad." Hints
are given here and there that point to "Jerry" having been brought up
in a rigid environment that strictly enforced 1950's-style family values
and behaviors, and he also seems to have been heavily and unhealthily
influenced by the image of the picture-perfect suburban American family
unit put forth by the TV shows of his youth.
There's a lot
going on in this film and it deserves rediscovery, especially as a
strong counterpoint to the assembly line hack-'em-ups that it landed
amidst. I never bothered with either of its two sequels, and I'm almost
afraid to out of fear that they would tarnish the memory of this
semi-forgotten gem, but maybe someday...