Who Am I Here?
The Stepfather has long been a guilty pleasure of mine. Terry O’Quinn’s off-the-wall performance as the changeling serial family killer is just so earnest, intense, and, oftentimes, hilarious, that it was a film I’d watch again and again back in the VHS days. Then a funny thing called DVD happened, and I lost touch with The Stepfather. It seems there were some rights issues that held up the film’s DVD release in North America, and, while the second and third films in the series have been released, the original (and still the best) seemed stuck in red tape purgatory. The wait is over, however, as Shout!Factory have not only wrangled up the rights to the film, but have given it the deluxe treatment, featuring scads of extras, and completely remastered picture and sound. It’s a DVD that would make daddy proud.
The Stepfather opens with haggard and bloodied man (Terry O’Quinn) staring into his bathroom mirror. The man showers, shaves, and heads downstairs whistling Camptown Races as he navigates through the dead bodies of his recently slaughtered family. He next boards a ferry across Peugeot Sound, and tosses a suitcase – the last remains of his former life – overboard, smiling as he heads off to a new life elsewhere.
One year later, the man resurfaces as Jerry Blake, all-American real estate man, and all-around champion of family values. His new wife, Susan (Shelly Hack) thinks Jerry is the bee’s knees, but Susan’s rebellious daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen) doesn’t share her mother’s enthusiasm for this Jerry fellow. Everyone blames Stephanie’s dislike of her new stepfather on her unresolved issues surrounding her real father’s death a year earlier, but Stephanie doesn’t buy it. Sure, she’s got issues, but Jerry? He’s got the whole subscription! She just knows there’s something dark and creepy lurking behind that million dollar smile of his, and she aims to prove it.
Meanwhile, Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen), the younger brother of Jerry’s last victim, has been tirelessly searching for his sister’s killer. While the police have seemingly given up on ever finding the man, Jim has come up with a theory that his former brother-in-law has started a new life right under their noses, and, with the help of the reporter who originally covered the story of his sister’s murder, hopes to lure the man out of hiding. Jim convinces the reporter to run a follow-up story, but, unfortunately, the editor didn't run a photo along with it. But it's not a total loss! Back in the land of apple pies and domestic bliss, at Jerry's gathering of friends, someone brings up the story from the paper. Stephanie notices Jerry’s strange reaction, and, later, catches him having a disturbing conversation with himself in the basement. Jerry assures her it’s just his way of blowing off some steam, but Stephanie’s intuition tells her otherwise, and soon she’s running a little investigation of her own. Jerry catches on, however, and, when he realizes that his perfect new life is in jeopardy, he's forced to make plans to start over again.
While it’s often lumped in with the slasher films of its era, I’ve always found The Stepfather to be a lot more polished and sophisticated than its generally given credit for. This is a really well executed slow-burn thriller, where much of the film is dedicated to watching Jerry’s genial façade crumble as he loses control of the world he’s meticulously built around him. This isn’t a body count film, and, save for the opening sequence and the finale, it’s a relatively bloodless affair, but what it lacks in gore it makes up for in tension, suspense, and devilishly dark humor. To say that the film is pretty much carried on O’Quinn’s shoulders is a massive understatement as I can’t imagine The Stepfather being nearly as effective without him. O’Quinn somehow manages to make a vicious, psychotic family killer not only likeable, but a character many will find themselves myself rooting for (well, to a degree). His love for Susan and Stephanie feels so genuine that it’s actually kind of sad when it becomes apparent that he has to kill them, and you really do get the impression that it’s a decision that is breaking his heart. I mean, heck, he’s a great dad! It’s his family that’s the problem!
Sadly, not everyone in The Stepfather measures up to O’Quinn, with Shelly Hack living up to her name, and Jill Schoelen stinking up the joint with her Peppermint Patty voice (damn, she’s always irritated the hell out of me), but O’Quinn could be acting alongside mannequins and it would still be a good movie. He’s just that perfect, here.
Shout!Factory has really taken the time to make sure this long-awaited DVD debut lived up to fans’ expectations, delivering a nicely remastered (in HD!) 1.85:1 print of the film that looks about as good as one could reasonably expect this side of a complete restoration job. The opening credits are a marred by print damage, but, once we get into the film proper, the image is very pleasing, and is easily the best representation of the film yet. Sure there’s the occasional artifact, scratch, and flicker, but it’s light years better than VHS, and the omnipresent cinematic grain lends the image a welcome warmth.
Extras include a commentary track by director, Joseph Ruben, and a really in-depth retrospective featurette entitled “The Stepfather Chronicles” that sports interviews with Ruben, actress Schoelen, and others, but is sadly devoid of any input from O’Quinn. Extras are capped off with the original theatrical trailer.
The Stepfather is a classic 80’s thriller that’s buoyed by a bravura lead performance from Terry O’Quinn; one that more than makes up for any of the film’s shortcomings. It’s been a long wait for this one, but Shout!Factory’s treatment of the film has made it all worthwhile, with a wonderfully remastered print, and a nice selection of quality extras that will have fans cheering. It’s a good thing that this one’s finally in my collection. It’s about time I got a little order around here.