-Written by Robert O’ Doherty
The Stepfather opens with a man washing blood off his hands, shaving his beard and changing from glasses to contacts. The ”new” man packs his belongings and walks down the stairs to the sight of a bloody massacre in the living room; the image is quite disturbing and projects instantly the evils of this psychopath. The dapper individual leaves the house as clam as a box of xanax. I was kind of put off by the opening scene because I thought we’d get a ”Is he bad or isn’t he” sort of deal, but after a few minutes I realized it was a smart move letting us know what kind of man he immediately is, because many questions begin pop up in your head and throughout the movie, we seek the answers to those questions.
A couple of years later the same twisted individual has married into the Maine family, under a new name, Jerry Blake(Terry O’ Quinn) who now works as a realtor. Jerry believes strongly in family-values as he desires perfection from his new family. This is not easy to accomplish for Jerry’s stepdaughter, Stephanie(Jill Schoelen), who’s a wild stallion and knows something is up with her mothers(Shelley Hack) new lover, but no one listens to the out of control teen, except her psychiatrist Doctor Bondurant(Charles Lanyer).
Meanwhile, a rugged man, James “Jim” Ogilvie(Stephen Shellen) is on the hunt for Blake. Ogilvie was the brother/son of the family who were butchered at the start(I don’t recall how he got away). This character was a total waste and didn’t serve any purpose to the film. We follow his hunt for Jerry for most of the flick and when he finally confronts Jerry – only lasting a few seconds – the Stepfather kills him. Wow, a build-up to nothing!
This is not the only puzzling action by a character action in The Stepfather. At one point Dr Bondurant wants to talk with Jerry, but he refuses, so Bondurant, pretending to be someone else, arranges a meeting with Jerry to look at a house; the two meet which leads into a conversation about family. Bondurant says he doesn’t care for family, but moments later he stupidly mentions his wife, giving his little investigation away, which leads to his death. You’d think this would be a red flag for the already suspicious Stephanie, but no, instead she believes the false story of her psychiatrist loosing control of his car and plummeting to his death. This brings Stephanie and Jerry closer due to the mournful moment.
Beside these hiccups, The Stepfather plays as a wonderful character study of a man in the search for the perfect family. We get a few hints as to why he is so desperate for one, but there is still that element of mystery left dangling for us. O’ Quinn is fantastic in the role, switching from the pleasant family man, to a raging lunatic who can’t even remember his own identity in a moment of panic.
What really draws you into the film is the story; it can and has happened in real life. The Stepfather was loosely based on a man, John List, who killed his family in 1971, and was on the run until 1989. Even hitting closer to home, the original cinematographer was arrested in a domestic dispute, but was replaced by John Lindley.
The Stepfather plays on our real fears and director Joseph Ruben mostly plucks the right strings to make us think, ”Are we really safe with the people we love?”.