Sometimes, ever so rarely, a movie will come along from a junk genre, like exploitation–I’m thinking Texas Chainsaw Massacre here or, possibly, Wolf Creek–or slasher–Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street–or Blaxploitation–Across 110st Street and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a movie that transcends it’s genre and wades into mainstream cinema. I have a soft spot for such films because they exceed the purpose of their existence, which is to make money at the expense of a less than discerning audience.
The Stepfather is one of these films and from the opening shot it represents. It’s like a basketball team that executes the pass, pass, PASS shoot! fundamentals to the extreme. (Those teams can be murder to play, by the way. You get run ragged, while they barely get winded.) The Stepfather takes you by surprise. It’s not supposed to be that good.
The opening credits flash in red block letters on a screen of black, as keyboards clang, jumping from minor chord to minor chord. A man, pretty much dripping with blood, cleans up in a bathroom sink. He washes the blood streaks from his face and then removes a fake beard. Then he steps into the shower. He’s naked. There’s a brief shot of tasteful, frontal nudity.
Then the camera hoovers and sweeps above a fall afternoon on an upper middle class street. The leaves of the trees are red and the homes are tidy; the music is cheerful yet, the day is gray.
A wholesome, high-school girl pedals her old-school ten-speed windingly, dreamingly down the street. She steers her bike into the driveway, disembarks and leans it against wide boards of a nice house. Then she skips around the corner of the house…
And her mother throws a bucket of leaves in her face. And they wrestle…
In the leaves.
The mother, Susan, (Shelly Hack) warns her daughter, Stephanie, (Jill Shoelen) to settle down when she is threatened with her own medicine–a bucket–literally teaming with leaves. She is only half kidding, you know, the way that mother’s do. She tells Stephanie she had better get cleaned up before Jerry gets home.
Stephanie recoils and makes a face. She clearly doesn’t like Jerry. She tells her mom she thinks he’s weird. Susan tells Stephanie to give Jerry a chance and glides toward the house. Stephanie dumps the bucket of leaves onto her own head. Just before Susan goes inside, Jerry turns the corner and it’s the guy in the mirror.
You know, the one with the blood streaks and the fake beard.
Yeah. Tasteful, frontal nudity guy. He’s not half bad, either. Nicely dressed. Nothing showy, just good quality casual wear. He’s got a decent haircut. Then he opens his mouth…
And Stephanie’s right. The guy’s weird.
Of course we know that already. Remember the blood streaks? The fake beard?…and I didn’t even mention the butchered family that Jerry literally steps over on his way out of their upper middle class home and his fake identity, when his name was Henry.
You see, Jerry–or whatever his name is–is a family annihilator, like that guy John List. You know that super wholesome guy that killed his whole family (and there were like six kids) in the affluent suburb of Westfield New Jersey?…yeah, that guy.
Jerry surprises Stephanie with a new puppy before he tells her to go wash up. She loves the puppy but doesn’t tell Jerry thank you. Her mother tells her to. She does, reluctantly, and then goes into the house.
Jerry tells Susan he hopes Stephanie doesn’t think he’s trying to buy her love.
That night, at the dinner table, we learn that Stephanie is having trouble at school, getting into fights, talking back to teachers that kind of thing. Jerry can’t believe that girls get into fights.
After dinner Stephanie holds up in her room with her new puppy. She’s pretty bummed. It’s only been a year since her dad died unexpectedly. That was bad enough. Now she’s gotta contend with a stepfather. Mr. Perfect. To make matters worse, he has taken over the house. Her dad’s house.
Plus, Mr. Perfect’s a real horn dog. She can hear him and her mother in the room next to her’s.
She puts on her headphones and wishes she was dead…
You get the gist. In the parlance of the 80s, The Stepfather is wicked. It’s smart and sophisticated too, in its own way. It doesn’t soak us in satire the way that American Psycho does; no, it rolls in the hay with it, and with us instead…and then it slams on the handcuffs and puts a knife to our throats, lest we forget that Jerry is a psychopath, a serial killer and that we are watching a slasher film.
Journeyman character actor Terry O’Quinn is astonishingly good as Jerry/Henry/ Bill. He threads eye of a fine needle, blending melodramatic villainy and Leave it to Beaver humor into the psychology of Father Knows Best gone guano crazy. Director Joseph Ruben, Dreamscape, Joy Ride, True Believer sticks with the slasher template, but cloaks it in respectability, with good acting, a smart script and beautiful photography (John W. Lindley).
Even so, something’s a little off. The blood’s a little too red…too watery. A raised eyebrow lingers a bit too long, the rouge in the cheek is a bit too rosy and we laugh. And we forget, just for a moment, what we’re watching and The Stepfather lets us have it…
With a two-by-four.