Do you ever have those movies you don’t think you’ve seen, but as you’re watching them, you get that sort of déjà vu as if you have? Well, that was the feeling I got with 1987’s The Stepfather. I feel like I must have seen it years ago, but also, there’s enough I don’t remember to make me think I haven’t. Maybe it’s because I have actually seen the 2009 remake.
Nonetheless, the premise is simple enough: A woman loses her husband and marries a new guy; the daughter thinks there’s something … off about him. What we, the viewer know, is that she’s right! Because the beginning of the film shows him cleaning up after (and changing his appearance) his latest brutal family annulation slayings. People make fun of the Superman/Clark Kent glasses identity disguise, but it really is remarkable how much changing a few key points on your face (hair style, facial hair, glasses, etc.) can make all the difference.
I remember that sort of psychological profile from Criminal Minds, ha. There are certain killers who, through terrible upbringings, pine for the “perfect” family and when the perfect family they are in goes off the rails (in their minds), they annihilate the family and start over again. That also makes them chameleons, as they change their appearance, identity, personality, occupations and so on to assume the new role befitting the new family. Heck, in the course of planning to annihilate the current family, they are already stepping into that new role. So, not only are they sociopaths, but they actually put it to work to stay hidden in plain sight.
What’s interesting is that the daughter, Stephanie (played by Jill Schoelen), as I said, suspects him pretty much from the jump and there’s no real reason why. At this point, she hasn’t seen any evidence to indicate he’s not who he says he is or that he’s a sociopath. Good gut instincts I guess!
But whew, you gotta give props to Terry O’Quinn, who plays the stepfather. He gives a performance that is so believable as the person obsessed with the perfect family trying to maintain his façade while at the same time playing the creepy, losing his anger and then being a full-blown sociopath well. He jumps through each effortlessly. And that makes him terrifying!
One of the best parts is when he comes home (he’d already quit his job and was planning his next family to enter into) and the wife, Susan (played by Shelley Hack), brings up the job to him. Then he says his name wrong and goes, “Who am I here?” And then he attacks her because he knows the ruse is up. Man. That’s chilling and scary. Imagine trying to keep all of that straight as a sociopath!
I will say, all of the leading occupations in this film from the journalist to the police detective to the journalist are all off. The journalist is the most incurious journalist I’ve ever seen about the prior killings of the stepfather. The police detective not only seems inept that he can’t find any clues in these bloody slayings, but also divulges much of the case information to Jim (played by Stephen Shellen), who is the brother of one of the slain victims trying to track the stepfather down, which a real detective never would do; and as for the psychiatrist, maybe it’s an artifact of the 1980s, but the way he is with Stephanie (she’s going through therapy) and then that he says he will talk to the stepfather for her, is against everything I would imagine a therapist would do. He gets killed for his efforts anyhow.
Two other minor things I thought were … odd: Stephanie’s real father died only a year ago prior to the events of the film and Susan not only remarries (far be it for me to judge grief and applying a timeline to such things), but also expects Stephanie to already be lubby-dubby with this guy? It felt like a bit much. She also slaps Stephanie later when the stepfather is the one being ridiculous. I mean, she doesn’t even know anything about this guy’s past! Red flags! But grief, I get it.
And secondly, of course we had to have a scene where Stephanie, who the film has told us is only 17, gets naked. That’s a bit awkward. To be fair, true to Hollywood, they cast a high schooler much older and the actress was 23 at the time, so at least there’s no weirdness there.
Oh, wait, one more thing, ha. So, at the end, when the stepfather is trying to kill Stephanie, Jim comes in with his gun to save the day. And promptly gets killed. Nope, there’s no, “No, wait, he’s still alive and finishes off the stepfather.” No, he’s dead. The conquering hero he is not. He didn’t even put up a fight of any kind.
Anyhow, I thought this film was the perfect runtime at only 89 minutes to tell its story of an unraveling sociopath, hellbent on forming and maintaining the perfect family. And you can’t sleep on Schoelen’s performance. While this film is definitely the Terry O’Quinn show, Schoelen proves a formidable foil and “final girl” to him.
I recommend going back and watching this 1980s film that certainly feels in comfortable territory with the other slashers of that time, but a little bit more suburban.