Combustible Celluloid
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With: Terry O'Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack, Charles Lanyer, Stephen Shellen, Stephen E. Miller, Robyn Stevan, Jeff Schultz
Written by: Donald E. Westlake, based on a story by Carolyn Lefcourt, Brian Garfield, Donald E. Westlake
Directed by: Joseph Ruben
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 89
Date: 01/23/1987

The Stepfather (1987)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Who Am I Here?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This type of horror film, with the bland, respectable hero hiding in plain sight within the very society that condemns him, has been done to death (see Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt). But, as written by novelist Donald E. Westlake, The Stepfather has a fresh, almost humorous tone to it. Terry O'Quinn plays the title character, a Ward Cleaver type named Jerry who woos widows and divorcees, hoping to form a perfect family unit. When things don't quite turn out perfectly (when do they?) he snaps and kills everyone.

His latest attempt at domestic bliss is Susan Maine (Shelley Hack) and her teenage daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Of course, Stephanie doesn't quite trust her new stepdad-to-be and her attempts to dig into his past are actually what undoes the balance. The best part comes in the form of Jerry's previous wife's brother (Stephen Shellen) who spends the entire movie tracking down the murderer and whose marginal story does not go quite the way one would expect. The same goes for a subplot involving Stephanie's shrink (Charles Lanyer).

Joseph Ruben (Sleeping with the Enemy, The Forgotten) directs competently though perhaps not as playfully as the material could have used, but O'Quinn gets in a few prime moments, such as the startling one in which he forgets which persona he's currently occupying. Nevertheless, The Stepfather is still a high water mark of 1980s horror/suspense.

The Stepfather returned twice, in Stepfather II (1989) and in a 1992 TV movie, Stepfather III. The expected remake is on the way. Donald E. Westlake had nothing more to do with the series, and instead earned an Oscar nomination for The Grifters (1990).

At the time of this writing, The Stepfather was not available on DVD in the United States, but I checked out the German import DVD (Region 0, PAL). The box and menus were in German (and they took forever to load) but trial and error should get English-speaking viewers on the right track. Extras include a trailer, filmographies and other goodies.

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