Director: Joseph Ruben
Cast: Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack
The horror genre in the 1980s was defined by films like Child’s Play, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the Friday the 13th film series, but another film worthy of recognition lurked under the radar. Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather (way before Dylan Walsh and Penn Badgley faced off in the 2009 remake) put Terry O’Quinn in the role of Jerry Blake, an All-American family man who marries the widowed Susan Maine, played by Shelley Hack, and gets the teenage Stephanie as a daughter. While many first-time stepparents have worries about what to do, this isn’t Jerry Blake’s first stepfamily.
The film begins with Jerry cleaning himself up in an oddly quiet house. Screenwriter Donald E. Westlake and director Joseph Ruben show just how good of a team they are here by subtly introducing the character of Jerry and all he’s capable of. With respect to Walsh’s performance in the remake, nobody could match O’Quinn’s performance. The fogged mirror he wipes to shave his beard, the way he calmly picks up stray toys on the floor as his murdered family lays downstairs shows just how cold he is.
A year later, though, he’s arriving home to his new family with a puppy for his stepdaughter. Her acceptance of the dog – yet not of him – makes me want him to succeed in having his perfect family because it seems he’s changed. He hasn’t, of course. But I still root for him.
Terry O’Quinn makes Jerry Blake just soft enough, just manly enough, just innocent enough, and just charming enough for the audience to wonder who the real villain in the film is. What better to offer than the angst-filled Stephanie?
I thought Jill Schoelen’s performance opposite O’Quinn was great. Her strained relationship with her mother was beyond believable, but several times in the film we’re led to believe that she’s the reason that she and her mother will be killed. Now, this is backward thinking, but we think it because Schoelen and O’Quinn deliver in this! You know O’Quinn plays the killer, you know he’s the bad guy, and you don’t want him to kill Stephanie just because she’s annoying, but you still like him.
That’s why it’s such a great horror film. There’s always the talk of serial killers being charming and nonthreatening and several films strive to show this, but so far, only Terry O’Quinn pulls this off in The Stepfather. He really is nonthreatening and charming, and we really do blame the victim here sometimes and question our values.
The acting makes this film. It’s cheesy and the writing is used up too, but the actors make it work. The score helps, but Terry O’Quinn brings the suspense in his acting and his tension with Jill Schoelen’s character. It’s a good watch and should be recognized more often with the better-known slashers of that decade. It doesn’t offer as much blood as you might get with Friday the 13th, but you’ll forget about that with the great performances that are put on.