Saturday, July 10, 2010

#87: The Stepfather (Joseph Ruben, 1987)

When I first saw this film about 11 years ago, I appreciated it as a much better than average variation on the generic slasher template. Seeing it for a second time last night, my appreciation only increased. Making the crazed killer a step-parent with a Reagan '80s/'50s sitcom idea of family values resonated with me in a general way on that first viewing. Since then, however, my parents split up, my dad remarried, and my mom let her boyfriend move in with her. Now, the idea of a step-parent as a homicidal maniac resonates with me in a very specific way. Yes, the movie is still a satire of generic media-generated idyllic family values, but the daughter doesn't like this guy long before she realizes he's nuts, and that's what's going to give this movie its staying power. Newly divorced or widowed middle-aged people make bad relationship decisions, I'm talking borderline retarded, and the kids tend to see this pretty clearly.

Seeing it clearly here is teenage girl Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Her father has been dead for a year, and her mother Susan (Shelley Hack) has remarried Hugh Beaumont-type Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn). Stephanie is close to her mother, but she sees through Blake's Father Knows Best veneer right away. The audience does, too, but that's mostly because we've seen the aftermath of Blake's most recent massacre during the opening moments of the film. Blake moves to small, all-American towns, ingratiates himself with widowed women with children, tries to live life like a Saturday Evening Post cover, and flips his wig when real life intrudes. He then massacres the family, changes his appearance through wigs, colored contacts, glasses or the lack thereof, and facial hair or the lack thereof, and hits a new town and a new widow.
The movie includes a lot of stereotypical genre tropes, including a climax that sees all the principal characters in a room together, a gratuitous shower scene (I'm not really complaining, but there's no reason for it other than T&A), and the Halloween he's dead/he's not dead after all stalk-and-slash chase. However, Joseph Ruben's direction and the performances of the solid cast kick this one several notches above most slasher flicks. O'Quinn, veteran character actor who most people know from the inexplicably popular TV show Lost (I know I'm in the minority on this one, but I think that show is a gigantic piece of shit) plays this guy so well. The character could slip so easily into caricature or over-the-top mega-insanity, but O'Quinn plays him as an almost tragic figure, a guy who believes in the generic, all-American family ideal so much that the pressure is quietly imploding within him while he tightly keeps the lid on the exterior image. You almost feel sorry for the guy. The only moment of real satisfaction he shows in the film is when he watches a rerun of Mr. Ed. Otherwise, you see a man under an insane amount of self-imposed pressure. He's truly scary when the veneer occasionally cracks and the psychopath comes out, and truly funny, too. It's hard to imagine any other actor playing this role.

I also need to mention Steve Shellen in his role as the brother of one of O'Quinn's murdered widows. He's on a crusade to track down his sister's killer, and his character's role is mostly expository and unintentionally funny. Every move he makes is unnecessarily frantic and intense, particularly during one of the funniest library research scenes ever made. Too much of this guy could have seriously damaged the film, but a little of him is pretty entertaining.
Ruben, a master craftsman who's made both big-budget Hollywood vehicles and independent cult classics, presents this material in a matter-of-fact but artful way that calls to mind guys like Don Siegel. He avoids shots that call attention to themselves while subtly framing the action and moving the camera in intelligent, visually distinctive ways. He avoids most generic horror camera setups and gives the audience a lot of space to really look at this movie. It's a good-looking movie that fills the space of its budget nicely. I wish I had the words to describe it in more technical terms, but my vague adjectives will have to do.
I haven't seen many of Ruben's films, but he's admired by a lot of sharp film writers, including New York Times DVD columnist and former Chicago Reader critic Dave Kehr. His credits include the sci-fi movie Dreamscape (a favorite of mine as a little kid), cheerleadersploitation film The Pom-Pom Girls, '70s roadtrip cult classic Joyride, pretty awful James Woods/Robert Downey Jr. lawyer movie True Believer, and Julia Roberts vehicle Sleeping with the Enemy.

The Stepfather's screenwriter, Donald Westlake, was a renowned mystery novelist and one of only two men to win the Edgar Award in three separate categories; novel, short story, and screenplay (his Jim Thompson adaptation, The Grifters, for director Stephen Frears). In addition to novels and screenplays under his own name, he also wrote books under 13 pseudonyms. Films made from his novels include John Boorman's Point Blank, The Hot Rock, The Outfit, and Payback, and, very loosely, Jean-Luc Godard's Made in USA. He died on vacation in Mexico in 2008.
The Stepfather was stupidly remade last year with a cast of blandly attractive nobodies and bombed, but its release prompted a DVD release of the original film, so some good came from bad.

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