If there’s a film that’s crippled by its score more than THE STEPFATHER (1987) is, I have yet to see it, thank Christ. The opening credits carry the attribution “Music Composed and Performed by Patrick Moraz,” as if to assure us that there is only one person to carry the blame. And carry it Moraz does, for 85 minutes. The synthesizer beats and screeches and ampings are at complete odds with the images on screen and seem to belong somewhere else; surely this is the unused track for THE GOONIES (1985), right? It’s almost enough at times to totally remove you from the film unless, like the titular villain, you take some time to quiet the battling voices in your head and focus on the ideal picture you’d like this to be.
The character played by Terry O’Quinn (LOST) is a man who tries to keep his mind on the pretty picture, no matter how egregriously reality impinges upon it. His is a past filled with death and disappointment: he has moved amongst several families, assuming the role of a caring stepfather, but once his conservative ideals are kicked out from underneath the facade of sanity and congeality that he so rigorously upholds, he seeks a new family to move into while disposing of the old one.
Thus THE STEPFATHER gives us this new and unique cinematic boogeyman, one whose distaste for the excesses of the generation are not couched in the safe identity of an undead hockey goalie or any of the other faceless assailants who made the slasher genre the great bastion of American mores by painting the screen red with the plasma of those who would display such abhorrent behavior as smoking grass and engaging in pre-marital heavy petting but in the persona of mom’s new boyfriend. O’Quinn’s thin frame, receding hairline, and handsome, open face make him a different breed of monster, more akin to Joseph Cotten’s snake-charmer/serial killer Uncle Charlie from Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) than Freddy Krueger, though in the finale O’Quinn does let loose with some wince-inducing one-liners (“Come to daddy!”) that would suit that wicked nightmare-master just fine.
We learn very little of Jerry’s past (not his real name either, you should know), his psychosis more than amply demonstrated in the opening scene that has him showering, shaving, and packing just before leaving the house filled with the massacred bodies of his old family with a spring in his step and a tune in his heart. Jerry’s insatiable hunger for order and stability in his surroundings–things that he himself can never personally possess–is made poignantly clear when he picks up a toy from the floor and puts it back in its proper place, while the mutilated corpse of his former stepdaughter lies sprawled on the carpet untended, unloved. Jerry’s construction of a picturesque bird house represents his ultimate goal, but it’s this room of death that is always there, lurking in the basement of his mind.
Jerry Blake is the enigma at the heart of THE STEPFATHER, greatly bolstered by O’Quinn’s performance that flows smoothly between modest charm and ruthlessness, but the film’s other elements tend to bring its lofty ambitions back down into the steerage of commercial 1980s cinema. Though Jerry bites the bullet (in the ass!) at the finale, we can see the fingerprints of producers eying this as franchise material all over it. (The film did spawn two shuuned sequels, one a theatrical release and the other a made-for-TV movie.) Casting Jill Schoelen (POPCORN) as the final girl is a means to give the targeted teenage audience its requisite surrogate, but the movie would have only been more interesting had the focus been shifted more wholly to its psychopathic villain. As a result, the “tension” between O’Quinn and Schoelen tends to feel undercooked and in these scenes O’Quinn is relegated to the role of a mere Big Bad Wolf.
The script, written by no less than Donald Westlake of the famous Parker novels, might lean a little heavily on one side in painting Jerry as the prototypical Best Guy Ever straight from the heart of the U.S.–he works for “American Eagle Realty” and hosts neighborhood barbecues–but that is, ultimately, the point, since it’s these unrealistic and cliche stereotypes that Jerry is so desperately trying to fulfill. Westlake uses a steady, patient hand in revealing Jerry’s inner demons; when Schoelen asks O’Quinn if he had a strict upbringing, O’Quinn’s plain and non-ominous response of “Something like that” is perfect and all we need to imagine in our minds the horrors he must have faced to get him to this point, to becoming Mr. Cleaver with a cleaver.
THE STEPFATHER is not perfect and yet that somehow feels appropriate, given the disillusionment that Jerry himself faces. Even living in a good neighborhood where the sun is always just the right autumnal shade cannot substitute the darkness that is at the center of his soul. His warm, paternal guidance is never more than scripted dialogue, the rustic woodshop he works in the dressing room of an actor talking himself through a performance.
Perhaps the most perverse thing about the film is that Jerry’s motivations are actually rather wholesome, certainly in comparison to that of Stephen Shellen’s character, the brother of Jerry’s last victim who’s on a vigilante mission to “blow the son of a bitch away.” And even as the wicked stepfather whistles down the night highway after sending his latest kill to its immolation, waiting to hitch a ride onto his next pipe dream, even then a note of sympathy rings through it all. When Jerry sees a joyous family in the distance, he smiles to himself, but wistfully. His violent actions throughout the film are never excusable, but in this moment we recognize Jerry as one of us, as a human being who desperately wishes for something to be his, knowing he can never have it.