Day 14: The Stepfather (1987)

Director: Joseph Ruben

Starring: Shelley Hack, Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen

Runtime: 89 minutes

Though sometimes lumped in with slasher films, this is not a slasher film, although it does feature a psychologically disturbed killer, played excellently by Terry O’Quinn (now known mostly through his portrayal of John Locke on Lost). The figure was based loosely on real life killer John List. O’Quinn manages to create one of the few enduring and chilling non-supernatural horror villains. He just exudes creepiness, whether he’s in his charming, all-American conservative man mode, or going into one of his explosive rages.

The Stepfather’s modus operandi is to find a single mother with a child, and take over their lives, hoping to create the perfect family. Of course, no family can be perfect, and as soon as illusion’s mirror starts to crack, so does his mind. We see how he goes from life to life, changing his name and appearance to take on each new identity—which explains how he has eluded the law for so long. Despite the fact that this isn’t a slasher, there are some similarities to Psycho, such as the killer being an “all-American” sort, the fluid identity, and a few surprises.

 While O’Quinn’s presence dominates this movie, he squares off against the daughter of the latest wife he has taken, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), who doesn’t like him, and suspects something shady in his past. Her sleuthing shows that she is not the helpless teen typical of these kinds of movies (where the heroines usually don’t display any power until they are driven to desperation toward the movie’s end). Still, this is only a small part of the problem. It is really the fact that the Stepfather is severely off-the-rails loony. We see, in one of the film’s most chilling scenes, how he starts to lose control, and using the wrong name in front of his wife, he asks: “Who am I here?”

The Stepfather

Ain’t that cute? Now we have to get back to the island!

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One Response to Day 14: The Stepfather (1987)

  1. duplexofthedamned says:

    Interesting that before the mesmerizing Terry O’Quinn gained TV fame through a character named John Locke (also the 17th-century philosopher who invented the term “tabula rasa”), he played the murderously blank title character of The Stepfather.

    This movie manages to be both of its time (the long afternoon–opposed to the morning–of Ronald Reagan’s America) and to transcend it. John List, who slaughtered his family and then walked into a new life for decades before being tracked down by “America’s Most Wanted,” was the inspiration for O’Quinn’s middle-class psychopath, but O’Quinn, for the bulk of the film, does an uncanny impersonation of Ted Bundy, the boyish law student who used his charm, aliases (and props such as a fake cast and crutches) to lure at least thirty young women to gruesome deaths in the 1970s.

    In a bizarre way, “the stepfather” is engaged in a form of upward mobility, trading one attractive setting for another–equally at home in a tweed jacket or a preppie blazer. He’s a salesman who’s fallen for his own line of snake oil–but the rage at his heartless core eventually makes him smash all the bottles he’s lined up so carefully. His crack-up is accelerated not only by people in his present (Stephanie, his current stepdaughter, is as mentioned far smarter and more resourceful than the typical menaced teen heroine), but by people from his past–in the form of a doggedly determined former brother-in-law. All these forces converge in a satisfyingly bloody denouement.

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