“Tradition is important,” Gerald Blake (Terry O’Quinn) explains to a man, and he believes it with every cell of his being. Hands on his hips, shirt tucked into khakis, tie not a centimeter too far past the belt buckle and collar ironed just right, Gerald is the living, breathing epitome of old-fashioned American values, as downright homey and wholesome as apple pie on the Fourth of July. And then he splits the man’s head with a two by four.
Scripted by Donald E. Westlake (who wrote the famous Parker series under the pseudonym Richard Stark) and directed by Joseph Ruben, The Stepfather (1987) opens with an unforgettable reveal. A bearded man regards himself in a steamy mirror. He shaves his face, drops his wedding ring and dirty clothes into a suitcase and then strolls past a living room strewn with bloodied and skewered bodies. While on a ferry ride crossing the beautiful Puget Sound, he looks like a new man facing a bright new future. With a discreet push, he nudges his suitcase from the railing and watches it disappear into the dark water.
It is sometime later that we actually meet Gerald Blake. He’s a healthy, smooth-faced real estate agent who loves his town, his neighborhood and, most importantly, loves his new wife Susan (Shelley Hack) and stepdaughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). There’s just one problem. Gerald Blake doesn’t exist. Despite the convincing get-up, the sweet, kind personality and big smile that make him loved by everyone he meets, “Gerald” is just one in a series of identities. And this one happens to be a man who sells houses, gets along with everybody and is really, really serious about traditional values.
The Stepfather’s plot shouldn’t hold any surprises with anyone who has seen a slasher film or two, and it will definitely be familiar to true crime aficionados. The story bears similarities to the case of John List, who murdered his family in New Jersey in 1971 and then vanished. List seamlessly re-integrated into society under a new identity, re-marrying and building a new family and living in plain sight until an episode of America’s Most Wanted led to him being apprehended in Colorado in the late 1980s. Though List was discovered a few years after the film was released, the case only validated the frightening probability of the film’s set-up. List’s reason for dispatching his wife and children was religious.
Gerald’s obsession isn’t based on faith but rather focused on the family, that good-old keystone of American life. He enjoys watching sitcoms (reruns of Mr. Ed before sex), flinches at the mention of his stepdaughter talking to boys and wants to live in a postcard fantasy of tree-lined boulevards, summer parties in the backyard and white picket fences. But something isn’t right, and Stephanie knows it. And she isn’t the only one onto Gerald. Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen)— who knew Gerald in his previous life but as the bearded Henry Morrison from the film’s first scene—is on the hunt with a personal vendetta and closing in (Ogilvie’s character has a Martin Balsam in Psycho, 1960, vibe about him and is just about as lucky as that character, too).
The standout in the film is the central performance by Terry O’Quinn. Shades of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) seem to linger throughout the film, but by tying the audience strictly to Stephanie’s point of view, the filmmakers give us the pleasure of seeing O’Quinn’s maniacal performance, which cemented his place in the pantheon of great horror movie villains. Life is fine right up to the point that he begins to lose control of his family. He’s chasing something that only exists in wall calendars and black-and-white sitcoms. Gerald can’t seem to accept that. When Stephanie pushes back and pries one too many times, her new stepfather begins to crack, and his true, violent self begins to emerge.
It’s worth noting the color cinematography by John Lindley, which brings out the lush greens and opal clouds of overcast skies prevalent in the Northwest (a majority of the film was shot in and around Vancouver). The big backyards with lush conifers set against white houses and fallen leaves splashed with streetlight make this one of the great autumn movies, perfect for October viewing. Almost 10 years later Lindley would shoot Pleasantville (1998), another film exposing the cracks in the facade of the perfect suburban existence.
The best horror films hold a microscope to society. Critics and film historians have held up The Stepfather as one of the great criticisms of “the American Dream.” The original poster, featuring O'Quinn staring into a steamy mirror with the question “Who am I here?” scrawled in the vapor is one of the defining images of ‘80s horror. And while O’Quinn returned for an improbable, widely panned sequel in 1989 (the unfortunately titled Make Room for Daddy) but not the third (Stepfather III), it’s this first entry that will remain one of his defining performances and is worth seeing. A frightening portrait of a chameleon and a vicious takedown of suburban life, The Stepfather deserves its place in American horror.