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Old 10-08-2009, 04:16 AM
Scored: 7
Views: 10,513
Stepfather, The

Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: October 7, 2009

Released by: Shout! Factory
Release date: 10/13/2009
MSRP: $19.99
Region 1, NTSC
Progressive Scan
Widescreen 1.77:1 | 16x9: Yes

inline Image“Who Am I Here?” The posters and trailers famously heralded for the psychopath-family-swapper The Stepfather. Or not so famously, I guess, considering the film made a paltry 2.4 million at the box office. Yet, The Stepfather was one of the few horror films actually saved by the critics, garnering plenty of top ten mentions and even a surprise nomination by the Independent Spirit Awards for Terry O’Quinn as lead actor. That buzz helped drive a very successful run on video – so successful that a follow-up hit theatres two years later, with O’Quinn again as the lead. That one impressively made less than the sum of the paltry original, but still, a third O’Quinn-less sequel followed in 1992. Although box office performance certainly doesn’t indicate it, there’s a public fascination with the everyman gone berserk. The first film was based on the true story of John List, who eventually became an early America’s Most Wanted staple. It’s the kind of thing you watch on television questioning how someone so normal could ever do something so heinous. At a time when slashers were going supernatural and becoming increasingly unrealistic, The Stepfather again cut through the white picket fences that Halloween had ten years prior to again make suburban America unlikely targets for terror. All this filmed in Canada, no less.

Now, 22 years after its original release, The Stepfather is again being revived by the remake train. It’s tough to imagine much of a following existing for this modest original since it’s largely remained unreleased for over a decade. Buena Vista released the second film on DVD, but surprisingly the first that started it all hadn’t even made the leap to digital as of 2009. VHS has been the only way to see The Stepfather (and the third film, for those counting) but thankfully just in time for the remake Shout! Factory is presenting this little sleeper with a new anamorphic transfer and some cozy extras. Is it worth bringing home, or is this fodder for foster families?

The Story

inline ImageThe film begins in suburbia and the camera does a lengthy crane down from the oak trees, tracking along with the paperboy until it settles on a lush, landscaped home. The same shot still, the camera cranes back up into the bathroom window, where the blinds abruptly close. Out from the public façade and in on the private calamity, we witness family man (O’Quinn) as he strips bare. We think we’re seeing him raw, as he is, but quickly with a shave of his beard, a toss of the glasses and a groom of the hair, he suddenly becomes a different man. Dressed nice, he grabs his suitcase, whistles a tune and heads down the stairs. The cheerful tone plays in contrast to the horrendous reality in the main foyer. There lies his now ex-wife along with his two children, all covered in blood with the living room a mess. That’s not his problem, though, he’s got a new family, now.

inline ImageNow going under a different name, Jerry Blake, Mr. Family now sells real estate in a new city. He’s wooed a widow, Susan (Shelley Hack, Troll, Charlie’s Angels), and with her comes her 16-year-old daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen, Popcorn, Cutting Class). Jerry wouldn’t have it any other way. See, he loves the idea of the perfect family – dinners in the dining room, barbeques with neighbours and birdhouses in the back yard. While most killers rebel against love, comfort and society, Jerry wants nothing more than to abide by all three. When the rest of his family can’t measure up, though, that’s when things get crazy. When “Domestic Violence” gets pushed to horrible extremes.

inline ImageThrowing a wrench into his plan for a perfect family are Stephanie, the rebellious teen who just can’t trust Jerry’s “Ward Cleaver” goodness; Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer), the doctor Stephanie confides in with her fears; and Jim Ogilvie (Stephanie Shellen, American Gothic, Gimme an ‘F’) the brother to Jerry’s slain wife. With the pressure of all three chipping away at him, Jerry starts to violently curse in the basement tool room. Words lead to weapons, and soon enough Jerry realizes that this family just isn’t going to work out. On he goes devising a new identity and a new life…he just has to get rid of the old one first!

inline ImageIt’s easy to see why The Stepfather has slowly gained a following over the years. It’s not the kind of movie that reaches out at you and takes you by the throat. Much like Terry O’Quinn’s performance, it’s one of understatement and restraint. Where a regular slasher begins with an opening murder, The Stepfather begins after it’s already taken place. It’s a film more interested in the characters and the situations that would lead them to kill rather than the kill itself. There is a scene near the end, where Jerry assumes another identity and meets his next widow target (played by Atom Egoyan vet Gabrielle Ross) that has such tragedy to it. There’s no death or any foul play, but you see the desperation in her eyes, the hurt of needing someone, and knowing what we know of Jerry, you know it’s not going to end well. No death or blood required, all the emotion comes from character, situation and nuance – something The Stepfather has in spades (a pun I should have reserved for the third film).

inline ImageTerry O’Quinn’s stepfather character certainly has more than nuance. O’Quinn brings an everyman quality to the role, dialing down dramatic scenes when so many actors would play them up. It helps make his character identifiable, even when a few of his ill-conceived one liners are clearly pandering to the Freddy generation. His character is interesting in the way he merely wants happiness, the American Dream. While the movie never forgets that he’s off his rocker, Blake (as he’s credited, but let’s face it, that’s an alias, too) is sympathetic. Hell, he’s even likeable. Things almost work out for him, and again the tragedy is knowing they won’t work out rather than actually seeing everything fall apart.

inline ImageDirector Joseph Ruben, who has pretty much mastered the dysfunctional family thriller with this, Sleeping with the Enemy and the underrated The Good Son, furthers the tragedy of the film with a number of calculated metaphors. While some are downright obvious, like the putting up and eventual cutting down of the birdhouse, others work much better. Particularly effective is the scene with Jerry breaking through the mirror near the end, which contrasts his snarling exterior with the composed gentleman who first saw himself in the mirror during the film’s opening. It alludes to Jerry’s duality – both his different facades and the way he sees reality versus the way it really is. That Stephanie stabs him with a shard of the mirror demonstrates how the sins of his past life (from the previous man in the mirror) are literally putting him down. Building on that, the beginning of the end is symbolized when Jerry comes crashing through the attic floor. Literally, the homestead is falling apart.

inline ImageRuben and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake (Point Blank, Payback) effectively further the metaphor of house as self by playing with the levels. Upstairs is reserved for dominance – it’s where Jerry has sex, where he disciplines Stephanie and where he ultimately goes to kill her. Downstairs is an even ground – it’s one of friendly facades, chit chat and even level supper discussion. It’s the floor of his public persona. Then there’s the basement, with the darker corners and the displays of sharp tools. It’s here where he comes to vent his frustrations. It’s where he’s most vulnerable, whether he’s talking to himself unbeknownst to Stephanie’s presence, or when he’s fumblingly trying to kill his wife (compare that with the composure he brings moments later as he walks upstairs). You can say the basement is his true self while the higher up he gets the closer he becomes to ideal. Of course, the higher he climbs in that charade the most apt he is to fall, and Joseph Ruben does a commendable job of using the surroundings to explain character rather than mere dialogue.

inline ImageThat’s the final facet of the script that deserves praise – the way the script hints at elements of character but never spells it out. There are scenes early on when Jerry is asked about his childhood, and where he responds shortly that it was strict or tough, but that’s the extent of it. No lengthy monologue at the end about how his father beat him, or how his mother cheated and broke the family apart, or how his newt died and life never could be the same. We’re told that he had a troublesome past, but the past itself is left to imagination – just like his previous life with the family we see already dead at the film’s opening. Shadows in a composition allow for mystery, and the blanks in The Stepfather’s script allow for O’Quinn to hint at mystery through performance.

inline ImageAs earnest and well put together as The Stepfather is, it’s not scary so much as it is interesting. It’s a light film made deeper by direction, performance and the occasional visual flourish. Rubens may look down on slasher films in condescension, but really, this is a simpler story done on a higher road. We know the killer from the outset, we know his motives and we know pretty much how things are going to end. We know O’Quinn is going to snap, so it’s all just a matter of waiting. Luckily the film has enough substance to make the wait worthwhile, but once it’s over, like the “America’s Most Wanted” episode it would inspire, it’s on to a different drama and a different channel. Perhaps that’s why it was a greater hit on video than it was in theaters – it’s good television more than it is a grand show. Still, a modest thriller with good direction, good performances and good intentions; The Stepfather aims for perfection, and even if it doesn’t achieve it, you’ve got to admire it for trying.

Image Quality

inline Image inline Image
Shout! Factory (R1)
Marketing Film (R2)

The Stepfather has never before been released on Region 1 DVD, but it was released over in Germany and was previously reviewed by Dave for the site. Compared to that release, this is a much better transfer in nearly every way. Things are much sharper this time around, with edges and backgrounds more discernable compared to the at times soft and diffused picture from the previous DVD. The best upgrade is in the color timing, this one much more true to life compared to the hyper-saturated look of the German DVD. The German DVD also had some windowboxing, which is thankfully almost completely removed here, opening up the frame on all sides by a good five percent. Shout! Factory has done a commendable job here, but there are still a few problems. There are still several sequences with some white dust and speckling intermittently popping up. Optical transitions, inherent in the negative, are also noticeably ridden with specks. Other than that, though, there is nothing but good about the way this 1.77:1 anamorphic transfer looks.

inline Image inline Image
Shout! Factory (R1)
Marketing Film (R2)


inline ImageThe sound doesn’t get as much of an upgrade as the video does, presented in a no frills Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Directionality is virtually nonexistent, and occasionally the sound is a little flat. The audio is clean, though, and the audio, effects and music are all adequately mixed. There’s no notable hiss or distortion, and Patrick Moraz’s piano score comes through as effective as ever.

Supplemental Material

inline ImageIt’s not bursting at the seams, but this has the three textbook features that a special edition requires: There’s a commentary, a beefy featurette and the oft ignored (especially these days) theatrical trailer. The box lists the commentary as a solo one with director Joseph Ruben, but it’s also moderated by Fangoria’s Michael Gingold, and it’s all the better for it. Gingold is incredibly researched on the film, and he really prods Ruben to dissect the film a lot more than he probably was prepared to do. Ruben doesn’t really remember a lot, so really it’s Gingold that takes charge of this track and makes it interesting with all his trivia tidbits.

inline ImageThe featurette is another quality effort from Red Shirt pictures, assembling much of the cast and crew that made the film. On board is the director, writer, producer, cinematographer, and the diamond for male horror fans of the eighties, actress Jill Schoelen. Schoelen doesn’t really get a lot to say, and really should get her own featurette on her eighties Scream Queen status, but at least she’s there. The piece takes a lot of time discussing the story, the real-crime inspiration and the logistics of shooting on a rushed schedule in cold Canada. When they’re not talking about all that, they’re talking about Terry O’Quinn, and that’s obviously the Achilles Heel of the piece. Where is he? He’s the guy everyone remembers the film for, and not having him aboard is the biggest fault of this retrospective. It runs a nice 27 minutes, but isn’t quite as satisfying as the Red Shirt companion piece on Synapse’s DVD of the second film.

Lastly there’s the trailer that includes the “Who Am I Here?” segment featured on the poster but not in the actual film itself. The trailer is decent, but doesn’t really do the subject matter justice. Great care looks to have been put into the overall presentation of the DVD, with effective motion menus and transitions that keep with the foggy mirror motif of the cover art.

Final Thoughts

inline ImageThe Stepfather is an effective little sleeper of a horror film, with not much in the way of violence or gore. Instead, it’s married to a strong concept, a standout performance and a creepy atmosphere of everyday Americana turned upside down. It may not entirely deliver on its strong premise, especially with the laborious and obvious plotting, but it certainly leaves a mark. Shout! Factory’s visuals definitely make an impression, too, offering a crisp and appealing visual transfer that easily bests the previous R2 disc. There are only three extras, but each is filled with quality and produced or restored with great admiration for the film in question. Unlike O’Quinn’s stepfather, there’s no questioning the identity of this disc – it’s all quality and definitely a worthy addition to the horror family.


Film - B+

Image Quality - A-

Sound - B-

Supplements - B

Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 1 hour 29 minutes
  • Rated R
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0

Special Features
  • Commentary with director Joseph Ruben and moderator Michael Gingold
  • "The Stepfather Chronicles" featurette
  • Theatrical trailer

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Old 10-08-2009, 04:37 AM
awesome revie i can't wait to get this on dvd the 13th. looks like most stores probably won't have it for sale like they did with part 2 but i got a local store which is awesome they're getting a few copies
Old 10-08-2009, 08:03 AM
Hellbound Heart
Excellent review rhett. I can't wait to get my copy from Amazon!
"There are no heroes...in life, the monsters win." - George R.R. Martin

Old 10-08-2009, 08:29 AM
I remember this film turning up with no advertising at all in my hometown.Great sleeper.Look forward to picking this up.
Old 10-08-2009, 05:26 PM
Fantastic review, I'm getting this one this week
Don't be afraid, I'm gonna hurt you real good, baby..
Close your eyes, not your mind.....let me into your soul....

La Toya Jackson fan and proud!
Old 10-08-2009, 10:51 PM
Im gonna have to pick this one up if my Reece is!
tHaT dAmN dOcToR iS tRyInG tO sTaRvE mE tO dEaTh!
Old 10-15-2009, 12:24 PM
Thanks for the review. I saw chunks of this on television many years ago, but I've never seen it all the way through. Looking forward to rectifying that. I also must say that Jill Schoelen is still gorgeous!

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