Underrated Horror Film Review: The Stepfather (1987)

(Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers)

(Most) people may recognise Terry O’Quinn for his role as John Locke in TV’s Lost back in 2004. But he already made his mark 17 years prior — well, at least to horror fans — in his breakthrough role as the titular deranged serial killer in The Stepfather.

Loosely based on the life of Michigan-born mass murderer John List, who was responsible for killing his family in 1971, The Stepfather contains one of the best opening scenes ever for a psychological horror/slasher movie released in the ’80s era. A scene where Henry Morrison (Terry O’Quinn) casually washes off blood in a bathroom, takes a shower, trims his hair and shaves his beard before putting on a suit. He later leaves the house like nothing has happened after we witnessed dead bodies and blood everywhere in the living room. It was nevertheless a disturbing scene of the aftermath of mass murder and director Joseph Ruben manages to capture all the dread without showing the actual murder scene. A prime example of a less is more approach and more so with O’Quinn perfectly nails the serial-killer role from the moment he appears on the screen.

From there, he assumes a new identity a year later under the name of Jerry Blake. Working as a real estate agent, he has since married a widow named Susan Maine (Shelly Hack). Her teenage daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen) doesn’t like her stepfather and feels something is off about him. As Jerry tries to maintain a perfect family, Stephanie gradually finds out that he has a dark secret all along.

(L-R) Jill Schoelen, Terry O'Quinn and Shelley Hack in "The Stepfather" (1987)

Written by Donald E. Westlake, The Stepfather moves at a deliberate pace that may have been a turn-off for some horror fans looking for quick thrills. Jerry (we never really learn his real name and that’s what made him scary) may have been a serial killer. But he doesn’t go on a killing spree, say someone like Michael Myers in Halloween or Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th. He did kill some of his victims but only in a sporadical manner. I admit that despite the movie running at only 89 minutes, it tends to take its sweet time getting to the point.

And yet, what keeps me watching is O’Quinn’s unforgettable titular role throughout the movie. Even when he’s not killing people, the movie does a great job of focusing on how Jerry trying to keep himself and his new family together. There are times he starts ranting and arguing with himself in the basement whenever things go wrong or not according to plan — a result that made O’Quinn’s chameleon-like performance alternate between a caring husband and stepfather and a psychotic individual all the more frightening and unpredictable. I mean, can you imagine having someone like that in your family?

While Terry O’Quinn steals the show here, the rest of the cast is pretty much adequate in their respective roles. The climactic finale is a classic slasher moment, even though I personally prefer the opening scene the most.

A scene from "The Stepfather" (1987)

Interestingly enough, The Stepfather initially had a tough time getting an actor, who all turned down the titular role before Terry O’Quinn was eventually cast and the rest, as they say, is history. The movie may have received mostly positive responses among many critics but it only earned a paltry US$2.5 million against a reportedly US$3 million budget during its theatrical run in January 1987. It did, however, become a cult classic where it spawned two inferior sequels including Stepfather II a.k.a. Stepfather II: Make Room for Daddy (1989) and Stepfather III (1992). There was an ill-fated remake in 2009 directed by Nelson McCormick, which starred Dylan Walsh in the titular role of TV’s Nip/Tuck fame.

As for Joseph Ruben, he would go on to direct Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the Enemy in 1991 and some of his other credits including the Macaulay Culkin-starred psychological thriller The Good Son in 1993 and the action comedy Money Train in 1995 starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.

The Stepfather is streaming for free on Tubi.

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