Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Stepfather (1987, Joseph Ruben)

There's exactly one shot in The Stepfather near the end when Terry O'Quinn is mugging for the trailer instead of being anything less than his character. He deserved an Academy Award for scariness years before Anthony Hopkins won for Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter isn't half as scary as "Scary Jerry" and both characters require presence and psychology rather than violence for most of their respective films. However, O'Quinn had to carry an entire movie. No wonder the man has become a popular TV actor. I can't wait untill the crappy Stepfather remake comes out so that the original gem will receive a DVD release.

How does a thriller so innocuous turn out so brilliantly? The story is partly a loose rehash of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, in which a clever young girl suspects a close family member but can't let on for fear of her own life. Jill Schoelen plays a girl slightly older than Teresa Wright, whose new stepfather Jerry has actually had a few stepfamilies before she and her mom. Only problem is, those families are dead now and Jerry hasn't always called himself Jerry. He hasn't always looked like "Jerry" either. His old families just couldn't live up to what he wanted, and he's been moving from one to the next.

Screenwriter and superb mystery novelist Donald Westlake, whose novels have been filmed many times over the years from Point Blank to What's The Worst That Could Happen?, takes the insurmountable challenge of making O'Quinn the center of the action while retaining credibility and pulls it off beautifully. The methodology is elaborated upon just enough to be believed. Jerry's not flawless (one of his old families' relations is already trailing him) but in pre-Internet times he does pretty well at creating and recreating various identities.

What really makes the performance so disturbingly compelling is the character's pathology requires him to pretend not to be insane. Only you, the viewer, share his secret. In a deliciously guilty pleasure you kind of want to see him succeed even though failure is inevitable. When his eye twitches or brow furrows, you'll shudder because you know what he's capable of. This role required many layers of subtlety as well as openly psychotic rage and O'Quinn grounds his psycho contrivances like no one since Anthony Perkins.

The eventual bloody confrontation with big bad dad is so incrementally formed that when the last ten minutes become an out-and-out 1980s slasher, replete with Jerry's refusal to die, the filmmakers have more than earned the guilty pleasure. Besides, how else could such a story end? Any lesser film would have let Schoelen figure out Jerry's secret halfway through, instead Westlake amazingly grants her the realization at literally the last moment possible AND as a compliment to all her intelligent character has done throughout the film to catch on.

Ruben is extremely good with actors, there isn't a bad performance anywhere from even the smaller or less well-written parts. This may be why his later family-horror evil kid entry The Good Son's cheesiness at least felt professional if not worthwhile. Stepfather's bombastic music, usually a sign of weakness, helps retain the suspense during quieter moments in a way bombastic music usually does not.

There's something inherintly funny about horror movies based on nondescript jobs or titles: The Carpenter, The Dentist, Ice Cream Man, The Granny....Unlike those guys and gal, O'Quinn doesn't have a lot of identifiable tools on hand for being a killer stepdad. Even The Granny could have a wheelchair or something. Fortunately step-parents already have a menacing rep that precedes them all the way back to Cinderella. Had The Stepfather been made ten years earlier or later, the success on video of a modestly budgeted thriller wouldn't have spawned two sequels with exponentially higher body counts and the character receiving plastic fucking surgery so he could be played by another actor in Stepfather 3: Father's Day.

Stepfather II isn't all bad though. Review forthcoming.

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