Reviewed by MattFini
Starring Terry O’Quinn, Shelley Hack, Jill Schoelen, Stephen Shellen
Directed by Joseph Ruben
Distributed by The Shout! Factory
Expectations can be a bitch. The greater your anticipation for something, the more severe the disappointment can ultimately be when those expectations aren’t met. Such is the case for Jerry Blake, an all-American family man who wants one thing and one thing only: the perfect family. The problem, though, is that nobody bothered to tell Jerry that his ideal family life doesn’t exist outside of a 1950s sitcom and once it becomes clear to him, he butchers his family and moves on in search of another.
That’s the simple, yet effective, premise of Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather, a straightforward genre piece that was, unfortunately, lost amongst the sea of slasher clones flooding the market at the time. Despite an all-around collection of banner reviews, the film was a box office flop that would eventually garner a small, but passionate, collection of champions on home video. Slowly but surely, the word was out on one of the most memorable screen psychopaths of all time and I distinctly remember seeing the VHS box art sitting atop the “Our Favorites” section of a number of video stores.
So what is so memorable about a movie where a knife-wielding psycho kills in order to obtain a perverse ideal attainable only in his mind? It’s all about the manner in which it’s presented and that’s where The Stepfather separates itself from not only its timely peers, but also many similar genre efforts. Director Ruben deserves a hefty chunk of credit for keeping things moving at such a fierce clip that the audience is always on edge when it comes to Blake. The opening scene, which dually establishes the titular character while providing a genuinely unnerving and chilling moment, sets the audience at the edges of their proverbial seats before the main story is even underway.
There’s a fair degree of subtlety, too. Ruben wisely avoids delving into the backstory of the killer. Sorry, modern audiences, you don’t get to learn why the Stepfather does what he does. It doesn’t matter. But we’re given several interesting character pieces along the way without being smacked over the head with them. For example, one scene features the Stepfather looking at another family across the street – a father returning from work only to be greeted by excited children, a wife and even the dog. He doesn’t have that and fails to realize that it’s his insanity that keeps getting in the way of it. Such an element imbues our killer with trace quantities of sympathy. We don’t feel for him but believe in him.
Of course, we wouldn’t be believing in him if it weren’t for the show stopping performance of Terry O’Quinn. While he’s recognized more these days as John Locke, he’ll always be Jerry Blake to me. His performance is so masterful (wacked out without being cartoony) and textured that I have a hard time thinking of another screen psycho that comes anywhere close (with the exception of Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, that is). He goes from warm-hearted to full-blown crazed at the drop of a dime, never allowing the audience (or his suspecting stepdaughter) to relax. O’Quinn is the main reason this film has lingered in the minds of so many for so long.
The Stepfather is the full package: fast-paced, well-acted, suspenseful and brimming with bursts of nasty violence (and a gratuitous nude scene, courtesy of 80s screen-queen goddess, Jill Schoelen). Best of all, it still holds up over twenty years after its release. It doesn’t break any new ground, but for what it is, it’s one of the best.
And now we’ve finally got this lost classic on DVD, courtesy of Shout Factory, in a stellar 1.77:1 widescreen transfer. There’s a little bit of print damage and dirt but it’s mainly confined to the earlier scenes. And don’t let that deter you because the contrast levels are impressive, featuring sharp colors and surprisingly rich black levels. Until this hits high definition, this is a great way to dig on The Stepfather.
The audio is simply Dolby Digital 2.0 so don’t expect this one to be demo material for your home theater. That said, dialogue is crystal clear and nicely separated when the musical score kicks in.
As far as extra material, it’s a shame that Terry O’Quinn is nowhere to be found on this disc (or Synapse’s Stepfather II disc) – presumably because he’s currently in Hawaii shooting the final season of Lost (but who knows). That aside, the ‘making of’ featurette is a nice little piece (edited by Dread Central’s own Andrew Kasch, no less!) of content, offering interviews with the director, writer and other members of the crew. Jill Schoelen is also on hand (although under used) with a few comments, and she’s still a beauty, too.
Then there’s a commentary with director Ruben and Fangoria’s Michael Gingold. It’s a good little discussion, loaded with interesting tidbits covering the film’s production and genesis. There’s a little repetition when placed alongside the ‘making-of’ feature, but it’s a satisfying commentary track for those of you who want to learn more.
The Stepfather makes its region 1 DVD debut this week. A great film with a rock solid technical presentation (and some cool extras to boot). I can’t recommend this one enough so get out there and get your hands on it. You won’t be disappointed.
4 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5
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