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Ten Word or Less Review: Daddy’s home!  To kill!

Genuine horror genre gems are few and far between.  Many endeavors, old or new, get undermined for an endless list of reasons that there’s no real need to regurgitate here.  But one thing that sabotages the genre more than anything is credible acting.  Material of a sordid or even amateurish, nature can be elevated with great acting.  And the horror genre, a field ripe with the sordid and amateurish, often cast the inexperienced, the outdated or the ‘just here for the paycheck’ level of actor to stand in frame and yelp, scream or monologue.  1987’s horror venture “The Stepfather” rises above these trappings by casting stalwart character actor Terry O’Quinn as the monster of the title.  His is a performance which elevates this genre exercise from one of sure mediocrity to qualified cult classic.

 The opening scene of “The Stepfather” immediately classifies it as a slightly more than average thing to reckon with.  A wild haired, wooly bearded and blood splattered O’Quinn steps into his bathroom.  He begins to discard his clothing and jewelry.  He takes a shower, cuts his hair and shaves, emerging from the bathroom a completely new man in a new set of clothes.  As he walks down the stairs of his house we’re exposed to the terror he’s unleashed.  A wife and three children lay dead on the floor, their throats slashed.  He walks by their bodies completely at ease with his acts, walks out of the house unrecognized by his neighbors and sets off to find his next family.   So begins Joseph Rubin’s film which turns the American dream into an American horror show.  This intro runs against the grain of traditional horror exploits.  “Stepfather” distincts itself by dwelling on the aftermath of the slaughter, a more important aspect in this case, instead of being hung up on the execution of it. 

 This role helped elevate O’Quinn out of the struggling character actor realm, and in a way I think it also limited his future.  He wouldn’t find wide success in films again.  He worked steadily on TV in various series until he broke out on “Lost” 17 years after “Stepfather.”  Much of this is likely due to what can be referred to Anthony Perkins Syndrome.  Perkins embodiment of Norman Bates in “Psycho” crippled his career.  He played crazy too well and in turn many producers shied away from him because of it.  I suspect a similar fate befell O’Quinn when it came to putting him in features.  His portrayal of a family obsessed psychopath is remarkable for a film of this nature.  His scenes of mental breakdown and rage are as convincing and believable as his quiet moments of family life.  Unlike Nicholson in “The Shining”, you believe this man loves his family when he isn’t day dreaming about killing them.  If you were to remove his more horrific moments, you could almost make a convincing drama about a man trying to adopt a new family and the obstacles he faces in doing so.  But as it is, when his idealized view of family life begins to stretch beyond his acceptable field of vision, he cracks.  He begins to plot his family’s demise and to make preparations for the next one.  O’Quinn’s more elevated moments are delightfully insane and occasionally hilarious.  He gradually works himself up into fits of explosive rage which he relays much too convincingly.

All this adoration isn’t to suggest that “Stepfather” is some kind of unqualified masterpiece.  It isn’t by any stretch.  There isn’t much of anyone to note in the rest of the cast, a stock of forgotten 80’s players who didn’t accomplish much outside of genre work and television.  Director Joseph Ruben can’t work out all the inadequacies in his screenplay either.  He’s got a sure hand and knows that O’Quinn is holding up his movie, but there’s an entire subplot involving a previous wife’s brother searching for O’Quinn’s killer that amounts to little more than the necessary placement of a prop during the climax.  It’s an incredible waste. 

Ruben would go on to make a quasi-trilogy of domestic horror tales rooted in the same kind of style as “Stepfather”.  He made another demented husband thriller with the bland Julia Roberts vehicle “Sleeping with the Enemy” and followed that up with the child from Hell, Macaulay Culkin, in “The Good Son.”  Neither was anywhere near as enjoyable as “The Stepfather.”  Though watching the kid from “Home Alone” fall off a cliff to his death was pretty hilarious.

I often find the cult horror genre to be a bit of a joyless crapshoot.  The attributes that fans of this material enjoy often run contrary to my own taste.  The movies are often slogs through gross out nonsense or poorly made exercises that viewers enjoy for nothing more the rank amateurishness on display.  “The Stepfather” rises above this usual blather by having a fun idea, the extreme warping of American family values by a psychopath, and a sure footed performance to shoulder the movie.  Without these it would be just another slasher run through worth no one’s time.  But considering the skill on display here “The Stepfather” comes off as a worthy effort that any horror fan could proudly recommend to film fans without fear of being scoffed at later.

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2 Comments

  1. How on earth did you a find an 80’s horror film that was good which I hadn’t already heard of?

    • I heard about this movie years ago but just recently decided to seek it out. I read a good right up of it a few months ago and finally remembered it.


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