The best horror is grounded in something that’s ordinarily scary, and if you’re a young person that’s been through the experience of blending families, then you know that general fear of what it’s like when there’s a new parent in the picture. But chances are that you’ve never had to run from your knife-wielding stepfather, so on this Father’s Day, let’s remember all the good things all that dads do and that they’re not raving psychopaths that annihilate their families.
That’s a roundabout way of introducing The Stepfather, the 1987 film from Joseph Ruben about a man who serially marries into a family, and lives with them happily until they disappoint him somehow. That’s when hacks them up in a bloodbath before starting the process all over again. In terms of set-ups, the plot is pretty basic, but it encroaches on that innermost fear of letting new people into our perfectly imperfect lives, and plays upon our internal suspicions of people that try and be nice to us.
“The Stepfather is all your worst fears and expectations made reality…”
Suspicion is easy to come by with Terry O’Quinn, the star of the original Stepfather. Before he became most well-known as the enigmatic John Locke on Lost, O’Quinn popped up on numerous genre shows playing mysterious and dangerous characters like a shady admiral on Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the leader of a doomsday cult on Millennium. For fans, the very appearance of O’Quinn is cause for suspicion because he’s programmed us to think of him suspiciously, even more so in the years since The Stepfather.
The film takes advantage of the abnormal normalness that O’Quinn seems to enjoy. It’s interesting to watch him do his best to try and impress his new stepdaughter Stephanie (played by Jill Schoelen) by out-doing Ward Cleaver in terms of bland 50s-style dadness, but there’s always something a little off. When we first meet Jerry Blake as the new stepfather in Stephanie’s life, he brings her home a puppy, but we see him bring it home in a cardboard bankers’ box. Was it particularly cruel? No, but was it a little weird? Definitely.
In the The Stepfather remake, the serial-killing serial groom David Harris is played by Dylan Walsh. Walsh, at the time, was best known as the “good” brother on the plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck, so he sets a very different tone as the titular stepfather. Unlike O’Quinn, he doesn’t have a long record of playing suspicious weirdos, so he was to convince us of his danger, and his desire for a normal life in equal measure. He tries to be the cool dad by welcoming stepson Michael home from military school with tequila, but he also shows flashes of anger when his other stepson Sean plays his video games too loud.
Now both films make the suspicious stepchildren problematic. In the original, Stephanie is acting out after her father’s death, but in the remake all we know is that Michael is enough of a bad boy to be expelled from school and sent to a military academy. Michael is played by Penn Badgely, who was since played an utterly convincing sociopath of his own on the Netflix series You, but in The Stepfather he’s like a Hitchcock character, suspicious and distrustful about David. Still, he’s a kid and he has no impulse control to not say anything about it.
“On the bright side, most stepdads in real life are not psychotic and not so obsessed with perfection that they kill their whole family.”
To revisit Stephanie, there’s at least an honest attempt on her part accept Jerry, even though she alone catches him in off moments when the veneer cracks, and the full crazy is exposed. Stephanie also has the ear of her therapist Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer) who wants to make sure that his patient isn’t seeing things that aren’t there, but at the same time he’s also willing to listen to her concerns and take them seriously. Poor Michael only has his girlfriend Kelly (Amber Heard), who’s more interested in getting back to normal than hearing about potential paranoid delusions.
The remake though does demonstrate how quickly the media landscape changed in the 20 years between the films. Jerry has only a local newspaper reporter and a dogged ex-brother-in-law to concern him, but David has noisy neighbours, America’s Most Wanted, and all the trappings of modern life like cell phone cameras and the internet. Poor David can’t even get a job as a realtor (like Jerry) because his suspicious boss needs pesky identifying information like a Social Security Number.
Both films end with the stepfather’s finely constructed world falling apart, but while the original leans into Jerry’s precision and forethought as he starts to construct a new life, the remake shows David dissembling and losing control as the whole thing ends up in your standard-issue slasher movies face-off. Which one works better depends on your personal taste, but the definitive end in the original The Stepfather is somewhat muted by the fact that they made two sequels.
If you ignore those subsequent episodes, the Stepfather films are grounded in at least a kind of realism. It’s heightened, of course, but there’s nothing supernatural or unexplained about these “monsters” except for the fear we bring with us. We’re all scared that trusting and loving someone new opens a door to potential betrayal, and that’s only worse when that person is supposed to be an authority figure, a parent. The Stepfather is all your worst fears and expectations made reality, and both pieces understand that basic psychological premise.
“The Stepfather lets us appreciate that at the end of the day, most people are basically good and that the worst thing your father ever did to you was expose you to his sense of humor.”
On the bright side, most stepdads in real life are not psychotic and not so obsessed with perfection that they kill their whole family. If horror is an expression of deep-seated fears and anxieties that let’s us experience those fears in a safe, voyeuristic way, then The Stepfather lets us appreciate that at the end of the day, most people are basically good, and that the worst thing your father ever did to you was expose you to his sense of humor. Happy Fathers Day!
What’s your favourite horror movie remake? What did you think of The Stepfather? How do you feel it compared to the original? Share your opinions with us on Twitter, in the Nightmare on the Film Street Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!