The Stepfather (1987) begins as many a story begins, with a man (Terry O’Quinn) seeing himself in the bathroom mirror as he grooms for the next big chapter in his life. This man in the mirror just happens to be sheeted in the bloody ending of the most recent chapter though, broken bodies of his beloved discarded throughout the smart middle-class home he kept with them. We watch him change faces, swapping glasses for contacts, flannel for a smart suit, beard for a clean shave, until someone else emerges, all but unrecognizable, to stride away from his beautiful house filled with ridiculous carnage, whistling “Camptown Races.” “Wait until your father gets home” is the hackneyed threat/promise of a bygone era when a father’s rule and, implicitly, anger augured accountability and punishment in one fell swoop. In the Stepfather films, the better threat might be “Wait until your father leaves.” He’s actually fairly chill until he decides to kill everyone, particularly given his old-fashioned mores. Across three films and a remake, the Stepfather marries into family after family, single mothers always conveniently thirsty for his decency, and in each he builds a simulacrum of nuclear family goodness. But eventually something goes wrong, he’s found out, and Daddy gotta bail. But he can’t begin a new life without ending the old one. If he let you live, after all, there would be a witness, and that’s something he can’t abide. In the Stepfather’s mind – and he uses too many false names to call him anything else – you have to keep up appearances.
The story of The Stepfather was loosely based on the story of John List, a mild-mannered Sunday school teacher who, in 1971, methodically murdered of his entire family – including wife, three kids, and his mother, who lived with them – and successfully disappeared into a new identity for almost two decades. Like the movie monster he inspired, List dispatched his family ruthlessly – though more mercifully than the movie version, with single shots to the head for everyone except his oldest son, who apparently fought back — and had no trouble making himself lunch and supper after arranging their corpses. He even wrote a letter to his pastor, giving his reason for the murders as a wish to protect his family from the encroaching sinful world. List made his preparations for the murder and excuses for the family’s absences so well, the discovery of the murders wasn’t for almost a month after the fact, his trail by that time nice and chilly. He might never have been captured if his story hadn’t popped up on America’s Most Wanted eighteen years later, variations of which hasten the Stepfather’s comeuppance in three of the four films.*
The Stepfather’s big departure from the List story is that, hazy excuses about a sinful world notwithstanding, List’s motives didn’t arise specifically from an unwholesome obsession with an ideal family, which is, of course, the point. The Stepfather of The Stepfather wants a Came With the Frame, As Seen On TV family, and no one has ever actually had one of those. We don’t get to know what trauma might be at the bottom of the Stepfather’s obsession, with veiled references to a strict upbringing as good as we’re going to get, but it’s clear his understanding of what he wants is only as deep as the image on a screen. Really, over the course of the first two films with Terry O’Quinn, the only thing we know for sure about his past are the shows he watched. He might have a traditionalist or patriarchal view of the family, but he undergirds that not with religion, not with politics, but with boob tube. In the first film, he references Rin Tin Tin and Father Knows Best before we’ve even hit the halfway point, and then goes to bed laughing at a rerun of Mr. Ed, which for the purposes of this analysis I’m totally counting as a family show, with Mr. Ed as the Beaver.
Terry O’Quinn was a revelation in his breakthrough role as the Stepfather, and he couldn’t possibly have looked more the part, with a strong resemblance to ubiquitous character actor and Patty Duke’s TV Dad William Schallert. But as he’s shown in roles before and since, particularly as John Locke in Lost, O’Quinn has a special gift for beaming wholesomeness and authenticity, even when the audience has good reason to believe his character is mad, bad, or otherwise dangerous to know. The wholesomeness is really on show here, more 1960s TV Dad than 1960s TV Dad, unimpeachably upbeat. It never seems like papered over anger or madness or a cagey pretense in The Stepfather or its sequel. He seems to be, even in scenes where you know he knows he’s lying, from toes to toupee genuine. And it’s worth noting that his Stepfather does put the time and effort in to be a good father and husband; unlike the similar character John Lithgow played in the best season of Dexter, he’s not keeping his picture-perfect family hostage to his rage should they slip into being humans for a second. O’Quinn’s Stepfather attempts to walk the walk. “I even had sex with you, for God’s sake!” he yells at fiancée Carol (Meg Foster) as she confronts him in the climax of Stepfather 2: Make Room For Daddy. No, whatever name he’s going by, the Stepfather does his best by his adopted family, as far as his sociopathic heart can tell anyway, be that talking the kid out of trouble at school, buying a puppy, murdering the mom’s philandering ex, or, yes, having premarital sex with the MILF, until his best clearly won’t do. And then the bludgeoning starts.
The bludgeoning is meaningful, too. The Stepfather films are classified slashers because, well, there’s no better shelf to stack the videotapes on, and he does occasionally wield a knife, but unlike the gun-toting murderer that inspired his story and most of his screen killer colleagues, the Stepfather takes his victims to the woodshed. He uses 2x4s, baseball bats, batons, his hands, a telephone receiver, basically whatever is handy to smack someone good and repeatedly with. I personally can never close my car’s trunk without thinking of the first guy whose identity he steals in Stepfather 2. The point being, in kill mode, he is extraordinarily violent even in a violent medium. I imagine it matters little if you’re being stabbed multiple times or bludgeoned to death, but the execution of bludgeoning on film carries in it the seed of infantile fears of a father’s anger and echoes of corporal punishment, here taken to the extreme. With hat doffs to Carol Clover and the identification of penises with kitchen knives, whacking someone into purple bulges with a big plank of wood still seems the most male way to kill someone I can think of. Or maybe it’s just the most fatherly. I mean, you can accidentally stab someone with a knife. Though the intimacy of stabbings has been remarked upon by Clover and others, the knife is still doing a large part of the work in killing someone. Beatings require upper body strength and repeated, willful force.
The 2009 Stepfather remake is, all on its own, a thoroughly enjoyable, glossy slasher in late 2000s fashion. Reverence is given the original,** opening with the same memorable sequence of the Stepfather (Dylan Walsh) calmly changing faces and leaving a house strewn with corpses in his wake. A chilly rendition of “Silent Night” playing as the Stepfather enjoys his coffee and a slice of peanut-buttered toast across from his murdered child recalls 1978’s Black Christmas, and the tone of this film is indeed a shade more brutal and disquieting in the vein of that seminal 70s slasher rather than the film it’s remaking. It’s a very intelligent remake, taking into account how much the world has changed since 1987, and I appreciate the care that went into not simply taking the premise and running with it, but preserving many of the same story beats as the original in that very different world. There are significant changes, and I like that, too: instead of the Stepfather insinuating himself into a unit with a single mother and her bereaved daughter, here it’s a divorced mom (Sela Ward) of three, including son Michael (Penn Badgley) returning from military school after a spate of delinquency got him bounced out of high school.*** Michael’s girlfriend (Amber Heard, whose midriff and butt deserve their own credits for the amount of screen time they get), his aunt (Paige Turco), his mom’s friend, his estranged dad, his younger siblings, and the most cat lady cat lady that ever cat ladied neighbor crowd the house with very plausible complications for Dylan Walsh’s Stepfather. It takes a village to catch a serial killer.
Where it’s really interesting though is the contrast with and the argument it makes against the movie it’s remaking. Dylan Walsh does a great job, but his Stepfather is less successful at concealing his menace than Terry O’Quinn’s, letting his mask slip early and often. He’s charismatic, make no mistake, and a master manipulator – I love how he gains the suspicious eldest son’s trust by sharing his secret tequila stash and swearing him to secrecy — but he’s also angry and overtly physical and more subject to letting those things get him into trouble. A crucial early scene, for example, has him grabbing the younger son by the neck after he ignores his mom’s repeated appeals to turn down the volume on his videogame. O’Quinn’s Stepfather never would have done that. Part of what made Terry O’Quinn’s Stepfather so creepy was not only the bloody lie of his World’s Greatest Dad mode, but how imperturbable he was in that façade, and when the mask broke, he broke with it. You didn’t get a sense of him ever doubting his own lies, even as you see him whipping them up, much less seething and plotting the way this film cares to show you Dylan Walsh’s Stepfather seethe and plot. I come away with the sense that O’Quinn’s Stepfather is a stylized depiction of madness that puts a man out of joint with society, or even reality – whether that’s a responsible or medically-accurate portrayal is a whole ‘nother, fraught subject – and Walsh’s captures toxic white male rage that might be exacerbated by frustrated expectations of a kind, if not exactly like, those O’Quinn’s Stepfather killed for, but is at its heart a righteous, possessive anger implicitly encouraged by society.
If anyone ever feared that the Stepfather or, say, another John List could prowl around off the grid with impunity, the 2009 film shows exactly how hard that could be. It doesn’t even get into complications that would pop up for him by tracking cell phone GPS – his or his victims’ – or being tagged on Facebook. Just not being able to fill out his W-2s is a game-breaker here, and paying cash rather than using plastic gets noticed. There could be modernized answers to modernized problems – maybe the Stepfather of the 21st century should be an I.T. expert or maybe he lives in a marginalized community that’s already partially off the grid – but in an increasingly-connected world, you can’t just slide in and be Ward Cleaver without getting hung up on a mess of questions – chief among them, who’s Ward Cleaver? We don’t have Ward Cleavers anymore, and while some consider that a tragedy, it does mean the whole Stepfather schtick doesn’t really work even in an idealistic sense, because the practical realities of fathers, breadwinners, and upstanding citizens in 2009, and still in 2019, are shifting old Ward into obsolescence. So the Terry O’Quinn Stepfather, masterful as he was and is in his own context, is a practical and idealistic fossil.
The Walsh Stepfather though – he bothers me a little more. The fury and desire for control his character embodies remind me too much of the Fuck Your Feelings camp, and whether that kind of displaced anger is on or off the grid, unlike the perfect family, it’s something that exists when the TV snaps off. It is something that is recognizable behind every other workplace shooting and the majority of domestic violence. It is the ugly truth of the violence we valorize in almost every Liam Neeson movie.**** And I do not believe it will be changing its face and disappearing anytime soon.
* The Stepfather, Stepfather 2: Make Room For Daddy, Stepfather III, and the 2009 remake of The Stepfather. I am not really going to spend time on Stepfather III (1992), except to say when Terry O’Quinn refused to take the role back up, it went to Robert Wightman, who is probably best known for replacing Richard Thomas as John Boy on The Waltons. Without meaning to slam his performance in the sequel, which is fine, the parallel is appropriate. Stepfather III also accomplishes that weird trick common to late franchise slashers where doubling or even tripling the kill count halves the interest. They do attempt a cute little red herring/subversion with the Stepfather’s first rival in the movie, a paunchier ringer for Terry O’Quinn that rants about how he’s been dating the Stepfather’s intended for two whole months and they’re going to be a family and he’s going to be Andy’s stepfather, like anyone would ever, ever do that, and the irony is shoved down our throats as surely as the Stepfather shoves other inappropriate things in Faux Stepfather’s places. There’s no point, but it happens, and I noticed it happen. That’s really all they can ask of me. Stepfather 3 is barely competent at its very best moments, verges on comedy at its worst, and if you watch it, bring your snarky robots.
** According to one of the producers, Terry O’Quinn was approached for a cameo, but turned it down.
*** It’s heavily implied that Michael’s misbehavior was tied to his parents’ divorce and a fractious relationship with a father that cheated on his mom. He is certainly the nicest, most reasonable and even-tempered juvenile delinquent I’ve ever seen.
**** Liam Neeson punching things is, however, one of my favorite genres.
Angela supposes it’s a good thing the Stepfather never noticed how many families in the Golden Age of Television were run by single dads.
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