MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY: REVISITING THE STEPFATHER FRANCHISE

 

 

John List murdered his entire family on November 9th, 1971. He cruelly executed his wife, mother and three children one by one, by shooting them. List then proceeded to place the bodies around the home in a gruesome tableau, cut himself out of all family photos, took the time to pen a letter to his pastor in which he claimed that he was condemning the evils of the world and that he was trying to save his family’s souls by killing them. You know, it’s the usual sick, serial killer bullshit. The precise manner in which he handled the aftermath of the killings was so thorough that no one realized something was wrong until almost a month later. He disappeared shortly thereafter, resurfacing with a new identity and a new family. For eighteen years, he lived his life as an accountant named Bob Clark (thankfully not the director of BLACK CHRISTMAS), active and successful in his Lutheran congregation and by all accounts, happily married to a woman named Delores Miller. In 1989, he was finally apprehended in the state of Virginia, thanks to AMERICA’S MOST WANTED, dying in prison while serving five life sentence terms. It wasn’t long enough. May he rest in hell. Donald E. Westlake (THE HUNTER), Brian Garfield (DEATH WISH), and Carolyn Lefcourt would use the germ of John List’s horrific real-life crimes to create the fictionalized crimes of the man with many names and many faces, known to us as THE STEPFATHER.

 

 

 

THE STEPFATHER (1987)

 

The opening scene of THE STEPFATHER is an iconic entry into the Horror Hall of Fame. It’s a perfect example of a ripe onion, its layers being peeled away to reveal the putrid scent within. We first meet Jerry Blake (or whoever the hell he is here), shaving off his facial hair and showering blood off of him. He meticulously erases his entire look so naturally, it feels as easy as drawing a breath. The look on Terry O’Quinn’s face – that of a man with frenzied eyes and frayed nerves sets your blood cold instantly. Then, we reveal a terrifying tableau, crafted by a diabolical artist whose canvas is the flesh and blood of the innocents; his brush the sharpest implements available. The air in the living room filled with the bodies of his family is stiff with violent carnage. If the sights of a murdered child doesn’t go about setting your nerves to shreds, then I don’t know what could. This is high-octane nightmare fuel. And then he sets off down his idyllic neighborhood, whistling Camptown Races. It’s a barn-burner opening and a damn fine way to start a movie.  THE STEPFATHER is directed with a keen eye by Joseph Ruben, the master of domestic terrors like SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY and THE GOOD SON, who manages to capture the familial menace the story requires and balances the shaky domestic life of Jerry, Susan and Stephanie (something personal to Westlake, as he was having his own squabbles with his stepdaughter) with the ferocity of a man trying to conceal a hurricane of violence. The film is anchored by some strong performances, specifically from Terry O’Quinn, who ably toggles from sweet, sincere Ward Cleaver to a madman capable of savagery within the snap of a finger. The scene where Jerry realizes that his perfect home life has crashed and burned in front of his eyes and that he needs to clean house and move on to a new life is handled beautifully by O’Quinn, who sells it through the power of facial tics alone.  The writing has some clever beats concealed within as well. Thankfully, they don’t give us anything resembling backstory for The Stepfather. He’s a vague phantom. The family he’s massacred in the beginning could be his second family or his tenth family. We don’t know his real name or why he’s the way he is. That’s just fine. We don’t need it. The monstrous deeds he commits are enough for us to know he’s seriously fucked up. It’s also admirable restraint on Westlake’s part as one would assume he’d put slather on the backstory since he’s a novelist by trade. The addition of Jim Ogilvie, the relative of the massacred family from the film’s opening, as a detective hot on the trail of the bad daddy seems like it would be going one way, and then ends in a totally different, practically gruesome punchline that draws comparison to Hallorann’s tragic journey in THE SHINING. Also, noteworthy is the relationship between Stephanie and her psychiatrist, Dr. Bondurant. So often in films like this, the kids don’t have an adult they trust – but having Dr. Bondurant be the light in Stephanie’s dark moments is a relief, which makes his brutal murder at the hands of Jerry all the more effective. Also, the scene leading up to his murder is aces – Bondurant meets with Jerry under the assumption that he’s buying a house, but uses the opportunity to psychoanalyze him – leading to the best armor-piercing question, “Are you interested in the house, or are you interested in me?” Blake is cunning but human, his casual slip-ups leading to him mixing up his lives and the classic line “who am I here?” The last act becomes a sleazy slasher with Terry O’Quinn wielding a manic smile, tossing out Freddy–esque one-liners (he even crashes through a mirrored door a la our favorite burnt-face pussy, and gives us gratuitous nudity courtesy of Jill Schoelen (do you see me complaining?). The tension is appropriately ratcheted throughout ending on the presumed bloody death of Jerry Blake. For now … The film was released in January 1987, courtesy of New Century Vista Film Company to a healthy box office of $2.4 million dollars and positive reviews (O’Quinn’s performance was singled out by Roger Ebert as the best element of the film).

 

 

 

 

 

STEPFATHER 2: MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY (1989)

 

Though it seemed like Jerry Blake was one dead daddy by the time the first film finished, he most certainly was not and found himself ending up in the place most maniacs found themselves in sequels – a mental institution. At least we get a handful of dialogue and audio bites of flashback and not forty full minutes of what went down in the first film. STEPFATHER 2: MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY really leans into the slasher skid and as such makes the best of its lurid aspirations. The film ups its violence quota (a request made by the feckless runts at Miramax – yeah, you know the ones – they’ve always been meddling in filmmaker’s works even this far back). I was haunted by the VHS artwork every time I stepped into the horror section of my local video store and was both enticed and terrified of renting the film.  The film moves quickly through its beats – Jerry is institutionalized and not quite as cured as he seems to be. And thanks to the lousiest health care professional Canada-adjacent Seattle has to offer, he’s out in short order and making his way to a new town and a new family. The script is pretty much rinse and repeat as Jerry Blake now under the alias Gene Clifford makes his move on a single mother, Carol, played Meg Foster and her icy eyes. They add new kinks into the story’s formula like Carol’s ex-husband aiming to get back into the picture or a snoopy neighbor played by the always cute as hell Caroline Williams. It’s an added element of suspense in a film that has been wrongfully maligned as a cheap slasher film. I mean, it is, but there’s more to it. That being said, there’s still dumb character stuff like Williams’ character Maddie presenting Gene with the information proving he’s lying about his identity. If you find yourself in a horror/thriller/suspense film, you never try to blackmail the person that you suspect is up to shady practices. It never works for anyone. Remember Julianne Moore in THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE? Yeah, exactly. One thing the film tries that the others don’t is having the family actually have potential happiness with Gene. The kid doesn’t hate him, in fact, he seemingly likes him and Carol is blissfully unaware of any wrongdoing. The humor is peppered throughout pretty well: Gene perusing video dating tapes (kids, you see before Tinder, you had to do more outlandish things to get a significant other than go to a bar), his group therapy sessions (how did he get a license to practice psychiatry?) with the woman who mentions that her husband likes her to hum show tunes while he’s getting a hummer. The sequel is directed with some flair by journeyman director Jeff Burr (LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, PUMPKINHEAD II: BLOOD WINGS, the underrated STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS), and produced by Darin Scott (MENACE II SOCIETY, TALES FROM THE HOOD) a duo that worked on the anthology horror film FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM. Burr’s usage of beautifully framed shots like the reflection of the motel sign on the windshield of Gene’s car, or the split diopter when Gene is packing for Phil’s permanent vacation add a nice flair to the accompanying mayhem. The scene where Gene murders Phil is staged in such a garish EC Comics manner, O’Quinn cast in blue and red light while tossing out macabre one-liners. It’s pretty good. I also like the Hitchcockian/Argento touch of Gene thinking he’s been caught by the old man after murdering Maddie (an adequately suspenseful and dark murder). It calls to mind the way characters solve the mysteries of Argento’s murders with the worry for the villain’s safety ala FRENZY. The final act set at the wedding is a brutal, battering affair filled with excellently choreographed violence and interesting flourishes (the wedding topper falling in slow motion intercut with Gene and Carol fighting to the death at normal speed). The image of Meg Foster clad in a beautiful, bloodstained wedding dress, the colors clashing with her blue eyes is an unforgettable image. Though we presume The Stepfather is dispatched with a claw hammer straight to his heart – he won’t be quiet for too long.

 

 

 

STEPFATHER III (1992)

 

Released to HBO, three long years after STEPFATHER 2: MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, STEPFATHER III (the VHS from Vidmark can’t make up its mind whether we’re going with Roman Numerals or not), isn’t as bad as you’d think a Terry O’Quinn-less STEPFATHER film could be. In fact, the movie has some great, gripping elements to it – starting with the atmospheric opening to the film where The Stepfather seeks out an off-the-grid plastic surgeon (who clearly works in the same surgery suite as Jack Napier’s surgeon did) to change his face to something less familiar (read: the actor ain’t coming back) to law enforcement. The washed out blues, the blood-red credits, the torrential rain and the effective score had me raring for some DTV trash like THE PAPERBOY or MOTHER’S BOYS or MIKEY. Unfortunately, the film segues to something a little less than the opening of the film aspires to be. What you find going forward is a little mix of Lifetime Movie of The Week, a man with a dark and stormy past meeting kiddie slasher aspirations. When I speak of kiddie slashers, I’m referencing films that want to be the big hitters, but golly gee they just don’t have any hair on their chests, mister! There are interesting wrinkles to the formula – the film begins by presenting the identity of The Stepfather as a secret. Is it the shy, goofy fellow named Keith who gardens for the church, or is it the aggressive asshole who bellows at the beautiful woman about wanting to have a family? It’s a nice tack to take, but the film abandons this approach almost as soon as it’s introduced. Oh, and oddly enough, this is the only film in THE STEPFATHER franchise that has Father’s Day in it. There’s a bit of a body count in this film, but it’s a relatively bloodless affair overall, save for the final kill – The Stepfather himself – getting hurled into a fucking wood-chipper ala Steve Buscemi.  The film milks a lot of suspense out of The Stepfather balancing dual lives, he begins courting another single mother, played by Season Hubley, once he realizes his picturesque life with the beautiful Priscilla Barnes isn’t going to happen, and the way these lives collide is handled quite well. It’s a bit of a quasi-remake to the first film actually, except it’s a young boy and he’s in a wheelchair. He has a friendly relationship with an adult (in this case, a priest) who slowly comes to the realization that The Stepfather is up to nefarious shenanigans. The relationship between the kid and the priest is realized well, they have a bit of a Sherlock and Watson game they play (the kid is crime obsessed) investigating fake murders. Elsewhere, the fashion is outdated as hell. It was the 90’s, so prepare to overdose on an all pastel diet (the jacket Keith wears when he’s out to kill the priest makes him look something like a cross between a Domino’s Pizza delivery driver and an extra in ASPEN EXTREME). Oh, and the kid uses computers to the extreme to try and suss out The Stepfather’s true identity. As for Robert Wightman, he’s acceptably menacing as the nu-Stepfather. He manages to turn a simple game of catch between father and son into something tense as hell. And the scene after the priest dies has a good deal of uneasiness to it, when he unplugs the kid’s computer to put an end to his junior detective work while simultaneously acting like dear old dad. The great thing about O’Quinn as The Stepfather was that he essayed a sickly, Southern charm whereas Wightman comes off as an ominous Woody from TOY STORY – a lanky, William O’Leary (the brother in CANDYMAN: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH) type with the voice of MR. ED. The scene where he goofily waves at his stepson after he gets caught hate chopping a block of wood is goddamn hilarious. The last act where The Stepfather seeks to kill his victims apes THE SHINING a little too closely, but drips with atmosphere, so you’ll at least have some fun until the bloody bang that ends the franchise. The film runs a little too long (at one hour and fifty minutes, it’s the longest film in the franchise) but Guy Magar handles the reins aptly, he’s also the only director in the franchise that penned the script. I also recommend an underrated supernatural horror film called RETRIBUTION that Magar directed. It’s frustratingly unavailable but well worth the hunt. This would be the end of the original franchise, but overall it makes for a nice trilogy viewing despite some bumps and bruises.

 

 

 

 

THE STEPFATHER (2009)

 

In a vast valley of unnecessary remakes, THE STEPFATHER stands tallest. At least certain remakes can improve on their original incarnation in some way, shape or form. This doesn’t. This film comes from a studio that releases middling domestic thrillers (and an UNDERWORLD occasionally), and turns a lurid, horror-crime film into a middling domestic thriller. And the goddang poster looks like some FIFTY SHADES OF GREY shit. It’s also too fucking sterile – Platinum Dunes, love them or hate them, starting giving every gritty horror remake a shiny look, turning films from moldy Polaroids to glossy eight by tens. Everything is shot with this blue filter like a mixture of the cinematography of SAW and PANIC ROOM. There’s not a single definable element to Nelson McCormick’s direction. It’s too workmanlike. It’s also too bloodless. The original STEPFATHER wasn’t an abattoir but it at least had gritty violence to hammer the point home that you’re watching some unpleasant shit happen to unfortunate people. Here, the entire family massacre has barely a drop of crimson. They try to edge it up, it happened on Christmas! Okay? Every murder is toothless and has no impact. Because of this PG-13 bloodlessness, they had to get the rowdy teens into the theatre so they put their young leads in swimsuits for nearly the entire film. Seriously, folks. The male/female gaze is turned up to eleven in this film. Also, this Stepfather is dumb as dirt. He kills the neighbor after she mentions to his wife that she saw a resemblance in the photo on AMERICA’S MOST WANTED (a nice reference to the List murders). A) His killing her accomplishes nothing, because he’s covering nothing up – the wife already knows that he looks like a wanted killer and B) Him killing the suspicious neighbor draws more attention to him. He also quits his job immediately after being asked for government documents for verification purposes. This only leads to more suspicion, and him having to kill more people. He creates more problems than he solves. He’s also ridiculously out of character in the early goings, when he meets his new stepson; he drinks with him in the basement and curses mildly. Yeah, I’m not buying those goods you’re selling. He also acts way more suspicious than he needs to be. Why all the locked doors and cabinets? If The Stepfather’s intention is to have a perfect family, then he would assume when he enters the family, things would go swimmingly – so why the need for a backup plan? It just stokes more suspicion. Dylan Walsh is a fine actor here, but he’s not as terrifying as O’Quinn – he just comes off as your stereotypical abusive aggro-dad (his fucking late-2000s lead singer of Default look as the credits roll is unforgivable). And the “Who Am I Here?” scene in the original is bone-chilling because it’s the rare slip of the cautious killer. Here – it’s checking an item off a list. He almost says it bemusedly. And the ending coda is so tacky. They should’ve left it with The Stepfather disappearing and that’s that. Subtle endings are spookier and scarier. A punked up version of Happy Together by The turtles does nothing to send your audience out with the willies. The fact that The Stepfather is out there somewhere? That’s nightmare fuel. With all of that being said, I didn’t really hate the film at all. It’s perfectly serviceable as late-2000s domestic bullshit. The suspense stuff is done really well, with The Stepfather having near misses getting caught by his snooping stepson. The stepson’s investigation of his deadly dad feels organically introduced, as does the gradual disintegration of their relationship. Amber Heard and Penn Badgely as well as the rest of the cast perform adequately and the last act, the rain drenched battle royale feels brutal and violent in a way you wished the rest of the goddamn film would’ve been. If you truly need a sleazy gender-swapped remake of THE STEPFATHER, try THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE. That film is well-directed, written and acted and has the right amount of sleaze to fit into the Bad Daddy Franchise.

 

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a Dallas-based writer of both films and of Internet goings-on. He's also in a movie on Netflix, but won't tell you the title, for fear of transmitting a RINGU-type curse into your home. He can be found on Twitter as @madmanmarz81.
Nathan Smith

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