The Stepfather: a review

The Stepfather, a.k.a Jerry Blake, is a jovial, easy-going fellow with a modest but handsome home, a lovely wife, a booming business, and a dark secret. “Jerry” is a madman, a man obsessed with the bland, impossible perfection of happy home, a man motivated by the unending search for a brand of happiness never seen outside a Hallmark ad.

He courts single mothers, endears himself (more or less) to their kids, and establishes himself as the idealized father figure he desperately longs to be. But family life is rarely perfect, and Jerry cannot tolerate imperfection; when the inevitable stresses of life with children or teenagers arise, so do Jerry’s inner demons. In his search for perfection, he’s left a trail of murdered families and bloodied, smashed midsized homes in his wake.

This sounds like the stuff of a shoddy Lifetime movie-of-the-week, somehow simultaneously boring and sensationalistic… and it should be. It would be, but for the compelling performance of Terry O’Quinn (“Lost,” “Millenium,” “Alias”). O’Quinn’s layered, intelligent portrayal shows Jerry as an amiable everyman who believes in deceptively simple values, who thinks that attitude and elbow grease can make a home perfect, who would use phrases like “elbow grease” and “stick-to-it-iveness.”

The Stepfather’s most shocking moments — and, more impressively, its most banal moments — are enriched by O’Quinn’s portrayal of Jerry as a cheerfully determined man with modest aspirations, the kind of can-do guy who doesn’t let circumstances get him down, goshdarnit. Even at the movie’s grimmest, it’s hard not to feel a grudging admiration for Jerry’s pluck. And this is the sly wit of the movie: it’s a subtle attack on the supposedly strong “family values” faction of Reaganite America.

In most formula horror movies, and especially the slasher films of the 1980s that formed The Stepfather‘s milieu and matrix, violence is triggered in part by the unleashed sexuality and hedonism of the victims. In The Stepfather, the sexuality of both wife and stepdaughter (Shelley Hack and Jill Schoelen) is presented as perfectly normal and healthy, in no way threatening or perverse; it’s Jerry’s reaction to the norm that is perverse. Jerry is driven by an obsessive need to preserve his limited sense of perfection and purity, to preserve the patriarchy at all costs, to defend his pathologically narrow views about old-fashioned values and the sanctity of the family.

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