This June weekend brings us the opportunity to celebrate all the wonderful fathers who do so much for us. But let’s not forget that stepfathers are ‘dad’s’, too. For this edition of Re-Animated, I give a shout out to all the stepdads out there by taking a look at 1980’s cult classic, The Stepfather, and the 2009 remake.
The Stepfather offered a truly unique premise amidst its fairly rote story structure. Jerry Blake (played by Terry O’Quinn) is a kind, loving man who believes in the importance of family. He also happens to be a murderous psychopath. His standards for the ‘perfect family’ are pretty high and, when his family doesn’t measure up, he kills them, changes his identity, and finds a new family. Released over 20 years later, the remake doesn’t fiddle much with the basic plot. Which version of The Stepfather should you sit down to watch with the stepkids?
The Stepfather (1987)
In the years since it was first released, The Stepfather has gained somewhat of a cult following. I saw The Stepfather and its sequel when they were first released on VHS and recently re-watched the original earlier this year. This will likely be an unpopular opinion, but while I enjoyed The Stepfather, I think its cult status is influenced to some extent by nostalgia.
My biggest complaint with The Stepfather is that its general plot, not the specific premise, is very similar to the glut of horror and psychological thrillers that were being released around the same time. Films like Pacific Heights, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and The Crush, to name a few, all followed a fairly standard format. In these movies, an unsuspecting character, couple, or family have their lives ‘invaded’ by a seemingly normal character. One of the protagonists becomes increasingly suspicious while everyone else fails to see the mounting threat. Usually the main character has a friend who suspects something is wrong and then subsequently dies.
He wanted the perfect family …
Yet two things set The Stepfather apart from most of these other films, making it worth re-visiting. First, The Stepfather explores some interesting ideas about changing family dynamics and the role of the father. Its screenplay contrasts Jerry Blake’s 1950’s ‘Father Knows Best‘ traditionalism with the shifting family and gender dynamics that began emerging in the 1970’s and continued through the 1980’s.
Second, The Stepfather has Terry O’Quinn, who infuses Jerry Blake with a compelling mixture of menace and sympathy. While O’Quinn’s ‘stepfather’ will make you nervous and put you edge, he’s never completely unlikable or alien to the audience. Quinn’s delivery of the ‘Who am I here’ line is just a stellar moment in the film that propels The Stepfather to a genuinely suspenseful climax.
The Stepfather (2009)
SPOILER ALERT: The Stepfather is a bad movie. A really bad movie. This is the worst kind of horror-thriller – it’s a lazy, lackadaisical stroll through a checklist of standard plot contrivances. Unless you have literally never watched a movie in your life, you will know what is going to happen in The Stepfather. Lazy horror tropes and expository dialogue abound for the remake’s 90 minutes or so. Within a roughly 30-second span, The Stepfather uses both the ‘cat fake out scare’ and the ‘mirror scare’. Neither one works in this film. The scariest part of The Stepfather remake is a quick expository dialogue scene in the early going that explains about two-thirds of the original film’s background story. Utterly terrifying.
Instead The Stepfather opts to give its audience bloodless and scare-free kills in a vacuum where atmosphere and tension are absent.
The only significant change from the original film is the gender-switch with Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley subbing in as the ‘stepson” in place of Jill Schoelen. Otherwise The Stepfather remake dutifully follows along with the original’s concept. None of the subtext of the original is explored in the remake, which is unfortunate. In the 20 plus years since The Stepfather was released, family and gender dynamics have changed enough to offer something interesting for the remake to explore. Instead The Stepfather opts to give its audience bloodless and scare-free kills in a vacuum where atmosphere and tension are absent.
Everything about this remake is generic. Badgley is fine with the material he’s given, but doesn’t stand out. Sela Ward is wasted as the clueless mother. Poor Dylan Walsh has the unenviable task of trying to replace Terry O’Quinn. There’s nothing inherently wrong with his performance, but Walsh fails to really register as a scary antagonist.
The one and only interesting quirk in the remake is how often it seems to forget about the stepdaughter who makes intermittent appearances. Director Nelson McCormick seems far more interested in Amber Heard, who actually gives the film’s best performance as Badgley’s girlfriend. Not surprisingly, McCormick was responsible for the equally insipid The Prom remake. Let’s just hope he stays away from the rest of our 80’s horror classics.
Always Go With Terry O’Quinn
Like the remake itself, there’s no suspense or surprises here. If you’re planning on a family movie night with the step-kids, stick with the original The Stepfather. Terry O’Quinn’s ‘Jerry Blake’ is an underappreciated horror film antagonist and the original film offers some genuinely interesting commentary to chew on once the credits have finished rolling.