Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Selling The American Dream

The lack of availability of Joseph Ruben’s THE STEPFATHER these days is unfortunate and probably part of the reason there was a decent-sized crowd lined up for it at the New Beverly’s midnight show on Saturday. The film didn’t do much business during a staggered regional release in 1987, in spite of an amazing lead performance by Terry O’Quinn, now an Emmy winner for LOST, and an array of favorable critical notices which included the Los Angeles Times calling it “one of the smartest and most entertaining films” of its year as well as a genuine rave from no less than Pauline Kael. People presumably began to catch up with it on video and cable, which led to a sequel a few years later also starring O’Quinn (but made by others) and is no doubt the main reason behind the pre-LOST cult around the actor. I can proudly say that I saw THE STEPFATHER during its original release and I also got to see STEPFATHER 2 in the theater, though that’s not quite as impressive. Largely because of its star, the film has held up surprisingly well and its no-show on DVD (rights issues, I’m guessing) is a shame.

The lead character of THE STEPFATHER played by Terry O’Quinn is introduced just after he has (offscreen) brutally murdered his entire family, including his wife and stepchildren. Preparing to leave the house, he then cuts his hair, shaves his beard to change his entire appearance and, whistling “Camptown Races”, leaves the house and walks down the otherwise quiet suburban street. One year later, he is Jerry Blake, a real estate salesman married to new wife Susan (Shelley Hack) and stepfather to sixteen year-old Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Susan, widowed just a year ago, looks at her husband as the perfect man but Stephanie can’t help but feel there’s something off about him a feeling compounded when she stumbles across him ranting and raving to no one in the basement. In spite of her suspicions, Jerry is determined that his family will be absolutely perfect but when they disappoint him, which is of course inevitable, the question is how soon history will repeat itself.

It sounds like a generic thriller, the sort of thing that’s played late nights on cable for decades, but THE STEPFATHER surpasses those expectations by being not only a tight, compact thriller but also a clever commentary on the Reagan-era America that Jerry Blake seems to subscribe to a little too much, with the character making speeches about how being a real estate agent allows him to “sell the American dream”. Part of the confidence of the film, which has a screenplay by Donald Westlake, is that it doesn’t make too much of a thing of this subtext, allowing the viewer to read as much of that into it as they wish. Even when the lead is watching a sitcom on TV that harkens back to a simpler time, the show is MR. ED which allows us to imagine him watching it as a kid but doesn’t make too much of it like a LEAVE IT TO BEAVER-type clip would do. The film seems to be locked into its era so much that it’s tough to imagine how it would work in today’s world without completely altering the meaning (naturally, the remake is due next year) but those reminders of how nostalgia was looked at during the eighties can still resonate. The plot is fairly well put together, but it certainly isn’t airtight. The subplot of one of the murdered family members hunting him feels somewhat mechanical, like a combination of Scatman Crothers in THE SHINING and a chance to get some exposition in there that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to. It’s also a bit much to swallow Jerry Blake meeting a woman recently widowed, marrying her and establishing a foothold in the community all within the space of a year, for one thing.

For that matter, the character of the wife is so thinly written so as to favor the daughter that it comes off as one of the few elements that seems like it would be part of the cheesy, bad version of the film. I’m not going to make any grand claims for the talent of Shelley Hack (love her in ANNIE HALL, though) but it’s not really her fault that she’s playing a character written as such a doormat. That’s one area that the remake could actually improve on but they’ll probably spend half the running time delving into backstory that the original wisely only hints at as well as jettisoning all the interesting subtext and besides, let’s not give them any ideas. Fortunately, the character of the daughter is well-written and played, with Schoelen (in her early twenties when the film was shot, but looking age-appropriate) coming off as likable and completely believable as a normal suburban kid who’s been going through a bad time.

But it’s Terry O’Quinn who everyone remembers from this film and that is deserved. While director Joseph Ruben is able to bring some genuine suspense to much of the film, he seems correctly aware of how dependant its success is on its lead actor. O’Quinn is absolutely fantastic in the role, at times veering from a jovial, comic manner to steely rage within seconds and making it work. The movie is at its best when Ruben seems to have the confidence to simply observe him, watching his face as it remains still yet whatever is going on in the eyes is impossible to miss. Late in the film there’s a point where the character is beginning to put the next portion of his plan into effect and the entire film stops and he just walks around his neighborhood taking in all the sights of home, children and family around him. The section doesn’t advance the plot--it’s just about watching the character observe things and tells us more than any monologue ever could. The sequence ends with a fade to black before continuing with the rest of the film and I wondered if it was the director’s way of allowing himself a quiet, ambiguous ending that he knew he really couldn’t give it, since the slasher movie climax was what had to happen. It’s an interesting thought, although that climax does contain the memorable beat of the character of Jerry Blake suddenly forgetting which persona he is and stopping to ask himself, “Wait a minute, who am I here?” before finally realizing, followed by a response of shocking brutality. It’s the sort of moment that is so effective that it’s impossible to imagine the rest of the movie without it. Those few seconds practically make the movie what it is and it’s safe to say that it might not have the cult that it does have otherwise.

Without O’Quinn, THE STEPFATHER wouldn’t be able to transcend its B-level roots. Maybe it doesn’t fully do that anyway—that climax I mentioned does contain some shower scene nudity (no body double for Schoelen, it should be noted) which feels shoehorned in, like the producers insisted on it. Some of the violence is pretty nasty, which was no doubt what led Gene Siskel to call this “a truly sick film”, though Roger Ebert pointed out in their review that those scenes only seemed to be that much more brutal because some of the rest of the film seemed to have loftier ambitions. Going into that New Beverly screening, I was slightly worried that the movie would play somewhat cheesy in this day and age but while some of that is in there, and probably always was, much of it still remained potent and the power of Terry O’Quinn’s performance certainly hadn’t diminished. If the remake causes the original to finally be released on DVD, then at least it will serve one purpose. If that does happen, be sure to stay home and watch the original instead. It’ll be worth it.


Arbogast said...

Shelly Hack is great in The King of Comedy. I mean, all of your points are well-taken but that one thought of mine just jumped ahead of all the others. I'll think of more stuff to say later on.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Shelley Hack IS great in KING OF COMEDY, absolutely. I could just as easily have said that one but her scene in ANNIE HALL seemed like a bit of screen immortality and I just felt like reminding people of it.

I actually saw some of KING OF COMEDY being shot one day a long, long time ago. I should write about that sometime.