The Stepfather (1987) (Blu-ray)
Studio: Shout! Factory
Film Length: 89 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: PCM 2.0*
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Jan. 23, 1987
Blu-ray Release Date: June 15, 2010
*Although the disc jacket indicates “Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Stereo”, my equipment read the track as PCM 2.0. See the “Audio” section for further discussion.
Long before Terry O’Quinn became famous on Lost, he broke through with The Stepfather. His performance won over critics who otherwise would have dismissed the film as just another slasher pic. O’Quinn’s portrayal of a man who yearns for the perfect family so badly that he’s driven to kill whoever ruptures the dream remains one of the premier character studies in thriller cinema.
The film opens with a bearded man staring in a mirror. As we will later learn, this is Henry Morrison (O’Quinn), and it’s the last we’ll see of him. Slowly, deliberately, he begins to shave, cut his hair and change his clothes, until he has transformed into someone else. This new man exits the house (past a remarkable tableau best left for the viewer to discover), walks down an idyllic suburban street, and vanishes.
A year later, the man is Jerry Blake, a successful real estate broker happily married to the former Susan Maine (Shelley Hack), a pretty young widow with a teenage daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Jerry is a walking advertisement for family values. His wife adores him, and he’s popular with all his friends and neighbors, many of whom are former clients. Only Stephanie won’t accept him, a point she debates during regular counseling sessions with her shrink, Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer). The doctor is helping Stephanie cope with her own father’s death.
Several things threaten Jerry’s perfect home life. Stephanie begins to date, which Jerry can’t abide. Dr. Bondurant asks to see him, and Jerry wants nothing to do with psychiatrists. And someone named Richard Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen) comes to town looking for Henry Morrison, because Ogilvie’s sister used to be married to Morrison, and he wants to talk to Morrison about what happened to his sister and her three children.
The Stepfather was director Joseph Ruben’s next film after Dreamscape, and Ruben would only take the film if he was allowed to make it something other than a horror film. Working with the novelist Donald Westlake, who was the principal screenwriter, and aided by Terry O’Quinn’s masterful performance, Ruben created a gothic and often darkly satirical fable about the collision that everyone experiences at one time or another between the Norman Rockwell ideal of family and the messy reality of actual people. In life, people often behave badly when their ideals are shattered. In The Stepfather, Henry Morrison/Jerry Blake simply kills the family that disappoints him and starts over.
O’Quinn’s shifts between his “Father Knows Best” persona and the homicidal maniac lurking within are a wonder to behold. He goes from Jekyll to Hyde and back again in the blink of an eye. The rest of the cast just has to play their assigned roles and react to what they see. Shelley Hack was best known for Charlie’s Angels, but she was cast on the strength of her performance in The King of Comedy. Here, she does a subtle turn as it gradually dawns on Susan that the man she married is not at all who she thought.
Some plot points mark the film as a period piece – for example, a subplot with a newspaper photograph that the internet would render moot. But these are details. The film is elegantly and concisely constructed. and it contains one of the great film performances of the Eighties (and yes, I realize that’s a bold claim). These are reasons enough to recommend it.
Shout! Factory has done a remarkable job, considering the film’s origins. The image on The Stepfather is surprisingly clear and detailed, although some portions of the film fare better than others. Grain is evident throughout, but only rarely is it so noticeable that anyone is likely to complain. The most obvious sequence is the opening in the Morrison home. Whether this was due to lighting issues, or a deliberate stylistic choice to distinguish these scenes from the rest of the film, is impossible to tell.
To get a sense of the quality of this transfer, pay attention to the fine details in Jerry’s outfits during the lingering shots when Jerry is alone and struggling with his complicated inner life. Or look at all the individual autumn leaves on the ground whenever the characters are outside in the idyllic suburbia where Jerry wants to raise a family. There’s even a fair amount of shadow detail when we follow Jerry downstairs into his basement workshop (which is his private sanctum).
The Stepfather isn’t an overly colorful film, but the palette is varied, and the Blu-ray provides a faithful rendition. There is some minor print damage here and there, but overall the source material is in pretty good shape. Given the economics of independent releases in 1987, I doubt that anyone who saw the film in its first theatrical run saw an image this good.
As noted above, the sole audio track (other than the commentary) was identified as PCM 2.0 by my equipment, not Dolby TrueHD 2.0, as claimed by the disc jacket. Despite the 2.0 indication and the “UltraStereo” designation on the film, the soundtrack appeared to be monaural and collapsed to the center speaker on my system. That’s to be expected for a film with The Stepfather’s budget. The fidelity is quite good, though. Voices are always distinct and effects have been properly mixed to accompany the action on screen (which is not always the case with low-budget films). The score by Patrick Moraz, the keyboard player for The Moody Blues (!), is somewhat more restrained than we’ve come to expect from horror films, and it’s more effective for it.
Commentary with Directory Joseph Ruben. Recorded for the Shout! Factory DVD released in 2009, this is a terrific example of how to do a commentary with a director decades after the movie was made. Ruben is interviewed by Michael Gingold of Fangoria, who is a knowledgeable fan. Gingold supplies plenty of useful information on his own, but he never forgets who’s the important person in the room; everything he says is designed to prompt Ruben’s memory about making the film.
Ruben is an entertaining character and a paradox. He’s made his share of thrillers, but he hates watching scary movies. He confesses to watching Alien from the lobby of the theater, through a crack in the door.
The Stepfather Chronicles (HD) (26:45). This is a contemporary production featuring extensive interviews with story writer Brian Garfield, producer Jay Benson, director Joseph Ruben, cinematographer John Lindley and actress Jill Schoellen. It’s a lively and informative retrospective. Among other things, it talks about John List, the New Jersey man on whom the script was based and who was still at large when the film was made; he was later apprehended thanks to an episode of America’s Most Wanted.
Trailers. The film’s theatrical trailer is included, along with trailers for Stepfather II (which also starred O’Quinn) and Stepfather III (with Robert Wightman taking over the title role). Also included is a “video store promo” for the original film, which essentially reworks the theatrical trailer and, appropriately enough, has about the resolution of VHS tape. An additional curiosity is the original film’s German theatrical trailer, with the title Kill, Daddy, Kill!; it too essentially reworks the theatrical trailer with dubbed dialogue and additional narration in German.
Although the disc jacket indicates that the trailers are HD, they appear to be standard definition. All are enhanced for 16:9, except the video store promo, which is 4:3.
I haven’t seen the 2009 remake of The Stepfather with Dylan Walsh, but the consensus seems to be that it fell short of what Ruben, Westlake and O’Quinn achieved. That’s hardly surprising. Masterpieces are hard to top.
Equipment used for this review: Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI) Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears Boston Accoustics VR-MC center SVS SB12-Plus sub
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