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'The Stepfather' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 29, 1987

Joseph Ruben's new movie, "The Stepfather," may be the best movie about the breakup of a family since "Shoot the Moon." Surprisingly, though, the movie is not a serious domestic drama. Set in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle, in tidy suburban neighborhoods with tree-lined streets and cozy split-levels, it's a psychological thriller but with real-life horror bubbling underneath the surface.

Ruben, who directed, among other things, the underrated 1984 film "Dreamscape," has built his new film on a modest, unprepossessing scale. It's a highly concentrated, very self-contained movie -- it has the slightly underproduced feel of a B-movie or a television production -- but it tackles a great big subject.

Taken from a handsomely crafted script by crime novelist Donald E. Westlake, "The Stepfather" deals with family tensions and the pressures of living up to the great American dream. The movie is about a man (played by Terry O'Quinn) obsessed with the idea of building a happy life for himself and his family that conforms to the images presented in advertising and sitcoms on TV. His modus operandi is to find young women, preferably pliable youngish sorts with children, either recently widowed or divorced, and marry them; it's his way of creating an instant family.

When we first see this man, he's cleaning up the mess of one of his failures. There's blood on his hands, literally, and on his face, and in his hair. Downstairs, the bodies of his wife and kids are sprawled on the carpet. He washes himself off, cuts off his beard, puts in contact lenses in place of his glasses, and trims his hair. All that's needed is a neat blazer and a tie, and, presto, he's a new man ready for a new life. It's like watching the metamorphosis of a caterpillar, except that it's not a butterfly he turns into.

The next time we see him, a year has passed and he's found a new family. In this incarnation, he's Jerry Blake, a real estate agent with a wife, Sue (Shelley Hack), and a teen-age daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). The name of Jerry's company is American Eagle Realty, and he doesn't think of his business as just selling houses, he thinks he's selling the American Dream.

Put these words in the mouth of any other salesman and you've got pure bunkum, but with Jerry, they come straight from the heart. O'Quinn's Jerry is a real archetype -- the American father-monster -- but the level of Pop culture (pun intended) mythology that Ruben and Westlake have added gives it a wicked new twist. He's a gargoyle, but with the bland face of Robert Young or Hugh Beaumont. But it's precisely Jerry's blandness, his lack of the usual quirks of character, that makes him so scary -- he's a generic dad. When Stephanie says she can't exactly put her finger on what's wrong with Jerry, we know what she means; she picks up on the errant transmissions coming from deep in him, down where all the demons hiss and whisper.

The most frightening thing about Jerry is that he believes -- deeply, completely -- in the validity of all the good fathers and obedient kids he sees in magazines and on TV. He has to; it's the only thing that keeps him from falling into the pit of his own real-life past, his own madness. The movie gets its power from the strength of Jerry's desire to disappear into the picture-perfect life of well-kept lawns and friendly neighbors.

"The Stepfather" is about how happiness -- or at least the featureless, middle-class happiness that TV sitcoms and commercials present -- is a kind of tyranny. Jerry's madness, then, is a very special American brand of looniness. He's a Hallmark crazy. As much as he tries, he can't be a model of homey wisdom and control, the master of every situation. He can't be Ward Cleaver, and his failure splits him right in two.

There are some shattering moments in "The Stepfather," and one comes after Jerry has begun to lay the groundwork for his next move. Having spent several days setting up his new identity, Jerry returns home and, after Sue doubts his explanation of where he's been, gets his characters mixed up. "Wait a minute, who am I here?," he says, holding the phone to his ear. "Jerry?" Sue asks. He answers, half to himself, "That's right. Jerry Blake. Thanks honey," and then whops her with the phone.

For what it is, "The Stepfather" is a nearly flawless piece of work. Much of the material -- Jerry's lines in particular -- has a bitter, ironic edge to it, but Ruben doesn't set up the lines for easy laughs. (You laugh, but uneasily, because you don't know what else to do.)

As Jerry, Terry O'Quinn doesn't send up the character either. O'Quinn, whose previous movie work has been limited primarily to smaller character parts, gives a beautifully articulated performance here. O'Quinn doesn't blow Jerry's cover; he stays away from the usual fidgets and tics that actors use to build a character like this, and part of why he's so creepy is that Jerry's impersonation of a real person is so seamlessly perfect.

In "The Stepfather," Ruben and Westlake never really bring all the horror to the surface. The movie doesn't operate on the level that most cut-'n'-slash films do; although there is violence, a lot is left to our imagination. But when the violence erupts, it packs a greater wallop.

The scenes of actual bloodletting aren't nearly as upsetting as the film's quieter moments. Like all good dads, Jerry has a hobby: He builds birdhouses, and watching Jerry tear through the wood with a rip saw as he works away in the basement on a scale-model home for purple martins in his backyard, you feel you're staring straight into the black heart of the male nesting impulse.

In the way it deals with its subject, the movie is more in line with "Poltergeist" or "The Amityville Horror" -- which are both about the torrents that rage just beneath the surface of American family life -- than with serious family dramas like "All My Sons" or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

The movie's real spiritual godfather, though, is Alfred Hitchcock. There are echoes of Hitchcock throughout the film -- in the shower scene, the shot of birds communing on telephone wires, even in the film's visual grammar. The strongest ties, though, are specifically to Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt." The playwright Thornton Wilder worked on the script for the film, and Ruben gives us a subtle visual cue to the link between the films: a poster for a local production of Wilder's "Our Town" on the wall in Steffy's room. The "Our Town" milieu of American Main Street life is the backdrop for both films. But Ruben has mixed "Our Town" and "Shadow of a Doubt" with baser material and come up with something truly original. It's a terrific, disquietingly entertaining little film -- a piece of genuine Gothic Americana.

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