21 June 2012

YEAR OF BLOOD: YOU'RE NOT MY REAL DAD

Once again, I must beg your pardon: my Father's Day entry in the Year of Blood is behind schedule, because sometimes you get the DVD when you need it, and sometimes you do not.

Regardless, here we are with a tribute to all that makes dads what they are: psychotic authoritarians whose desire to wreak retributive violence on their family is always just one bad day away from exploding. But heck, at least nobody ever saved their dad's mummified corpse in the basement while stabbing travelers in the shower, amiright?


Every thriller should have as blistering a first scene as The Stepfather: a long tracking shot across a suburban street ends on the upper window of a nice house, the music informing us that against all evidence, this house is goddamn terrifying. Cut to: the bathroom - this is only the second shot of the entire movie, mind you (less credits) - where we see a very youthful, very beardy iteration of irreplaceable character actor Terry O'Quinn, and he's just fucking coated in blood. From there, O'Quinn calmly washes his face and takes a shower (if you have, for reasons of your own, ever wanted to see Terry O'Quinn's junk, this film provides an opportunity), shaves, dresses, and takes a valise with him into the hallway, down the stairs, and as the camera tracks with him down the stairs we find them increasingly chaotic and disheveled, with blood smears on the wall from about halfway down, and once we get to the ground floor, we find that it is a nightmare out of Hieronymus Bosch: blood is absolutely everywhere, and now fewer than four corpses are spread out around the living room. O'Quinn takes a ride on a ferry, and nonchalantly drops the valise into the ocean, wiping out the last trace that he ever lived in that house. As he stands, placidly enjoying the sun, his face dissolves into that of a teenage girl, Stephanie Maine (Jill Schoelen), and the story properly begins, and if you can make it this far into the movie without feeling like you've been thrown over a cliff with no ground in sight, you are made of stronger stuff than I.

There are many reasons to open a film this way - to punch the view right in the gonads, for one - but the one that arguably matters most is because it tells us right at the start what kind of movie The Stepfather is going to be. The film came out in 1987, you see, and that largely meant one thing as far as horror movies and thrillers were concerned: slashers, slashers everywhere. The Stepfather is not a slasher film. Frankly, I don't even know that I can bring myself to call it a horror film of any stripe: this is a good old-fashioned suspense picture, not even all that far away, plotwise, from Alfred Hitchcock's own Shadow of a Doubt, and anytime you're able to drag Hitch's name into a conversation, you're at least a couple of steps removed from the "Jason Voorhees kills the shit out of horny teens with a machete" school of thrillers.

And this largely irrelevant generic distinction is all because of that opening scene, which finds the filmmakers laying all their cards on the table in the first five minutes, and setting up a subsequent 80 minutes in which we will be constantly aware that O'Quinn's character - a man of many names and no solid identity - is one breath away from slaughtering Stephanie and her mother, his new wife Susan (Shelley Hack). Since I've already invoked the holy name of Hitchcock, I shall refer to his famous allegory of the bomb under the table: set it off while two people are talking, the audience is momentarily shocked. Show us the bomb being placed under the table with a timer, we have ten minutes of agonising suspense watching those same two people idly chatting and not realising that they're about to explode. That's exactly what we have here, except that Stephanie isn't completely unaware that something is amiss: she hasn't trusted her new stepdad, "Jerry Blake", for one minute, though she can't entirely explain this feeling in a way that makes sense to anybody else.

So no, we are nowhere near the stuff of slasher movies, and if not for the horrible accident of timing that saw The Stepfather released in the heyday of tacky, pornographically violent American horror, I suspect it would be much more widely respected; like the previous year's The Hitcher, it is part of the American slasher wave only insofar as it pointedly stands apart from the movies to which it bears a certain superficial resemblance, presenting a much darker, more psychologically complex, more consequential vision of violence done unto innocents.

Of course, the mere fact that this is a thriller more than a horror film doesn't argue for or against it in any particular way: nor does a great opening scene mean anything once it's over, as a whole lot of '80s genre movies have proven. Fortunately for The Stepfather, it has other things in its favor, first among them Terry O'Quinn, whose performance is astoundingly good, and I say that as an entrenched fan of O'Quinn in all things and thus not prone to being astounded by him. But oh, his performance as the stepfather - Jerry, Bill, Henry, whichever name you prefer - is magnificent, nuanced and layered and always just slightly too overtweaked for us to lose sight of how deranged this man is, but also warm and friendly enough that it's not hard to understand why a lonely widow would be willing and eager to marry him. There are more grace notes than I can even start to mention: his nasty, satisfied smile when he gets to comfort his stepdaughter on the death of her psychiatrist (whom he killed); the way he has to take a moment to re-boot his personality when a little girl catches him out on mixing up which family he's living with at the moment; his sad expression when he watches an ideal nuclear American suburban family like he's always wanted and can't ever quite get right. There is, of course, a famous moment when he frustratedly asks himself, "Who am I here?" in the way that a normal person might try to recall where they left their keys, and O'Quinn underplays it perfectly. Where a hundred actors might have used the audience's knowledge of what's happening as an excuse to indulge in any number of crazy psycho tics, O'Quinn always makes certain to contribute to the truth of the character and the scenario, avoiding any and all moments where he plays big just because, as an actor, that would be the fun thing to do. It's one of the best movie psycho performances I have ever seen, and legitimately great screen acting by any measure.

The other major point in the film's favor is the direction by Joseph Ruben, whose career is littered with minor, decent thrillers (his immediate prior film, Dreamscape, was the second recipient ever of the PG-13 rating), and whose work here is not up to the masterpiece level of, well, Hitchcock. But it's still awfully intelligent filmmaking, with a number of sinewy camera moves that suggest the furtive movements of a predatory animal, and a flawless juggling of two POVs, switching from the Jerry-dominated scenes to the Stephanie-dominated ones without it ever feeling like the movie is out of balance. The whole film is kept taut enough that the shock of the opening moments never fully dissipates, and Ruben keeps the film moving fast enough that we're never allowed a chance to relax for even a moment.

These things are enough to make The Stepfather a singular and tremendous thriller, in despite of a number of debilitating flaws. Not least of these is the absence of any other performance that's nearly at the level of O'Quinn's: Schoelen is fine and no worse, but Hack is kind of shrill and dreadful, and it's gratifying that she's kept to the sidelines for the vast bulk of the movie. There is a subplot involving one of the stepfather's former brothers-in-law (Stephen Shellen), investigating what could possibly happen to his sister's murderer, that serves to drive the plot to a halt every time it shows up, and ends up failing to pay off anyway. Worst of all is the score by Patrick Moraz, at the time the keyboardist for The Moody Blues during that band's most objectionably synthesizer-heavy phase, and his work on The Stepfather sounds exactly like the worst-case scenario of what a horror movie progressive rock score with a drunken infatuation with synths ought to sound like; nor does Moraz understand subtlety or restraint, screaming at us with his terribly electronic noodling that THIS MOMENT IS NOW SCARY SO BE SCARED and often stepping on the movie's toes in the process.

On the other hand: holy shit, Terry O'Quinn. And that's really all the movie needs to work: a sublime villain, with tight, driven direction, perfectly sturdy, effective writing, and a heroine who we can believe in even if she never ignites the soul as a marvelously crafted character the way her adversary does. I do wish The Stepfather could be an unabashed masterpiece of suspense cinema to match its titanic namesake, but for the sheer pleasure of having been introduced to Jerry Blake/Henry Morrision/Bill Hodgkins, I am will to bump "merely good" up to "pretty damn special".

Body Count: 7, more than half in the first four minutes. It's not really a body count movie by any stretch of the imagination.

2 comments:

RickR said...

"On the other hand: holy shit, Terry O'Quinn."

I concur.

If nothing else, LOST did us the favor of rooting out a few supremely talented character actors who had been laboring away in workmanlike semi-obscurity, and turned them into stars. (Michael Emerson's another one.)

Gavin said...

"But heck, at least nobody ever saved their dad's mummified corpse in the basement while stabbing travelers in the shower, amiright?"

Testify.