The Stepfather/Wanted Dead or Alive

October 13, 2011

The Stepfather is a genuinely creepy little suspense movie, with a very interesting villain at its center. In the film’s first scene, an ordinary-looking fellow in an ordinary suburban home shaves his beard off, cuts his hair and changes into classy clothing. Then he walks down the stairs of his cozy home, as the camera casually reveals the tableau of his wife and children lying dead in the living room—murdered at his hands.

It seems this fellow makes a habit of marrying widows with children, then killing the family. His psychopathology is particular, and bizarre: He kills them because they don’t measure up to his ideal of a perfect family.

A year after the opening scene, we find him (in an assumed identity) married to another widow (Shelley Hack) with a 16-year-old daughter (Jill Schoelen). It’s a happy home, except that the daughter catches the stepdad in one of his weird freak-out moods down in the cellar, and she starts catching on to his true colors.

The most interesting thing about the movie is the depiction of the stepfather. He’s a bland, milk-drinking All-American type, who spouts hokey clichés to end conversations (“Father knows best,” he smiles blandly), chuckles warmly when watching reruns of “Mr. Ed,” and uses such TV-commercial pieties as “Ah, this is as good as life gets.” He’s somewhat reminiscent of the protagonists in the ferocious pulp novels of Jim Thompson, whose people are often dull on the outside, insane on the inside.

He’s played by Terry O’Quinn, who does an impressive job of catching the character’s terrifying banality, as well as his suppressed violence (there are some echoes of the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining). O’Quinn is particularly good at avoiding the temptation to mug; he keeps the man a hale and hearty, backyard-barbecue guy, and doesn’t tip his hat with too much eyebrow-wiggling.

Director Joseph Ruben and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake deserve credit for this cool, almost analytical character study; and for keeping it suspenseful and crisp. This is a chilling little movie.

Not so chilling is Wanted Dead or Alive, an action flick featuring Dutch star Rutger Hauer. Hauer, a fine actor (he was the hero of Soldier of Orange and Harrison Ford’s snow-haired adversary in Blade Runner), has stated his desire to become a big American movie star. He seems to think that appearing in an Eastwood-style shoot-’em-up will further that end.

He plays a bounty hunter, irrelevantly the great-grandson of the character Steve McQueen played in the old TV series “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” who goes after an Arab terrorist (Gene Simmons). The terrorist blew up a theater playing Rambo, so it’s absolutely imperative he be stopped before he further damages our culture.

It’s the standard routine, with Hauer’s charisma slightly hampered by his uncomfortable American accent. The only unusual note is sounded at the end of the film, when, after Hauer has cleared out the bad guys, he avoids the clenched-fist heroics customary to these films. Instead, he settles down into melancholy, and seems even more existentially adrift than he was at the beginning.

First published in the Herald, January 22, 1987

The Stepfather remains a terrific one-off kind of picture, and O’Quinn’s performance is a gem. For some reason I have frequently missed the subsequent work of Joseph Ruben (never saw Money Train or The Good Son or The Forgotten), so I can’t really speak with authority about the work of the former director of Gorp. A lot of people liked Ruben’s Dreamscape, including Pauline Kael, who did a handstand or two about it, although it didn’t grab me. Surely the gifted Donald Westlake had something to do with the movie’s dry, even power. Wanted was directed by Gary Sherman, the guy who did Raw Meat and Dead & Buried; he’s still in the business. I really have no explanation about why I said so little about Gene Simmons as an Arab terrorist.