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.

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Dreamscape

November 29, 2011

We’ve seen this set-up dozens of times before in the movies. You take a guy, and you establish that he’s got psychic powers.

Fine. Now make him the pawn in a nefarious government plot to—oh, control the world, for instance. Trick him into helping an innocent-sounding research project, and then drag him into the nasty business.

In just the last year, The Dead Zone, Brainstorm, and Firestarter have all used this serviceable plot line, more or less. Dreamscape joins the ranks. But like almost all movies about psychic characters, it conveniently avoids the question that always presents itself with this plot.

To wit:

If this guy’s so psychic, how come he can’t see the bad guys for what they are?

Well, he just can’t, I guess. You’ve got to suspend disbelief a little—make that a lot—in Dreamscape, or you’ll never go along with it.

You may not go along with it anyway. It’s about a man (Dennis Quaid) with the telepathic “gift,” who gets drafted into a project that will unlock the key to dreams. Some scientists (Max von Sydow and Kate Capshaw) have discovered a way to transport highly psychic people into the dreams of others, in the hope that the dreamer may be cured of whatever demons may be haunting him.

Turns out the whole thing is a plot by a covert government group led by Christopher Plummer, who looks and talks like a National Security advisor. He practically is one; he’s an old buddy of the President of the United States (Eddie Albert), who has been having these nightmares lately.

I don’t want to give everything away, but Plummer doesn’t agree with the president’s plan for nuclear disarmament, and would like to get him out of the picture. This coincides with the discovery that a dream-visitor can cause heart attacks in dreamers by terrifying them during a nightmare. So Plummer invites the president over the research center for a short nap….

Fill in the rest. Dreamscape is a pretty cheesy piece of work: hokey story, actors fumbling around for a unifying tone, awkward use of “cute” repartee. And the dream sequences—we see them while Quaid goes on his trips inside other people’s minds—are a gyp. No interesting ideas here, with the possible exception of an encounter with something called “The Snakeman.”

About halfway through, I began to enjoy the movie anyway, in that lazy way yiou can get into the simplest potboiler that comes on TV late at night. Dreamscape has no pretensions, which makes it both disappointing and pretty palatable. It has no intelligence either, but it does have Kate Capshaw, in her third movie in as many months (the others were Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Best Defense). I continue to find her an attractive actress, despite her bad luck with roles.

And it’s got von Sydow and Plummer, who are silky-smooth. But then they could do this kind of thing in their sleep—which maybe they did. After all, everybody else in the film is asleep at one point or another.

To top it all off, it has a human heart being ripped out of a chest, just like the one in Indiana Jones. Which means, of course, an automatic PG-13.

Look, what can you expect from a director (Joseph Ruben) who began his career with The Pom Pom Girls? Still, look for Dreamscape on cable-TV in six months. You may very well enjoy it.

First published in the Herald, August 16, 1984

Of course Ruben’s next movie was The Stepfather, an excellent picture, so I paid for that crack about the Pom Pom Girls. (Still, he was responsible for Gorp, so you can understand where I was coming from.) I’m not sure if Dreamscape is an actual cult movie, but it has its fans, and way back then I seem to recall Pauline Kael was one of them, which means the movie must still have fans amongst her followers. I would actually like to see this again, but apparently I’ve had other things to do in the past 27 years.