‘The Stepfather,’ Toppling Patriarchy, and Love of 80s Horror Ladies

The Stepfather

This guest post written by Eva Phillips appears as part of our theme week on Ladies of the 1980s. | Spoilers ahead.

Following the banal images of a brutal murder scene in a quaint, thoroughly 80s suburban living room that kick off the wildly underrated 1987 Josef Ruben film The Stepfather, there is a fantastic tracking shot that careens through a blissfully undisturbed, quintessential American upper-middle class neighborhood: we see the blooming, verdant trees, pristine yards, immaculately manicured homes — the whole shebang. The shot, which as a narration tool serves to show the titular stepfather Henry Morrison/Jerry Blake (unnerving and under-used Terry O’Quinn) exodus from one domicile — or, as the film later shows, one arena for him to futilely commandeer another single mother and her children — and move onto another, as he progresses from home-to-home, insidiously usurping them as he sees fit. But on a more subversive level, this opening tracking shot, which unintentionally parodies idyllic tracking or panoramic shots of 80s and 90s films that featured goofy but affable dad protagonists (think Uncle Buck or Father of the Bride or any film in which kids are shrunk) speaks to the film’s more profound subversive qualities. The shot indicates a sort of potential for undisturbed perfection, but it is a perfection that is violated and infested by the nefarious threat the stepfather symbolizes.

While many of the memorable and crucial aspects of The Stepfather are the flailing, if not furious, impotent attempts at O’Quinn’s menacing nomad in securing some draconian ideal family life, the true power of Stepfather lies with the groundbreaking dynamic between the two women who are preyed upon — Stephanie and Susan Maine (Jill Schoelen and Shelley Hack, respectively) — and the intuitive resilience of the daughter Stephanie in prevailing against her “new dad.” The introduction to Stephanie and Susan, mere moments after the grisly scene by Henry Morrison (who changes his name to Jerry Blake, real estate wizard, like any good homicidal villain would) is one of such unadulterated, unsullied bliss, that in my years of film watching it has yet to be rivaled by any moment of mother-daughter conviviality on screen. The two very jovially, un-eroticized and un-infantilized, play in a leaf pile, genuinely enjoying the frivolousness and love between them. What intrudes upon this mother-daughter euphoria, of course, is Susan’s mention of her new husband — aforementioned, newly reminted killer Jerry — who greets the glowing Susan and the less-than-enthused Stephanie with a puppy (which, mercifully defying the awful tropes 80s horror, LIVES TO THE END) and the hope that he’ll finally make a good impression on his surly stepdaughter.

The Stepfather

What is most sensational about this cult classic (which, if it hasn’t officially been elevated to this status, I’m empowering myself to do so) is how, in the wake of the disquietingly erratic invasion of Jerry and his hauntingly traditional family values — the family must get along, the family must eat together, the family must not mind if the new stepfather has a completely savage break in the basement during a cookout — Stephanie emerges as a poised, perspicacious, and resilient female lead. She is a wonderfully surprising alternative from most of the panoply of horror heroines who are tortured, fight, and scream their way through the terrifying films of the 80s. Stephanie’s sexuality originates and exists organically (except when the rapidly unhinging Jerry accuses her crush of “raping” her when they kiss on the front step) and the film never once fetishizes her sexual development, or lack thereof, in the tradition of much of 80s horror cinema — built on a preexisting set of standards for horror women.

More importantly and gratifyingly, Stephanie’s fortitude and cleverness, and her determination to restore the blissful perfection between mother and daughter displayed at the beginning of the film, is in the face of the absolutely bumbling antics or brutal tendencies of the men around her. The men completely fail or are violently disconnected from reality: whether it is the well-intentioned but mainly hapless chisel-faced brother of Jerry’s slain first wife, always 10 minutes too late in trying to sniff Jerry out; the perpetually denying, stagnating police officers; or the earnest therapist who is brutally murdered by Jerry in his foolish attempt to confirm Stephanie’s feelings of unease about Jerry. Stephanie embodies what each of the archetypally male characters in the film fails to, and in doing so transcends the clutches of gender expectations in the film and in a genre that is so often besotted by explicit or implicit gendered presumptions.

The Stepfather

Stephanie’s formidability and indefatigable stamina, despite being thwarted by Jerry at many turns throughout the film, is also a sub-textual nod to a profound reversion of a patriarchal predominance, one which looms over the film and certainly taints many films in the 80s horror tradition. The brand of paternal instincts and familial preservation that Jerry is so ruthlessly fixated on is a hollow, ghastly farce. He is joltingly compulsive, and when the family unit does not function as he wants it to (which is to say, in defiance of picturesque happiness and groveling at the shrine of Jerry-Or-Whoever-He-Is), he must resort to abhorrent violence to embody the dismay over the shambolic domestic unit “failing.” Selling real estate and life insurance in his various assumed identities, every orchestrated move Jerry makes is a testament to the meretriciousness of the type of “home” for which Jerry strives. And so, in tandem with this vicious, empty patriarchal presence, is the true domestic perfection that Stephanie stands for — one established and centering around matriarchal and even Edenic love; one based on respect and value and ass-kicking bulwarks of women. Restoring this order is not only the be-all-end-all for Stephanie, it symbolizes the natural order of things and the film, critically, supports this perspective. The culminating, relentless fight scene is cleverly staged like so many chaotic 80s horror slaying scenes: Susan is abruptly and unflinchingly assaulted by Jerry upon realizing his farce and unearthing his true identity. As she stumbles helplessly into the basement, the chiseled brother of Jerry’s former victim swoops in, only to be maniacally stabbed by Jerry. It is only Stephanie who can effectively enter the domestic sphere and overcome her despotic stepfather, ending not only his reign of terror but reclaiming the domestic sphere for herself and her mother.

The Stepfather

For a film that gets too frequently billed as a B-Movie, or disregarded or lost in the canon of slasher-centric 80s horror, The Stepfather is outstanding for the distinct feminine strength and unity it lionizes. Moreover, the film is a brilliant experiment in subverting expectations. Despite the title’s implications, the film is not some nauseatingly machismo feature of masculine power and reconstruction in which a destabilized family unit (weakened, of course, by the lack of a “father”) is consumed by the diabolical machinations of a traditionalist murderer. Rather, the film is one of the feminine-centric family unit prevailing, and the love between a mother and daughter being the prized, organic form of love that champions the aberration of the male intrusion and the male buffoonery that ensconces it. The haunting poster for the film shows Jerry pensively staring at a fogged over mirror, the words “Who Am I Here” traced on the glass. It is not so much indicative of Jerry’s delusional mania, but indicates the emptiness and futility of the forced patriarchal order on a domestic sphere. Importantly, too, Stephanie does not function as some Carol Clover-esque horror heroine — her body and her actions exist outside of an eroticized or fetishized realm, and she is not operating within some sort of phallic terror-dome, but, rather, transcends it. And, sure, the movie has some wonky moments: laughably oblivious characters, awkwardly 80s-tastic quips, and perhaps one of the most heinous scores of any 80s horror film (think a synth-focused Def Leppard instrumental cover band with no sense of dramatic irony). But it should be valorized for its  uniquely feminist message that is never pandering, unequivocally unique, and woefully difficult to replicate (case in point: the miserably dude-centric 2009 remake). The Stepfather’s sly championing of female strength and domestic reclamation is no more evident than the masterful final scene: Susan and Stephanie, shaken but stalwart, reassess their home in the backyard, as Stephanie takes an ax the birdhouse Jerry erected in the backyard, therein violently and resolutely toppling the specious emblem of his false domesticity, his pseudo-colonization, and literally dismantling the patriarchal presence. Get it, girl.

See also at Bitch Flicks: Patriarchy in Crisis: Power and Gender in ‘The Stepfather’

Eva Phillips is constantly surprised at how remarkably Southern she in fact is as she adjusts to social and climate life in The Steel City. Additionally, Eva thoroughly enjoys completing her Master’s Degree in English, though really wishes that more of her grades could be based on how well she researches Making a Murderer conspiracy theories whilst pile-driving salt-and-vinegar chips. You can follow her on Instagram at @menzingers2.