The Stepfather (1987) Retrospective

Henry Morrison washes off blood in a bathroom, before changing his appearance and putting his belongings into a suitcase. After packing his things, Henry leaves through the front door of his house, nonchalantly passing the butchered remains of his family and others. Boarding a ferry, Henry throws the suitcase containing the objects from his former life into the ocean. One year later, Henry—now operating as a real estate agent named Jerry Blake in the suburbs of Seattle—has married the widow Susan Maine. Jerry’s relationship with Susan’s 16-year-old daughter, Stephanie, is strained. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Bondurant, advises her to give Jerry a chance.

Meanwhile, Jim Ogilvie, the brother of Jerry’s murdered previous wife, runs an article about his sister’s murder in the newspaper. While hosting a neighborhood barbecue, Jerry discovers the article and is disturbed by it. Jerry goes into the basement of the house and begins maniacally rambling to himself, unaware that Stephanie has also entered the basement. Discovering his stepdaughter, Jerry brushes off his outbursts by saying that he was simply letting off steam. He tells her not to worry. Stephanie finds the newspaper mentioning Jerry’s earlier killings and comes to believe her stepfather is the murderer mentioned in the article. She writes a letter to the newspaper requesting a photo of Henry Morrison, but Jerry finds the photo in the mail and replaces it with a stranger’s photo, allaying her suspicions.

Curious about Stephanie’s stepfather, Dr. Bondurant makes an appointment with Jerry under an assumed name, saying he wants to buy a house. During their meeting, Bondurant asks too many questions and Jerry realizes that Bondurant is not who he says he is, beats him to death, and fakes a car accident. The next day, Jerry informs Stephanie of Bondurant’s death and succeeds in bonding with her. Jerry’s newfound relationship with his stepdaughter is quickly cut short when he catches Stephanie kissing her boyfriend, Paul. Jerry accuses Paul of attempting to rape Stephanie, which causes an argument with Stephanie and Susan, and drives Paul away. Stephanie runs out on Jerry and Susan because Susan says Jerry is her father, though he’s not. The next day, Jerry quits his job and creates a new identity for himself in another town. He begins to court another widow, while planning to get rid of Susan and Stephanie.

Having discovered where Jerry is now living, Jim Ogilvie begins going door to door, in search of his former brother-in-law. After Jim stops by, Susan phones the real estate agency to tell Jerry that someone was looking for him, only to be informed that Jerry quit several days ago. Susan asks Jerry, but, while explaining himself to Susan, Jerry confuses his identities and Susan realizes Stephanie was right about him. Realizing his mistake, Jerry bashes Susan with the phone and knocks her down the basement stairs. Content that Susan is dead, Jerry then sets out to kill Stephanie. He first kills Jim, who shows up again at the house, this time with a revolver. After terrorizing Stephanie, he corners her in the attic, only to fall through the weak floor down to the bathroom. Susan shoots Jerry twice which has no effect when he tries to attack Stephanie, who then stabs him in the chest. He weakly utters “I love you”, tumbles down the stairs and supposedly dies from his injuries.

According to director Joseph Ruben, THE STEPFATHER started when Donald Westlake “saw a small article … about a guy in New Jersey who murdered his family and set up a new life in another town.” The film’s story is credited to Carolyn Lefcourt, Brian Garfield, and Westlake, a well-respected writer of thrillers who also writes under the names Richard Stark, Curt Clark, Tucker Coe, and Timothy J. Culver.

Westlake’s work is noted for its sly sense of humor and that is very much evident in his work for THE STEPFATHER, for which he wrote the final screenplay. “Westlake just has a very wicked sense of humor and irony,” said Ruben. “You get that tone in a lot of his novels. That was one aspect I found attractive about this movie. We added more humor. Westlake never meant for this to be a naturalistic or case study. What I envisioned was always kind of a rock ‘n’ roll movie-stylized where you would hopefully have something very funny and something very scary right on top of each other, and the audience would be off balance. I wanted the last reel or two to be a complete roller coaster.”


ITC Productions committed themselves to making the film and searched about for a director. Someone there had seen Ruben’s Dreamscape (1984) and was very impressed with it. “I came on just before production was starting,” said Ruben. “We all knew, including Don Westlake, the writer, that the script needed a lot of work. I had a lot to do with adding new elements and scenes with Westlake in nine weeks of pre-production.”

The added scenes included stronger endings that Ruben wanted for the film’s first two acts. With Westlake, Ruben came up with the scene to end act one where Terry O’Quinn as the stepfather is spied by stepdaughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen) having a tantrum in his basement workshop, the first time he is seen to lose control. To end the second act the scene where stepfather Jerry Blake catches Stephanie kissing her boyfriend was devised to trigger his decision to do away with his new family and start over again.

The film opens with the aftermath of a tragedy as O’Quinn cleans up after killing his family and is about to leave and start the cycle over again somewhere else. “The trickiest problem for me was how graphic the violence would be,” said Ruben. “The opening where he walks downstairs and we discover the whole family dead I’d always seen as one shot starting tight on him and widening as you crane down the stairs to reveal everything. We shot it and I wasn’t sure if I was being too graphic or not. I had the cameraman, John Lindley, darken it, take out some light, and make it even more subtle.

“For some people I know we went too far,” continued Ruben. “Although most of the violence in the movie is really not onscreen, such as when Jerry two-by-fours the doctor. There is only one shot where you actually see the board hitting the doctor, but there’s a feeling of tremendous violence. But this was a movie about violence to some extent, so I felt to play it too subtle would be cheating. I think a movie like this has to have a lot of impact. If you go too far the other way, you’re being faint-hearted. That for me was the toughest problem.”

The first alteration Ruben made in Westlake’s script was changing the character of an investigating policeman into the brother of the wife stepfather Jerry Blake had killed in the film’s opening. “I wanted Blake’s pursuer to have real passion,” said Ruben. “I wanted him sort of crazed. I felt that this character should be just obsessed to the point where it’s his fate to follow this succession of clues and end up right there as the killings are just about to start again.”

Ruben also came up with the idea of Blake off-handedly killing the brother just as he shows up to make his rescue. In the script it had been an extraneous character that stumbled onto the climactic violence. “I just love the idea of setting up the expectation for the audience that he’s coming to the rescue,” said Ruben. “When we screen it for audiences they are cheering for the guy. They fully expect him to come and save the day, and then-bam!–the stepfather gets the drop on him. It made Jerry Blake so much more formidable and Stephanie so much more vulnerable having the guy you think is going to save her wiped out like that.”

Ruben originally sought name actors to take the Stepfather role but found that no one was interested. “All the actors we approached were afraid of the role,” he said. “It was too extreme. I think they were concerned about being typecast the way that Anthony Perkins was after PSYCHO.”

Ruben began looking for good character actors and hit on Terry O’Quinn. In his first audition O’Quinn read the scene where Blake is upset to hear an unsuspecting guest at a barbecue read a newspaper account of his earlier crime, and folds up the paper, turning it into a hat for a little boy. “He mimed folding the hat and I could ‘see’ the imaginary hat,” said Ruben. “He was that specific and physically sure of himself as he did the action. Even though that isn’t related at all to what you have to do as a screen actor, I just knew he was a good one. Every time I looked at him, I just felt better and better that this was the right guy. He was very good-looking, but it’s the kind of good-looking that blends in. He was someone who could slip from identity to identity.”

Ruben praised O’Quinn for being an incredibly adept technical actor, remembering the performer’s casual assurance in handling a very difficult scene. “It was the scene where he’s got a knife in his heart and he’s dying,” said Ruben. “He’s got to look down at his step daughter and tell her he loves her. It was a real complicated acting moment. We set the shot up and I look around for Terry and he’s joking around and laughing with the craft service people. I said, ‘Terry, c’mon dammit, we got to do the shot.’ He jumps in front of the camera, the camera rolls, and-bam!-he’s in character, he’s dying, he’s physically trembling, voice quivering, he’s really believable. These are his dying words. He does the take, topples out of frame, gets up and goes back and keeps on playing.”

Ruben had a specific idea of the wholesome look he wanted for the film. “I wanted it to look like Norman Rockwell,” he said. “I wanted everything to look safe and very American. I would tell the people who were looking for house locations for us that I wanted the houses to look like places where nothing bad could happen. And as the movie gets deeper into the story, we wanted to darken the look and make it more nightmarish. By the time you’re in the endgame, it was all much darker, a lot of light and shadow and slightly skewed angles. And I always like to put a lot of movement in. It just gives it an energy, a life.”

Ruben had to abandon one interesting idea he had to stress the contrast between the normalcy of the setting and the horror of the story. “I wanted a crane shot where Stephanie is at the window in the bathroom screaming, shooting outside in, and the crane moves off the house down to the front lawn where you see a guy going by on his bike and another guy mowing the lawn.”

Joseph Ruben & Terry O’Quinn

“They flew three of us out to Vancouver to audition about three or four days before they were going to start shooting. They said, ‘Well, go home, get your clothes and come back because we’re going to start shooting. ‘I was in the dark. It was the first time I ever had that much to do in a film. It was really fun. It came naturally. Most of the stuff we did that was supposed to be scary, we laughed real hard after doing it. We thought it! was pretty funny, I enjoyed the first one a lot. I didn’t enjoy the second one as much.” – Terry O’Quinn

Interview with Director Joseph Ruben
Can you talk about how you first heard of this story and when you decided this would be the next film for you?
Joseph Ruben: Yeah. Well in most cases it starts with the scripts. I read an early draft and what hit me most is whenever you’re looking at a thriller, the first thing you look at is how good the bad guy is. What made him interesting was that fact that what he wanted is, in some sense, what we all want. The beautiful home, beautiful wife, the beautiful Norman Rockwell family. When reality didn’t jibe with his fantasy, it would eventually drive him to kill his family. He hoped to start this family that would achieve this ideal, and of course, it never happened. So he was a really interesting serial killer and it all revolved around the family and the search for family. That’s what attracted me, the bad guy was just so interesting.

So can you talk about the casting process and actually finding Terry O’Quinn to play Jerry Blake, and all the other fantastic actors you found for this?
Joseph Ruben: Well, nobody wanted to play this guy. Every name or semi-name actor we approached turned us down because, I guess, he was just too bad a guy and they didn’t want to play him. So we eventually realized that we were going to have to find somebody. For me, Terry O’Quinn’s talent just jumped out at me. He’s just one of these actors who cannot give you a false look. It’s just his talent, you can’t explain it, but Terry has a ton of talent. He also has that magnetic smile, which I think every good salesman needs.

Can you talk about some of the names that you went after, that you said turned this down?
Joseph Ruben: I can’t be that specific. It was a long time ago, but nobody wanted to do it. Terry, at the time, was basically an unknown. He was a respected actor, but he had never done a lead role.

So can you talk about the production and just directing an actor like Terry?
Joseph Ruben: It was a good shoot, I think. We all basically had a good time making it. It was the first movie I did with John Lindley on the camera, and he and I ended up doing five movies together. Michael Steele I met, the first A.D. and he and I ended up doing seven movies together. It was a very tight, cohesive production. The actors were great and had a real good spirit. I think there was the sense that we didn’t know if we were making a good movie, but we had the sense that we were making an interesting movie, an interesting movie that was a little different for this kind of thriller, one with some fun, subversive ideas underneath it, the search for the perfect, all-American family. I think in the sense of achieving the Norman Rockwell, safe, nothing bad could ever happen in this kind of town, look, was interesting to all of us. We shot in Vancouver and it was a good shoot all around.

So when you were directing Terry, like you said he was a relative unknown at the time, but could you kind of tell that there were big things in the works for this actor, when you were directing him?
Joseph Ruben: I remember moments where he would have to shift personas instantly. There was one moment, down in the basement, and we shot it fairly early, where he’s losing it. He thinks he’s alone and he’s raving and you see all the violence in him. Jill Schoelen, the stepdaughter, is watching the whole time and then he hears her and he snaps out of it. That moment, I think he goes, ‘Oh, hi honey. I didn’t see you there. I was just letting off steam.’ I remember shooting it and watching him and going ‘Holy sh*t. This is an amazing moment that I’m watching for this actor.’ Just the way he could transform his personality in an instant, it was exciting. Terry has a lot of moments like that in the movie, where these multiple personalities bump right up against each other. Probably the climactic moment is where he gets lost in his different personalities and he said, ‘Who am I here?’ For an instant, the circuits don’t fire quite right and that’s just really good screen acting.


Joseph Ruben

Jay Benson

Donald E. Westlake

Carolyn Lefcourt
Brian Garfield
Donald E. Westlake

Terry O’Quinn
Jill Schoelen
Shelley Hack

Patrick Moraz

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