Monday, December 7, 2009

The Stepfather (1987)

'The Stepfather' (1987)* * * *

A few weeks ago a new horror film called The Stepfather took its turn on one of the screens down at the local metroplex. You might have seen the poster, featuring a couple of fists menacingly holding a necktie, with the caption “This fall, Daddy’s home.”

I did not see this new film, although I’ll admit I was somewhat curious about it because of my familiarity with the original 1987 version, starring Terry O’Quinn (of Lost fame). From what I’ve read, reviews of the remake have been mixed, with some actually heralding it as a decent little thriller. I had two friends see it -- one thought it was dreadful, while the other gave it a lukewarm “it was all right” kind of response. I may eventually check it out when it arrives on DVD.

Like I say, I was intrigued by the appearance of this remake since I had seen and appreciated the original version. I even wrote an academic essay about it a couple of years ago for a film journal in which I focused on one particular aspect of the film I found especially interesting. Unfortunately, I cannot point you to a copy of the essay online, but if your library gets Literature Film Quarterly, check out Issue #3 from 2006 and you’ll find my article.

I’m not going to offer a full-fledged review of the movie here, although I will point you to a recent Onion A.V. Club piece that does a good job highlighting the 1987 film’s best qualities. But let me share with you this one facet of The Stepfather that I thought was worth investigating in my essay.

From what I understand, the remake essentially follows the original in terms of its plot (with a few differences in the characters). In the 1987 version, a not-bald Terry O’Quinn plays a real estate agent named Jerry Blake who has recently married a young widow, Susan (Shelley Hack), who has a daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). They appear to have an ideal life going, although Stephanie ain’t too sure about her stepdad who seems almost too excited about his father-husband role. “I swear to God it’s like having Ward Cleaver for a dad,” she tells a friend.

'The Stepfather' (1987)As the somewhat shocking opening sequence had revealed, Stephanie has good reason to be suspicious of Jerry. As is eventually explained, Jerry is what might be called a “serial stepfather,” who has more than once courted and married divorcĂ©es with children, then, when they fail to live up to his Leave it to Beaver-inspired ideas of the perfect American family, he kills them, adopts a new identity, finds another family to join, and starts the cycle anew.

The film was apparently based on a real-life story, with Donald E. Westlake, the hard-boiled detective novelist, having penned the screenplay. In my article, I highlight the “hard-boiled” aspects of the film, promoting them above its “horror” or “slasher” qualities -- partly because of Westlake’s involvement, but mostly because I saw the plot uncannily resembling a passage from Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon.

The passage is an anecdote told by the protagonist, detective Sam Spade, to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the book’s femme fatale. The anecdote, sometimes called “The Flitcraft Parable” by Hammett scholars, has nothing to do with the novel’s plot, but does afford some insight into Spade’s character. Hammett’s, too.

The story is about a man named Charles Flitcraft who works as a real estate agent in the northwest. One day Flitcraft goes to work and never comes home, and five years later Spade ends up getting tapped to try to find him. Nothing about Flitcraft had suggested that he would suddenly leave a good job, a loving wife, and his two children, so when Spade finally finds him living under a different name, working as a car salesman, and having started a new family, the detective is curious to learn why he did what he did.

Flitcraft tells Spade how on that day five years before he had been walking to lunch when he passed by a building under construction. A large beam suddenly fell on the sidewalk next to him -- a few feet over and he’d have been killed. Flitcraft experiences a sort of revelation, and at that moment decides all of his preconceptions about life and its meaning were invalid. So he takes off, but after a couple of years finds himself essentially living out the same life he had led before -- work, wife, children. “I don’t think he even knew had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of” before, speculates Spade.

To me, the parable has always stood as a provocative “existentialist”-type fable about how we tend to make meaning of our lives, but how that meaning-making gets affected by external influences, thus landing us over and over again into “the same groove.” The Flitcraft parable is given a murderous twist in The Stepfather, but I think a lot of the same existentialist questions are raised by the film, too. There are numerous other parallels between the anecdote and the film I mention in the essay as well, all of which help me make the case that the Hammett story might have provided some inspiration.

I also think the original film has a lot going for it in terms of how it problematizes the whole idea of so-called “traditional family values” -- a hot topic, politically, back in the late 80s and early 90s. In a footnote to my essay, I said I thought The Stepfather was much more interesting in the way it problematized that “ideal” vision of the family than did the much more popular Fatal Attraction (released later the same year), a movie which instead essentially reinforces the ideal.

Sorry to be so suggestive here and not explain fully my argument or this latter point, but I didn’t want to rewrite the entire essay. Check out that Onion A.V. Club article for more insights on the original Stepfather, and if you happen to find my Literature Film Quarterly article and read it, I’d love to hear whatever feedback you might have.

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