In 1971, an accountant named John List found himself without a job and deeply in debt. He didn’t see how life could continue on for his family without his career to provide for them all. They would surely lose their 19-room home, he would have to file for bankruptcy, the family would have to suffer the shame of going on welfare… John List couldn’t allow that to happen. He didn’t tell his family he had lost his job, instead he kept leaving the house every day for the normal amount of time, but rather than going to work, he just sat at a bus station. And began to come up with a plan to “save” his family.
Apparently he never took into account all the things he could sell off to improve his situation. Perhaps he found doing anything that would show the public he was in trouble too shameful… He saw nothing ahead for his family in this world but trouble, so the deeply religious patriarch decided he needed to send them to Heaven.
On November 9, 1971, John List murdered his wife, his three teenage children, and his mother, who lived in an apartment in the home’s attic. He left his mother’s body in the attic, but gathered the rest of his family’s bodies together in the ballroom. Lining them up beneath the $100,000 stained glass Tiffany skylight… If only he had thought to, or could bring himself to sell that skylight, the murders might never have occurred.
Again, John List was religious, so that meant he couldn’t then commit the sin of killing himself. He needed to go on with his life the best he could so he could someday be reunited with his family in Heaven. But of course Earthly judgment wasn’t for him, he couldn’t allow himself to be arrested, either. So he disappeared. The bodies of his family members weren’t discovered until a month later. John List eluded capture for 18 years.
According to his interview on the DVD special features, it was during those 18 years that Death Wish author Brian Garfield found himself thinking about the John List case and wondering what the man was doing while he was on the run. Garfield assumed he was out there somewhere living like a normal person, probably getting married again, maybe starting another family. Garfield was so chilled by the idea that he was inspired to write a story about it called The Stepfather, a story which he fleshed out with co-writers Carolyn Lefcourt and famed, prolific author Donald E. Westlake.
Despite the fact that Garfield and Westlake were novelists, they put this story together with the intention of it being made into a movie. They shopped this movie idea around for almost 10 years, until in the mid-’80s, when the horror genre was booming and producer Jay Benson saw promise in the dark thriller the writers had crafted. The project finally started coming together with Westlake taking on the screenplay duties and director Joseph Ruben signing on with the goal in mind to make sure The Stepfather would be a character based thriller rather than the slasher the concept could have easily turned into at that time.
The title role is played in the film by Terry O’Quinn, who today is famous for being John Locke on Lost, but The Stepfather was really his breakthrough role and what he was best known for up until Lost.
The first time we see O’Quinn’s character, his name is Henry Morrison and he looks rough. Not just because of his scraggly hair and horrendous beard, but because he’s covered in blood. He strips down, takes a shower, thankfully gets most of that hair off his head and face, and goes on with his day, freshly clean cut.
On his way to the front door of his home, Morrison passes by a scene that is simultaneously shocking and heartbreaking, a visual out of a nightmare: the living room is a disaster area of dead bodies and blood, including the corpse of a small child clutching a teddy bear. Morrison uprights a knocked over chair, hangs up a blood-splattered phone that’s off the hook, and happily makes his exit, whistling “Camptown Races”.
It’s a jarring opening sequence that firmly establishes that this man is completely out of his mind.
One year later, Henry Morrison has become Jerry Blake, and he has moved on from the murder of his previous family quite well. He has relocated to a different Seattle suburb than the one he used to live in, he has a job at American Eagle Realty, has a good amount of friends (all of whom are people he sold houses to during his year of working as a realtor), and he’s happily married to a woman named Susan, the mother of a sixteen-year-old daughter named Stephanie.
Henry/Jerry isn’t the only one who has moved on quickly. Susan’s previous husband died only one year earlier (Jerry was not responsible). Stephanie isn’t comfortable with Jerry at all, feeling like her mother getting married to him so quickly after the death of her father wasn’t the right move for their grieving process.
It doesn’t help the situation that Jerry is so weird. Sure, he has a facade of being the perfect family man and he clings to the sort of old time values that he saw on television sitcoms when he was growing up in the ’50s, but something is off about him. Jerry’s ideals of perfection are probably what drew Susan to him, it’s likely a great comfort after the stress of losing her husband, she wants the care, stability and happiness Jerry would seem to offer. But being a teenager, Stephanie has an edgier approach to life that conflicts with what Jerry feels is proper, and she’s still dealing with the death of her dad. Her emotional turmoil is manifested in trouble at school, including a fight that gets her expelled soon after we’re introduced to the character.
One person who hasn’t moved on from the events of a year earlier is a man named Jim Ogilvie, former brother-in-law of the man he knew as Henry Morrison. Ogilvie is still on the trail of the man who killed his sister and her children, getting the newspaper to publish a follow-up article on the unsolved case, talking to a detective about it, discovering that the police believe the Morrison murders weren’t the first time this killer wiped out a family, getting a gun and practicing at a firing range…
Ogilvie knows that, much like John List, Henry Morrison was without a job for quite a while before he killed his family, but would still go out during his regular working hours and return home at the normal time. Ogilvie feels that the killer used this time to set up the new life that he escaped into, and has figured out that he must be living within a certain radius that could be traveled during daily working hours. It’s a stretch, but he’s actually right.
As imperfect situations and stressful scenarios pile up, Jerry Blake’s mask of sanity begins to slip, and Stephanie takes notice of it. The way he goes off on raging rants in his basement work shop. His reaction to the newspaper article about the murders. His comment that the victims must have “disappointed” their homicidal stepfather. She’s on the case just as much as Ogilvie is.
Feeling the walls closing in on him, Jerry Blake begins to kill again. Of course, given the character’s off-balance fantasy ’50s hang-ups, what really sets him off is when his teenage stepdaughter gets a boyfriend who has the audacity to kiss her goodnight on the front stoop. This will not do. The Blake family is a lost cause. Time to start over.
With time ticking down to the moment when Jerry will finally snap and attack Susan and Stephanie, Ogilvie is set up to be the hero of the piece. Viewers will likely assume that he’s going to eventually encounter his former brother-in-law and get his revenge, we’re rooting for that, and the likelihood of it gets even stronger when Ogilvie figures out Jerry’s current identity and, while tension rises in the Blake household, jumps in his car and starts speeding across town. It appears he’s racing to the rescue.
Things don’t quite work out that way.
As far as characters of his type go, Ogilvie certainly doesn’t measure up to Halloween’s Dr. Sam Loomis. Not since Rob Dyer in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter has there been a character who so completely whiffed their shot at avenging a loved one. In fact, the Ogilvie subplot as a whole plays very similarly to Dick Hallorann’s journey to the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
The actor in the role of Ogilvie, Stephen Shellen, made his character a likeable and strong presence through this fake-out of a plotline that ultimately leaves Stephanie and Susan to fend for themselves.
Director Joseph Ruben hated slashers and was determined not to let The Stepfather be one, but he did fall into some slasher trappings at times. For one thing, the one-liners Jerry delivers to his victims… Not only does it take away from how scary this character could be, but they’re also totally corny. He’s Ward Cleaver meets Freddy Krueger for some of his dialogue.
Also, simultaneous to Jerry descending into full madman mode, Ruben throws in some slasher prerequisite T&A, showing off Stephanie’s body as she takes a shower. It was strange move to suddenly decide to use this character to provide the film with some gratuitous nudity. Although Stephanie is sixteen, the actress playing her, Jill Schoelen, was in her early twenties at the time, but that doesn’t make the shower scene any less weird.
Schoelen’s age was an issue for me at times. No matter how short she was or how soft her voice was, she really didn’t seem like a teenager to me. I like her as Stephanie, but still, she comes off like a woman in her twenties trying to act younger.
Despite being given some cheeseball lines, Terry O’Quinn did terrific work in the role of The Stepfather, expertly mixing the exterior of perfection with a simmering rage just under the surface.
Ruben and Westlake made the wise decision of not divulging Jerry Blake’s history, never fully explaining why he is the way he is, what started him down the path of being a serial killer, or even how many times he has repeated this “join a family, then kill them off” scenario. Unlike a lot of films these days, where they often feel the need to show and explain everything, the filmmakers here understood that there is power in mystery.
The filmmakers also did outstanding work delving into their characters, making each one an interesting, psychologically complex person. It’s understandable why Susan is drawn to Jerry, just as it’s understandable why Stephanie is repelled by him.
With a nice, down-to-earth style captured by Ruben and cinematographer John W. Lindley and a musical score by Patrick Moraz that wavers back and forth between effective and overbearing, The Stepfather is a great little thriller with some excellent performances and very unnerving story that was unfortunately based on a real event.
Brian Garfield was right, John List was still out there, carrying on with his life like a regular person. He fled the crime scene he left behind in New Jersey and was able to get another accounting job in Colorado under a fake name. He lived comfortably in Colorado for a decade before moving to Virginia, and once there, right around the time that The Stepfather was going into production, he remarried. Thankfully, he never had any more children, but he was living a life of wedded bliss when The Stepfather was released in theaters. It wouldn’t be until 1989 that an episode of America’s Most Wanted gave away his identity and led to his capture.
John List died in prison in 2008. One year later, a remake of The Stepfather came out.