The Stepfather (1987 film)

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The Stepfather
Stepfather 1987.jpg
Film poster
Directed by Joseph Ruben
Produced by Jay Benson
Screenplay by Donald E. Westlake
Story by Carolyn Lefcourt
Brian Garfield
Donald E. Westlake
Music by Patrick Moraz
Cinematography John W. Lindley
Edited by George Bowers
Distributed by New Century Vista Film Company
ITC Entertainment
Release dates
  • January 23, 1987 (1987-01-23)
Running time
89 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3 million
Box office $2.4 million[1]

The Stepfather is a 1987 American horror thriller film directed by Joseph Ruben, and starring Terry O'Quinn, Jill Schoelen, and Shelley Hack. O'Quinn stars as Henry Morrison, an identity-assuming serial killer who remarries a widow with a teenage daughter. After previously killing his family and changing his identity, his killing spree continues after his stepdaughter becomes suspicious about him. It is loosely based on the life of mass murderer John List,[2] although the plot is more commonly associated with slasher films of the era than a true story. The film was written by Donald E. Westlake, from a story by Westlake, Carolyn Lefcourt and Brian Garfield.

Although production started and ended in 1985 in British Columbia over 40 days, the film was not released until January 1987. Upon its release, the film became a moderate success, grossing $2.4 million at the box office. The film received positive reviews, with many praising O'Quinn's role. The film has since gained a cult following, and was followed by two sequels: 1989 and 1992, and a remake, also called The Stepfather, released on October 16, 2009.


The film opens with Henry Morrison washing off blood, in a bathroom, before changing his appearance and putting a few of 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 — 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, amateur detective Jim Ogilvie, the brother of Jerry's murdered 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 is also in the basement. Discovering his stepdaughter, Jerry brushes off his outbursts by saying he was simply letting off steam. 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 another, 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, 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's her father, but 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 confronts Jerry, but, while explaining himself to Susan, Jerry confuses his identities, and Susan realizes that Stephanie was telling the truth about Jerry. 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. ("Next time," he deadpans, "call before you drop by.") After terrorizing Stephanie, he corners her in the attic, only to fall through the weak floor down to the bathroom. Jerry recovers and renews his attack, despite Susan shooting him twice from behind with Jim's revolver. Finally, Stephanie stabs him in the chest, possibly killing him. He weakly utters "I love you", tumbles down the stairs and apparently dies from his injuries.

The film ends with Stephanie cutting down a birdhouse she and Jerry had built.



Principal Photography took place in 1985 in British Columbia, Canada. Filming began and concluded in 40 days.

The film is loosely based on the story of John List, a New Jersey killer who murdered his family in 1971 and was on the run until 1989, when his profile on America's Most Wanted resulted his capture. The original script draft revealed that Jerry was abused as a child in flashbacks, thus how he became a serial killer as an adult. Screenwriter Donald E. Westlake also based the character Stephanie, who has problems getting along with Jerry, on his own teenage stepdaughter.

Actress Jill Schoelen citied that she had recurring nightmares for a week about being chased by Terry O'Quinn. This is because of how disturbed she was from filming the final act. These nightmares occurred as a re-enactment of the scene she was filming at the time.

Actress Shelly Hack, who played Stephanie's mother, was only 16 years older than Schoelen, who played Stephanie. Furthermore, Stephanie's stepfather was played by O'Quinn, who is only 11 years senior to Schoelen.

Director Joseph Ruben was initially reluctant to direct, because he didn't want to make another average slasher film, but he accepted. He also wanted the character Jerry Blake to whistle Barbara Streisand's The Way We Were, but the song rights were too expensive, so it was scrapped.

Cinematographer John Lindley was hired as a last-minute replacement for the initial director of photography, who was arrested in a domestic dispute right before shooting began.


Box Office[edit]

During its opening weekend, The Stepfather grossed around $260,587; it was released in 148 theatres and earned a total domestic gross of $2,488,740.[1]

Critical Reception[edit]

The Stepfather has an 86% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 6.7/10, out of 29 reviews. Film critic Roger Ebert, from the Chicago Sun Times, gave the movie 2.5 stars out of 4, and commented:

On "Combustible Celluloid", the movie ranked 3 out of 4 stars, with reviewer Jeffrey M. Anderson commenting:

For his performance, O'Quinn was nominated for both a Saturn and an Independent Spirit Award. Director Ruben was honored with the Critics award at the 1988 Cognac Festival.[5] The film was also nominated for the International Fantasy Film Award for Best Film at the 1990 Fantasporto[6] and included in Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments on spot #70.[7]

Years since its release, it is also now considered a cult film.[8]

Home media[edit]

The film was released on DVD for the first time in North America by Shout! Factory on October 13, 2009.[9] Shout! Factory released the first-ever Blu-ray version of the film on June 15, 2010.

Related films[edit]


The film was followed by a sequel Stepfather II in 1989, opening to negative reviews. Another sequel Stepfather III was released in 1992, without O'Quinn's return for the character.


The remake The Stepfather was released in 2009, to negative reviews.


  1. ^ a b "The Stepfather". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2008-07-30. 
  2. ^ Ryan, Desmond (December 3, 1989). "How Profitable Sequels Succeed: They Just Bring 'em Back Alive". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 19 April 2013. 
  3. ^ Ebert, Roger (1987-03-02). "The Stepfather". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2008-07-30. 
  4. ^ Anderson, Jeffrey M. "The Stepfather (1987)". Who Am I Here?. Retrieved May 24, 2008. 
  5. ^ "Joseph Ruben Bio". Tribute. Retrieved 19 April 2013. 
  6. ^ "Fantasporto: 1990". The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2008-07-30. 
  7. ^ "100 Scariest Movie Moments Countdown". Archived from the original on May 16, 2008. Retrieved May 24, 2008. 
  8. ^ Tobias, Scott. "The New Cult Canon: The Stepfather". AV Club. Retrieved 19 April 2013. 
  9. ^ "At last! Original Stepfather coming to DVD". Fangoria. Retrieved 2009-06-30. 

External links[edit]