Archive for April 26, 2019

Watch Your Stepfather

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2019 by dcairns

Finally got around to THE STEPFATHER (1987), scripted by my beloved Donald E. Westlake. Although I had to make do with a rather crummy 4:3 DVD with a smeary image which made the film look even cheaper than it was.

That cheapness doesn’t have any negative impact on the visuals, but the synth score is intermittently a bother. Since the whole film aims for a HALLOWEEN look (suburban autumn — it’s an unavoidable connection), a score that was unapologetically electro could work, but this is one of those synth tracks that keeps trying to remind us of PSYCHO. Synth strings = ugh. I’ve been guilty of using them myself, I admit. Never again. All real violin in my last one.

Seems like this was a career high for a lot of those involved, people who by rights should have gone on to even better things: director Joseph Rubin is more than efficient, he conjures all the necessary suspense and moves the camera smartly and gracefully. I haven’t seen his later films, which look kind of… commercial? I should give them a try. Where to start? (And why didn’t he immediately make more films with Westlake? Maybe he tried.)

Oh, I have to admit, the interiors are a little… smoky. Well, it’s the eighties. But it’s PARTICULARLY noticable here that this lighting effect has no naturalistic reason to exist. Deduct points.

Westlake knew he had to do this film when the story was pitched to him and the central serial killer turned out to be doing something that Westlake’s own father did: leaving his job but not telling his family, going in “to work” every day but in reality looking for new employment. With Westlake Sr. the explanation was more innocent: he was laid off during the depression and was too ashamed to tell his wife. The Stepfather is just getting ready to move on to a new town and start a new family, as soon as he’s gotten rid of the old one, which isn’t working out for him…

Jill Schoelen is a great final girl, convincing as a teenager despite being around 24. Westlake writes shamelessly corny teenage stuff that feels REAL and is beautifully played. Then there’s the dependable Shelley Hack, so good in KING OF COMEDY. And Terry O’Quinn is just perfect as the psycho stepdad, taking some very well-crafted creepy stuff right to the edge. A lot of his choices — banality of evil cornpone — are risky, and wouldn’t work with another actor, but are just right for him. And while finding too much sympathy for this character would be plain wrong, you get the clear sense that this is not a happy man. His murders are part of his own disintegrating personality. “Waaiit a minute.. who am I here?” is a chilling moment.

All the actors are good, and the ones who have a B-movie blandness or else a lack of charisma are in fact perfect for their assigned roles. The movie has both an Arbogast AND an O’Halloran, characters who might be expected to show up and sort things out, but are instead taken out of the picture by the wily psycho.

Westlake’s skill at piling problems together to make suspenseful crises is much in evidence, and he knows his genre and can stretch it — on a couple of occasions, predictability is shortcircuited by outbursts of excessive violence, which is a wholly genre-appropriate way to keep things moveing and edgy. The small roles are well written (Westlake loved old movies and could channel their ability to sketch a memorable characterisation in moments) and both logic and good sense get their due. It’s a crying shame he didn’t write more movies that got made, and that so many of the adaptations are guff.

Guess it’s time I rewatched THE GRIFTERS, which allows us to see his response to Jim Thompson. His response to Patricia Highsmith, RIPLEY UNDERGROUND (a weird book with great scenes but ridiculous plotting) got rewritten, but I’m still curious to see it. Then there’s the enjoyable COPS AND ROBBERS (directed by the underrated Aram Avakian) and then there’s HOT STUFF and WHY ME? about which I have my doubts, but what the hell. I recently watched HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO so I can’t really turn my nose up at them in advance.

And LE COMMISSAIRE MENE L’ENQUETE appears to be completely unavailable, with or without subtitles. Stars Dany Carrel. Be still, my beating heart. Well, LE COUPERET is the best film adaptation of Westlake, so one can say that he had some good luck in France (though it’s questionable if MADE IN USA even counts as a Westlake adaptation…)

Guidance from the experts?

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