Watch Your Stepfather

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?

12 Responses to “Watch Your Stepfather”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “The Grifters” is a Towering Masterpiece. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cited it as perfectly encapsulating what’s going on in American politics these days — and I imagine it has “Brexit” resonance as well.

    Annette Benning told me that doing the project got her on a Jim Thompson kick, and she read everything she could get her hands on. Elmer Bernstein’ score is very Kurt Weill-esque, which is perfect for a project like this.

    Two other Westlake-based films I adore are Boorman’s “Point Blank” and Godard’s “Made in USA”

  2. There’s supposedly a French film adaptation of THE SCORE called MISE A SAC (or PILLAGED) that’s rather faithful, but I have no idea if it has ever had any kind of release, legal or otherwise.

    The Taylor Hackford film PARKER with Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez is decent. Statham makes a good Parker (at least in physicality, he’s efficient and tough, no wasted movement but always ready), and a great supporting cast (Chiklis, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., and Patti Lupone).

  3. Made in USA joins a select list of adaptations (Nosferatu, Yojimbo) where nobody bothered to clear the underlying rights — so Westlake ended up owning the US distribution rights, though he didn’t really want them. He wasn’t going to get any money so this was the next best thing. I always wondered if this souring experience is why he claimed such a vociferous dislike for The Jugger, which Godard’s movie is based on. My other theory is that it’s the only book in which Parker kills a reasonably innocent, but dangerous character. In all the other novels we know he’s capable of it and the situation constantly threatens that he’ll do it, but the innocent casualties racked up are always the work of other, badder characters.

    I think Mise a Sac turned up online in a bad off-air copy with no subs. My French is more or less zilch and my memory of the book isn’t precise enough to make it comprehensible.

    OK, time to give The Grifters another shot. A shame Benning didn’t get more Thompsons filmed…

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    Originally praised by Patricia Erensin a FIL QUATERLY article this is a superb example of the 70s family horror film where the father adhering the a family values patriarchy he can not endure just murders the family and moves on The line “Father Knows Best” makes this evident and in a film of this nature naturalistic lighting is the last thing needed

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Godard was in the midst of shooting “2 or 3 things I Know About Her” when producer Georges De Beauregard asked him to make something quick so he could fulfill booking obligations put in peril when “La Religieuse” was (happily briefly) banned. Godard thought De Beauregard had the rights to “The Jugger” — which as it turned out he didn’t. But all this was settled in the end.

  6. Westlake owning Made in USA is almost as funny as the US government ending up owning The Wolf of Wall St, which it does.

    “Naturalistic” lighting is an odd thing. Film noir used real or realistic source lighting to create its atmospheric effects. Cigarettes and low lamps and venetian blinds were all positioned in frame to motivate the effects desired for mood.

    The trouble with the smoke in The Stepfather (and OK, this is a mere quibble) is that it has no alibi for being present in a house for sale. So it adds mood but then kills it by being bafflingly unjustified. The job of a DoP in a movie which is still set in the real world is to service both credibility and emotion, just as O’Quinn’s performance does.

    In a Mario Bava gothic horror, there’s a lot more leeway for unnaturalistic, unmotivated lighting, but Bava still usually maintains a faint degree of motivation for his eerie coloured lighting.

  7. I was a little disappointed that Richard Brody spent so much space in EVERYTHING IS CINEMA on MADE IN USA’s legal issues without ever apparently researching Westlake’s perspective, which he had shared in at least a few interviews.

  8. La Faustin Says:

    It’s fascinating to compare the book and film of THE GRIFTERS — so much of what Westlake did was stripping the book down. And there’s one lovely instance where he keeps a line of dialog from the book but makes it mean something entirely different.

  9. La Faustin Says:

    I love Thompson’s THE NOTHING MAN. Ever read it? I have a fantasy casting of Montgomery Clift and Jack La Rue. Although I wonder if seeing it onscreen rather than through the protagonist’s thoughts would blow a hole in the plot immediately.

  10. The only Thompsons I’ve read are The Getaway and The Alcoholics. So nasty, I have to take a break of about five years each time I read one.

    Never underestimate the tendency of movie critics to completely ignore the writer.

  11. That is very interesting that Westlake’s father acted like he was going into work after he’d already quit his job. In “The Ax” which is one of my favorite Westlake novels, his MC pretends to be going to job interviews while literally killing off his competition for the job he’s really after. It’s funny how much art imitates real life sometimes. Excellent post and I’ve always liked this movie!

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    I have read virtually all of Thompson and enjoyed teaching THE KILLER INSIDE ME as novel and film (the Michael Winterbottom version) in my “noir” class last year. Would love to devote an entire session to Thompson and his film versions but current student sensibilities militate against this. Still David C, great reading for Brexit time!

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