The Stepfather (ITC, 1987)
Sleeping with the Enemy (20th Century Fox, 1991)
The Good Son (20th Century Fox, 1993)

 

"Wait a minute, who am I here?"

Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn) believes in old-fashioned family values and wants nothing more than to have a perfect family of his own. And don't mess up his fantasy by being less than the ideal family because he'll kill you. He's done it before. And he's about to do it again.

Joseph Ruben's The Stepfather is a character study operating under the presumably more commercially-friendly guise of a slasher film. There's enough blood to satisfy genre fans, but at the core of this film are Ruben's tense direction and O'Quinn's moving performance. Jerry Blake, despite his chosen method of coping, is a sympathetic character; all he wants is a family of his own. The fact that he wants the ideal TV family of the 1950s (he is shown to prefer shows from that era, as well) is a major cause of his frustration. As is the fact that his new stepdaughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), is still grieving the recent loss of her father and doesn't want to go along Jerry's plans. To add even more conflict, the brother of Jerry's last wife/victim is searching for him.

Jerry just never gets a break. People keep cropping up to mess up his fantasy. Stephanie's psychiatrist meets Jerry -- the realtor who sells the "American dream" -- to look at a house, but gets caught in a lie and has to be done away with. Due to the pathos of O'Quinn's performance, I actually found myself wishing that Jerry could just get what he wants and finally be happy. I mean, how bad can a man be who whistles "Camptown Races" walking home after a murder? With a script by Donald E. Westlake, The Stepfather is a solid thriller that stands up to multiple viewings.

The two sequels degenerate into pure slasher mentality--existing only to support local undertakers. O'Quinn appears in Stepfather 2: Make Room for Daddy but leaves the embarrassment to someone else for Stepfather 3.

"You're not suggesting I enjoyed that, are you?"
"Oh, God, no. That would make you a monster."

Ruben examines more family strife in Sleeping with the Enemy, a commercially successful potboiler that continued Julia Roberts' rise to stardom. Roberts floats by on her enigmatic beauty and charm as Laura, who tries to escape her abusive, compulsive husband who has a thing about straight towels. Patrick Bergin, as the husband, Martin, gives a more satisfying performance. It's a mite over the top in places, but so is most of this film. He's simply trying to keep up with a film that would subject him to the horror of having him kill her mother just because she won't tell him where Laura (now Sara) is.

The two main troubles are, first, that it can't seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be and, second, that it's basically a TV-movie with a soon-to-be star instead of a used-to-be star.

It starts out as a typical "abused wife" tale, then tries to mix a romance with a fugitive-pursuit, "have you seen this woman?" storyline, neither of which is very interesting and both of which are entirely predictable. I'm sure its continued life on television is due to the fact that it is indistinguishable from the other movies playing before and after it on Lifetime.

"Hey, Mark...don't fuck with me."

A little better is The Good Son, starring Macaulay Culkin as a juvenile terror. Soon after Mark's (Elijah Wood) mother dies, his father has to go away on a business trip, leaving Mark with his cousin Henry's (Culkin) family. Henry is basically just Damien from The Omen, without the connections. Anyone who gets in the way of his plans is done away with, including both of his siblings. Somehow, his parents are completely unaware of this fact, or are suffering from "not my child" syndrome.

Of course, Mark knows exactly what's going on, because Henry tells him, making Mark privy to pranks like throwing a mannequin off an overpass thereby causing a traffic pile-up. Meanwhile Mark is the recipient of thinly-veiled threats to his life and other methods of manipulation, including Henry's bragging that he still has a mother. Any attempts to tell the truth about Henry are met with the "he's still grieving" mentality (in Hollywood, the equivalent of "he's delusional") and are duly ignored. In a reference to The Stepfather, Henry also whistles "Camptown Races" at one point.

Although Culkin is the star and has the showier role, it is Wood's performance that carries the film and is its center. We follow Mark through many levels of emotions and Wood is never less than believable -- phenomenal coming from a ten-year-old with few film credits. Culkin campaigned for this role, obviously seeing it as some sort of stretch, but he's really just doing the same things as in Home Alone, except not played for laughs. In retrospect, it's obvious from this film which of them would make the difficult transfer to adult roles and continue to work in the years to come...despite that cheesy voice-over at the end.

All of these films form a sort of trilogy of family problems which Ruben has yet to top, either commercially or artistically. The Stepfather and The Good Son both hold up to multiple viewings, even given prior knowledge of Son's shocker ending. Ruben's other films are also worth checking out. He's a genre-spanning director of films like Dreamscape and True Believer that, while not classics, are examples of solid storytelling.

 

[Craig Clarke]