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Original 'Stepfather' is complex

Robert W. Butler
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

One of the best suspense/horror films of the '80s has finally come out on DVD.

What took so long?

Obviously, this home vid release of "The Stepfather" (1987) is meant to piggyback on the theatrical opening next week of a remake.

Tell you what — the new version is going to have to be pretty darn great to match the original. (But it's not being screened for critics, so don't count on it.)

Directed by Joseph Ruben ("Sleeping With the Enemy," "Money Train") and scripted by the great Donald Westlake, "The Stepfather" is more than an effective thriller. It's a canny bit of political/social observation that seems as subversive today as when it was first released.

When Mom (Shelley Hack, fresh from her gig as one of "Charlie's Angels") remarries, life gets ugly for teenage daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). She's a normal adolescent who wants to have fun and explore boundaries. But her new step dad is having none of it.

His name is Jerry, and he's wonderfully played by Terry O'Quinn, whom you'll recognize as the chrome-domed John Locke on TV's "Lost" — although back in '87 he still had hair.

The usual father/daughter tensions are exacerbated by Stephanie's suspicion that Jerry isn't who he claims to be, that he has a dark side. That ... well ... he may be a killer.

In the opening scene we see a bloody Jerry cleaning himself and then walking past the corpses of a woman and children.

Released well into Ronald Reagan's second term, "The Stepfather" worked on a couple of levels. It provided some creepy thrills, but even better was its commentary on social attitudes during an era when the phrases "Moral Majority" and "family values" were filling the language, when conservatives began pushing back against what they saw as godless, rudderless liberal excess.

Westlake's screenplay cannily exploits that zeitgeist by making O'Quinn's Jerry a card-carrying member of the family values crowd. He has bought into the idea of a nuclear family with a loving but firm papa, a quietly supportive mama and demure, obedient children.

But reality doesn't live up to Jerry's white-picket-fence vision. Teens rebel, wives lose interest, money and job problems will gnaw away at the ideal marriage.

The black joke at the heart of this movie is that whenever one of Jerry's "perfect" families proves a disappointment, he simply murders everyone and starts over in a new town with a new identity. One of these days he'll get it right.

"The Stepfather" is a taut nail-biter elevated to something special by its sly satire. A Moral Majority type as a serial murderer? Hoo boy.

Not to mention the notion — subtly hinted at in O'Quinn's performance — that Jerry may have impure thoughts about his blossoming stepdaughter.

———

'Shrink'

It isn't for everyone, but Kevin Spacey fans should check out this title to see their man at his exasperated best.

Oozing ennui and bleak humor, Spacey plays Henry Carter, psychiatrist to Hollywood stars. Problem is, the doctor appears incapable of following his own advice.

Carter usually wakes each morning in a different room in his Hollywood Hills home (it's never the bedroom). Usually there's an empty bottle close at hand. He never shaves, rarely eats and between sessions slips into the alley behind his office to smoke pot.

Still, Carter has a backlog of patients: a sex addict (Robin Williams), a fading starlet (Saffron Burrows), a thuggish agent with OCD (Dallas Roberts) and a struggling screenwriter (Mark Webber).

As a pro bono case he takes on a smart black teen (Keke Palmer), and she ends up analyzing him.

Spacey has always been good with words, and Thomas Moffat's screenplay gives him plenty. But this is also a subtly physical performance — dissipation and hopelessness seem to have permeated the doc's very bones.

And despite the angst that grips him, Spacey's Carter cannot totally disconnect from the world around him. In his eyes you can see that he still cares for his patients, that their stories can still move him, and that he's not so much wallowing in self-pity as bemused by his own failings.

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