Updated: May 8
By: Dan McDowell
Whistling “Camptown Races” and keeping the white picket fence perfect to please the misses seems nothing but a habit for Jerry Blake, an old-fashioned family man living in Oak Ridge, Washington.
The flawless green shuttered home he shares with his wife, Susan, overlooks a block that commemorates a main street charm, lush St. Augustine grass, and well-aged oak trees, but beneath the idealized image of a perfect family comes baggage — lots of it, past and present.
Jerry’s a stepfather to a troubled high schooler, Stephanie, who is still grieving the loss of her father and reluctant to accept him. He presents her a puppy to win her affections, but this falls flat.
Susan’s unwavering and gushing support for Jerry resembles June Cleaver, despite the recent death of her late husband. This adds friction to the family dynamics, causing Stephanie to act out in school and land herself in therapy with the slightly overreaching but well-intentioned Dr. Bondurant who works to lead her through her struggles, one of which she freely admits is Jerry.
From our point of view, there’s something endearing about the life Jerry wants and the lovable qualities he carries, giving him a plastic charm and making him a heck of a home salesman.
As great as all of this sounds, screenplay writer Donald Westlake’s choice to frame Jerry as a troublemaker from the first frame of film is curious, and I wonder what might have happened had he built the mystery up more before revealing Jerry as a cold-blooded killer.
We see his bearded face dripping with blood, his hair more grown out, and he dons a pair of glasses different to what’s shown most of the film (in what appears to be a disguise). After a shower, the emotionally cumbersome score drives the no frills editing and shows Jerry picking up a toy and putting it away before going downstairs and walking past a bloody living room, wife and children included.
Jerry cues the whistle for “Camptown Races” as he walks down his suburban Bellevue block in a suit with a briefcase and we are jarred by how awful a man he must be.
As Stephanie works to uncover more of her stepfather’s past with the help of high school classmates and her therapist, we already know the secret. Jerry was a killer in Bellevue, living under the name Henry Morrison before his arrival to Oak Ridge.
Piecing together Jerry’s backstory is not cumbersome, but the more I reflect upon it, the more I recognize there is a lot more depth to the story than I realized when I first watched it in 2015, and not later screening it again until 2022.
Shave, shower, and replace.
That’s Jerry/Henry’s motto. And that’s all we know or probably want to know.
He has only a couple of conditions to keeping his composure… this requires that the family live by his 1950s-esque traditional family values, they follow his lead, and they don’t meddle in his past.
In one of his first dinner table exchanges, there’s an innocent quality to his stepdaughter’s proposal to attend boarding school to get her head straight, but that goes against the Jerry Blake, M.O.
“It’s not a family without children… I don’t think we have to break up the family, do we, Pumpkin…? Father knows best,” he says, munching on his steak dinner prepared by the doting but simple-minded, Susan.
Jerry shows a house, and quickly catches himself in a lie about his slain daughter of which he is corrected by a little girl, and then a short time later, the Blake’s are shown hosting a slew of bustling and smiling families at a backyard barbecue to which Jerry admits he’s already sold 5 houses (leading us to assume that they are all families, and each are in attendance as they joke with him throughout the night).
Jerry’s implored to give a speech to this audience, giving us a bigger clue into his identity, or at least the one he hopes to portray.
“This is as good as it gets. I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, but I sell houses. That’s my job. Sometimes, I think it’s more than that. Sometimes, I truly believe… that what I sell is the American Dream. You can call me sentimental, I don’t care. When I came here, I was a stranger, but I’ve never felt more at home anywhere in my life. I have beautiful friends… I have a wonderful new family…” and then he gets choked up as he hugs Susan.
A newspaper article about the Morrison murders in neighboring Bellevue is discussed at the barbecue and Jerry can’t stomach it any better than he does the spare ribs he’s prepared.
“This is terrible… this kind of thing really gets to me, you know. That a man could be driven to do something like that to his own family… to his children... I don’t even want to know about it…”
His “friend” chimes in, “Makes you wonder, though. What’s it take a man to turn his family into gage murders?”
Jerry quips back, “Maybe they disappointed him,” in a mysterious tone —The ultimate motive in plain sight. His obsession with perfection is too much for him or anyone else.
Screenwriter Donald Westlake admitted later that the film was loosely based on the John List murders.
The next scene is perhaps our first real glimpse into Jerry’s double life while with his new family. And it’s easily the most chilling scene in the first act (and that includes the bloodbath at the beginning). Stephanie goes in the basement to get ice cream, and Jerry comes down in a rage since the Morrison murders were brought up, not realizing that Stephanie’s there. The voyeuristic camera view makes us cringe, wishing we weren’t there to share it.
The line to follow has remained stuck in my head for years.
“All we need is a little order around here… ORDER!”
Jerry’s rapid-fire barrage still haunts me as the film’s score takes an obnoxious leap.
“Be a good boy. You’re a good boy. Isn’t he a good boy? Your daddy’s little angel. Swell! Why don’t they just leave me alone? Let me out. Let me out! We are gonna keep this family together. You had better believe it!”
And then, just as quickly as crazy Jerry enters the scene, he disappears when he sees Stephanie becoming the endearing charmer he usually is in the public eye.
“Hi, honey… oh, the ice cream… Honey, you know how it is… being a salesman, you have to smile at everybody all the time. You know, sometimes I… I just have to get off by myself and let off some steam, you know. You know how it is.”
I suppose this is the tale of many a man like Jerry leading double lives. I just hope there aren’t that many. Idealizing the old-fashioned, running from reality, and trusting that his way is the only way, albeit a bloody and deceptive one.
After discovering the unphotographed newspaper article of the Morrison murders, Stephanie writes the Seattle Examiner asking for a photo of Henry Morrison, suspecting it could be her stepfather.
Jerry gets home early from work and discovers it, quickly swapping it out for a photograph of another man. We get another basement tirade, replacing the phrases with more yelling and mania about a little girl, and Jerry pulling out a photograph, which is assumed to be a Morrison.
“My sweet little girl.”
Stephanie admits she was wrong about Jerry to her friends and Dr. Bondurant.
When Bondurant is unable to connect with Jerry after multiple attempts on the telephone, he stages himself as a prospective homebuyer under another name, Ray Martin. The irony, considering Jerry’s method, proves effective here. Jerry gushes about the home being perfect for a family.
Meanwhile Bondurant proclaims himself a “confirmed Bachelor,” and comments, “I don’t know. I guess it works for some guys.”
“Oh, you know, the family, home sweet home. All that crap.”
The camera holds on Jerry a second longer than comfortable and it’s obvious he’s furious and doesn’t want to sell the house to the "bachelor". Bondurant posing as Ray says his job is in stress management, but Jerry catches him in a lie about his wife to which he confronts Ray.
“I wanna ask you something… Are you interested in buying a house… or are you interested in me?”
Bondurant lies again and Jerry goes ballistic, beating him to a pulp with a board as he parrots, “Home sweet home… all that crap!”
Jerry disposes of the body, staging it as a car accident, cleans up, and returns home whistling "Camptown Races" before presenting Stephanie the news of Bondurant’s accident.
“He was a very special man… in his own way, he helped to bring us together… and nothing is ever gonna split us apart.”
Throughout the film, Jerry’s perfected a birdhouse in the basement which is now ready to set up. It resembles the home he shares with Susan and Stephanie and they mount it in the backyard, adding a brief moment of connection between the three of them, and a false sense of security to us that Jerry just might get what he wants.
Jerry is shown dressed up and praying at a meal with Susan and Stephanie.
“Everything looks absolutely perfect… You know, until this moment, I never realized what Thanksgiving was all about.”
The comfort zone with Stephanie is quickly dashed by Paul Baker, who Jerry blows up on when he walks out on the two kissing on the front porch.
“You… you could go to jail. This girl is 16 years old!” Jerry yells.
“So am I,” Paul says.
“Jerry, what’s wrong?” Susan asks in shock.
“This punk is trying to rape our daughter…”
Stephanie tells Paul to leave after a brief squabble with Jerry, and he does after a bit of reluctance. Stephanie calls Jerry a creep and tells her mother off. Susan slaps her. There’s some back and forth between them all, and Stephanie storms away.
“What were you thinking of… making such a big stupid scene?” Susan says loudly at Jerry.
“That boy was practically undressing her, right here on our front porch.”
“That’s Paul Baker. I’ve known him longer than I’ve known you,” she says.
“Meaning what?” Jerry yells, a sigh to follow.
“Meaning all the progress we made with Stephanie is just thrown away. Thrown away by you.”
Jerry walks away toward the street, Susan in the background. He looks left and right, as if to symbolize, he doesn’t know which way he’ll go next, before looking straight toward the camera. The next scene shows him packing up at his office and bidding his co-workers farewell.
The growing disenchantment with Stephanie and Susan heats up as the film shows Jerry prepping a new life in another town accessible by ferry. He preps for his next gig to sell life insurance as Bill Hodgkins, a wigless and balding mustachioed loser. Staking out his next neighborhood, he idealizes another perfect family giving a chilling wave to an innocent little girl, before ultimately charming a widowed neighbor, inferring to us he prepares to carry out the process he followed with the Morrison family all over again on Susan and Stephanie creating his next perfect family.
Jerry whistles “Camptown Races” again as he makes his way home.
Susan calls Jerry’s real estate office in Oak Ridge to find out he’s left the job days ago and she confronts him, and this is where the suspense and tension cranks itself to 11.
The film’s most quoted line is when Jerry’s double life rears its ugly head and he forgets his name in Oak Ridge compared to the others he’s had past and present. Susan confronts him about the job he no longer has. He lies, saying the idiot at the office should be fired and accidentally declares himself as Hodgkins rather than Blake, momentarily not realizing his gaffe.
“Wait a minute… who am I here?” he says in a panic.
The one liner packs a powerful punch considering the film’s dark undertones and political jabs at the Reaganized era it was produced in.
Susan’s beat with a telephone, flees to the basement dripping blood, and knocked down the stairs. Jerry spies his reflection in a butcher’s knife resemblant to Michael Myers’ go to prop, delivering his go to line of obsession.
“We need a little order around here, huh?”
He calls Stephanie’s puppy over, knife in hand, leaving us terrified he might brutalize it, but instead loves on the puppy like all is okay.
Stephanie arrives home and goes upstairs to shower.
“You’re a very bad girl,” Jerry mumbles.
Past meets present when Jerry is confronted by a sibling to the Morrison family, Jim Ogilvie, whose offbeat scenes and rabbit trails in the film don’t work very well with the rest of its narrative, though it is apparent Westlake was merely trying to pad the backstory or uptick the film’s runtime from a 60 minute feature to 90 minutes.
Jerry kills Ogilvie with a knife after several jabs.
Another great line, “Next time, Jim… call before you drop by…”
He makes eye contact with Stephanie. “Hi, Pumpkin…”
Jerry chases her upstairs with the bloodied knife, bursting through the bathroom door mirror, running through the house, and into the attic.
“Come on down to daddy! It’s all a game, Steph… Olly, Olly Oxen Free. Come on, Steph, it was all a misunderstanding,” Jerry lies. “Come on. Come to daddy! Come here!”
A weary Susan’s revealed to be alive and with a gun. Jerry falls through the ceiling into the upstairs loft. Susan shoots him from behind and he falls down the stairs. Fighting his way back up in blood, Jerry lunges toward the bloodied knife, and Stephanie grabs it, stabbing Jerry in the chest as he collapses back down the stairs.
Always the sentimental family man, Jerry’s last words to Susan and Stephanie, a breathy, “I love you.”
The final scene takes us to a quick cut of the birdhouse being chopped down by Stephanie with one of Jerry’s tools and Stephanie and Susan prepping to start a new life together, fractured arm in fractured arm, Jerry’s collapsed birdhouse in the foreground.
In summary, The Stepfather (1987) has its redeeming moments, but certainly the standout acting performance by character actor, Terry O’Quinn, as the titular Stepfather, is its highlight. The script is tight with minimal fluff or profanity, but is slightly weighed down by the Jim Ogilvie storyline, which seems more filler than anything substantive.
Patrick Moraz, of the Platinum award winning band, Yes, scored the unreleased soundtrack which I highly enjoyed, a can of cheese whiz included. In communicating with Pat’s agent, there’s no master tape of the soundtrack available nor was the chilling score ever released. The ominous music is key to the film’s atmosphere and features a handful of memorable numbers varying from carnival clown merry go rounds to shrill squeals and chirps accompanied by death rattles. My favorite songs, however, are the ones with relaxing harps and 80s era synthesizers and drum machines that keep the sound of the decade alive.
The only offputting elements to the film were misplaced moments of nudity and brief sexuality, which I suspect was done to blend in with the slasher films of the period (of which The Stepfather is only a distant cousin). The TV edit of this film is enough.
Otherwise, less the emotional trauma, this horror drama bleeds a chilling symbolism of a man’s obsession to bring back an innocent time long gone, and I still hear Jerry’s voice.
“We just need a little order around here!”
Directed by Joseph Ruben
© 1987 New Century Vista Film Company/ITC Productions
Rated R for violence and a scene of brief nudity/sexuality