For all of Halloween-themed October, ComicsVerse is creating magic. By magic, we mean analyses of Halloween films, shows, music, and anything else we can find. If you want to keep posted on the newest and greatest content in this particular series, you can check it out here. Stay tuned for more ComicsVerse series coming your way, Spoopy Ghostoween and beyond! Now, let’s talk about THE STEPFATHER!


The crypts open up again, as we welcome you back to The Unseen Horror. Today, we move away from the supernatural and into the realm of real-life horror. Events in our own lives provide the most fright sometimes, and that is the point of today’s entry — 1987’s THE STEPFATHER.

The Plot

Jerry Blake marries Susan Maine and becomes a real estate success. Jerry seems like the perfect husband — caring, neighborly, and happy to please. His stepdaughter Stephanie distrusts him, though, despite his best efforts. Neighbors discuss a murder case from the previous year, which sends Jerry into a psychotic rant.

Stephanie begins to think her fears are justified, and they are. Jerry is Henry Morrison, who brutally murdered his family a year ago, changed his identity, and “set up shop” with the Maines. Jerry keeps up the facade, but as Stephanie and investigators begin to close in, Jerry starts making plans once again.

Controlled Violence

Many things make THE STEPFATHER a compelling suspense story. The story builds suspense slowly, allowing the viewer to wonder how and when things will come to a head. The writing shows a clear aversion to typical slasher fare, as well. The horror comes from the suspense of waiting, instead of consistent violence.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have violent moments either. Its strength is that the violence feels more intense because of the slow, deliberate build. Jerry killing a man with a 2×4 and chasing his new family feel more violent because there is little violence proceeding them. It intensifies what we see, bringing the film closer to PSYCHO than FRIDAY THE 13th.

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Another highlight is Jerry himself, played by Terry O’Quinn. O’Quinn was a character actor before this film, which launched his career (eventually getting him on LOST). He shows his talent, effortlessly portraying Jerry’s “family man” side as well as the psychotic breaks that lead to his downfall.

O’Quinn’s most chilling moment is when Jerry switches identities in the beginning and end of the film. He does this with such practiced ease, the viewer wonders if this is even the first time Jerry has left a family. It’s a subtle touch, made possible by O’Quinn’s performance.

THE STEPFATHER

O’Quinn takes time to humanize Jerry as well. We see that Jerry genuinely loves the idea of family, and wants to epitomize the perfect father and husband. His downfall is his inability to accept the reality and difficulty of family, something everyone struggles with. Jerry becomes somewhat sympathetic, showing us a monster that just wanted to be a good man. It’s a rare touch in horror films that works perfectly here.

The Real Story

The real horror of THE STEPFATHER comes from real events. In 1971, a man named John List lived in Westfield, New Jersey with his family. List lost his job but was unable to admit failure to his family. He continued the facade of going to work, but sat at the train station each day.

On November 9, List killed his wife and mother, then two of his children as they came home. List left the house to close his and his mother’s bank accounts, then watched his son play soccer at Westfield High. He brought his son home and killed him as well.

THE STEPFATHER
The Face of a Killer

The bodies remained undiscovered for nearly a month. When police entered, they found the bodies neatly laid out on sleeping bags, and all pictures of List removed from the house. They discovered a letter from List as well, claiming List saw “too much evil” in the world, and had killed his family to spare them. The crime became New Jersey’s most infamous murder since the Lindbergh baby, but List was never found.

AMERICA’S MOST WANTED had police sculptors create an approximation of List’s appearance in 1989. He was living in Virginia under a false name (with a new family), and a neighbor turned him in. Police extradited List to NJ. The courts found him guilty and gave five life sentences. List died in prison at age 81.

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STEPFATHER writer Brian Garfield learned about List and was fascinated by him. He wrote the film about what List might have done in the near twenty years between the murders and his arrest. Some of List’s traits made it into the film — List had OCD, and was also a perfect “family man” during his years on the lam, hence Jerry’s nature in the film.

THE STEPFATHER: Final Thoughts

THE STEPFATHER is a rare horror movie that enhances a real-life horror story while still being unique. Jerry Blake emerges as a real-life horror villain, just believable enough to show up in your neighborhood. The suspense oversees the violence, and the film became a thoughtful suspense piece in the age of mindless slashers.

Ignore the horrible 2000s remake and pick up this classic. Forewarning though, the film won’t be as scary for you as it was for me. The truth is, THE STEPFATHER and John List…

THE STEPFATHER

…hit right where I live.

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