Earlier this year, I was tasked with reviewing the completely humorless 'Stepfather' remake. In that review, I kind of longingly looked back at the original 1987 'Stepfather' as something of a classic. But to be honest, it had been a few years since I had seen it, and I had forgotten how truly amazing the movie was. Revisiting it now, I am absolutely blown away. It's even better than I remembered. This really is a modern genre classic. For real.
For those that just saw last year's atrocious remake, the story may seem somewhat familiar, although that film took the skeleton of the original and took away any tension or social commentary or psychological depth. The new film was a "boo!" shocker built on empty scares and copious shots of Amber Heard wearing an assortment of skimpy bikinis. (So maybe it wasn't all bad.) The original film, written by novelist Donald Westlake and distributed by the now-defunct New Century films, had way more on its mind than young girls in bikinis.
Terry O'Quinn, the man-who-would-be-John-Locke, plays the titular stepfather who, in the film's opening sequence, cleans up after a ghastly crime scene: he's murdered an entire family (even the wee kiddies) and calmly trims his beard and takes a shower. He's got a new identity to start, Bourne-style.
A year later, we pick up with the mass murderer, who has changed his name from Henry Morrison to Jerry Blake, and is now married to Shelley Hack, a recently widowed woman with a cute, suspicious teenage daughter (Jill Schoelen). Still, O'Quinn tries to win over his stepdaughter, buying her a puppy, but pointedly avoiding confrontations, even after she catches him wigging out in the basement, where he works laboriously on a birdhouse version of their perfect Pacific Northwestern home.
On a parallel narrative path, a relative of the previous set of victims (acted with earnest intensity by Stephen Shellen) is playing amateur detective, slowly tracking down the evil stepfather to his idyllic new life.
The movie is structured like a noose, tightening around the stepfather, until it all comes apart. A particularly chilling scene involves the young girl's therapist (Charles Lanyer), who poses as a prospective homebuyer. In an empty house, he begins asking the stepfather pointed questions about his past and intentions, which the stepfather answers by beating the doctor to death with a wooden beam. It's only when the stepfather checks his victim's identification, noticing the connection, that he starts to get scared.
The entire movie hinges upon O'Quinn's perfectly modulated performance, which oscillates freely between smiling, sweater-wearing nice guy and murderous psychopath, both for its basic thriller plot mechanics (which, in Westlake and director Joseph Ruben's more-than-capable hands are sturdy)and incisive underlying social commentary. Remember, this was Reagan's '80s, when the idea of a picture-perfect family was forcibly shoved down every American's throat while the decade's dirtier realities (like, say, the AIDS epidemic and the widespread introduction of crack into poor urban neighborhoods) were glossed over. There's a whole scene in the film where a framed photo of Reagan is visible. That's not exactly a coincidence.
Even the film's score by Yes's keyboardist Patrick Moraz, a kind of phony synth-y job that sometimes sounds painfully dated, fits perfectly into the thematic framework of the film: it occasionally sounds like a genuine orchestral score, but more often than not peels back to reveal an eerie otherworldliness. Even the music exposes the rotten core of the American dream.
But even if you overlook the political undertones, 'The Stepfather' is a corking good thriller - smart, funny, efficient, scary, and occasionally sexy. (Unlike the new version, this one actually has nudity and sex!) I'm thrilled that this genre classic is finally making its way to glorious high definition. Sometimes, I think that the best test for a horror film is if you can imagine watching it in anticipation of Halloween. And I think this disc is going to get a lot of play come October.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 25GB disc does not automatically play. It is Region A locked.
I was shocked, shocked I tells ya, by how great this MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer is (aspect ratio: 1.78:1, opened up a bit from its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1). Literally, I watched this movie with my jaw hanging open, marveling at the image quality. Even though it's called 'The Stepfather,' I figured it was something of an unwanted stepchild, considering its original production entities don't exist anymore. And if there's one thing good to say about the remake, it seems it gave Shout Factory the impetus to rescue the original and clean it up...because it looks like a million bucks.
Detail is strong, skin tones look good, black levels are deep and inky, and only a few nighttime or shadowy scenes become somewhat indistinct. Also, I didn't pick up on any glitchy technical issues, and while a fine, film-like level of grain adds a layer of authenticity to the image, there weren't any scratches or any other annoying visual hiccups.
Some have complained about the transfer not being cleaner, but I strongly disagree with such an assessment. One: it already looks amazing, one of the best catalogue presentations to date this year. Two: more clean-up would mean more digital tinkering, which would likely scrub the image free of texture and definition, making it resemble some of the recent Universal releases.
Really, this is a stellar transfer.
First, a correction: there is not a TrueHD stereo audio track on the disc, as is indicated on the box. Instead, there's a lossless stereo PCM track. But hey, I don't think there's going to be a huge difference, especially since the track that we do get is an uncompressed track. Chalk this one up to a packaging error and not anything maliciously deceitful.
This isn't an exceptionally strong track, but it is fairly solid, despite a lack of dynamism. Some rather oversized things may happen on screen, but the mix remains consistently low key. This track is not immersive, or even all that active. Even stuff blowing up doesn't make much of an impact.
All of this is a huge disappointment, especially in the face of the impressive video presentation. But that said, there are some pluses: the dialogue, while front and center, is crisp, clear, and well defined. And the music, which I've already praised, sounds even more twinkly and nefarious on this track. Also, I didn't notice any audio bugs, such as pops or hiss or technical foul-ups.
Also of note: there are no additional audio options or subtitles. Just the English track.
The audio issues are a disappointment, but hey, this is a minor infraction in an otherwise peerless disc.
The special features here are the same that can be found on the special edition DVD that was released last October, around the time that the piss poor remake was slithering into theaters.
'The Stepfather' is a modern genre classic, hands down. It's smart, scary, funny, sexy, and absolutely barbed in its presentation of nostalgia-enriched 1980s culture and the rotten junk underneath. Shout Factory has given us a largely exemplary high definition disc to accompany such a landmark film, with eye-popping videos and a nice collection of extras. The audio situation doesn't exactly make you want to throw the disc out the window, but it isn't great either. But hey, this disc is still highly recommended. 'The Stepfather' has never looked so good.