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Scarecrow on Seattle: THE STEPFATHER (1987)

In appreciation and recognition of Seattle's long and illustrious film history, we are proud to partner with the Seattle Office of Film + Music to bring you reviews of movies made in the Pacific Northwest with an emphasis on how these films showcase the region's many filmable locations.

The Stepfather (1987)

Death Wish author Brian Garfield wrote the first treatment for The Stepfather in the mid-seventies, inspired by the real-life story of John List, a New Jersey man who in 1971 lost his job, murdered his family, and disappeared. Though the world didn't know at the time, List had fled to Colorado and married in to another family. He was captured in 1989 with the help of America's Most Wanted. Understandably at the time, no major studio wanted to touch the material. They said there was no point; there wasn't a likeable protagonist, and nobody for the audience to really identify with. Flash-forward ten years later. It's the mid-eighties and the conservative ideals of family and family values are being forced down America's throats. Garfield brings in friend, master satirist, and crime fiction author Donald Westlake to pen another draft of the screenplay. Westlake immediately realized an opportunity to skew contemporary mores and create a monster that might grow out of that suffocating ideology.

Terry O'Quinn (known to many as John Locke from Lost) nails the title role as a sociopath who, after dispatching his current family, slips effortlessly into the lives of a newly-widowed mother (Shelley Hack) and her teenage daughter (Jill Adventures in Spying Schoelen.) They say "kids know" and from the get-go it's clear to the daughter that her new stepdad is not all that he seems. As the story unfolds, we start to see the method behind the stepfather's madness. He's so hell bent on creating the Reagan-era view of the contemporary family - harmonious, religious, and chaste - that the slightest crack in that façade begins to drive him insane. To Westlake and director Joseph Ruben's credit, we see the cracks slowly, as they happen, and O'Quinn masterfully underplays his simmering rage so that when the shocks come, they are actually shocking. Unlike the two sequels and the remake, this isn't just a slasher film. It's smarter, more subtle, and much more satisfying.

As far as the local connection goes, it's kind of a funny thing. The film is set in the central Puget Sound region. The first family of victims live in Bellevue, the current family (with Hack & Schoelen) resides somewhere near Seattle, and the family-to-be, where the stepfather aims to set up shop after killing his current family, resides in a fictional, Kirkland-esque Seattle suburb called Oakridge. We pay a visit to the Bellevue Public Library, at least according to the lettering on the wall outside, and a fictional newspaper, the Seattle Examiner, plays a part in unraveling the mystery of who the stepfather really is. The stepfather even travels from town to town by what appears to be the Washington State Ferry system. That said, by all accounts (the end credits, cast/crew interviews on the DVD,) this movie was filmed entirely in Vancouver, B.C. But, unlike many of the studios behind large budget, not-filmed-but-set-in-Seattle movies, the makers of this little, low-budget indie should be forgiven for trying to save some money while giving us a terrific thriller that still resonates today.

-Mark Steiner

 

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