The Stepfather (1987)

Viewed June 6th

 

A stepfather obsessed with the ideal of the American nuclear family is ready to kill when those ideals aren't met.

The opening scenes of The Stepfather depict a man methodically changing his appearance. We don't know for sure what's going on, but we can guess he's done something bad. The shots are constructed in the fluid, orderly manner of classic Hollywood film narrative. It's not like, say, Natural Born Killers, where the filmmaking cues us to read the characters in equally wild terms. In fact, using point-of-view and exploring the idea of someone disguising themselves puts us on this guy's side, we're intuitively rooting for him, whatever he's doing. However, when this man walks down the stairs in a conservative dark suit, about to leave his suburban home with his briefcase--BANG--the director, Joseph Ruben, shows us a shockingly gory, violent scene in the living room--there's nothing like this in classic Hollywood narratives. Bodies of a mother and daughter have been hacked up, there's blood everywhere, sprayed everywhere, pooled in the carpets, furniture is smashed to pieces. We see the mother's dead eyes with blood all around her. The kid's hacked up in the background. It's beyond your run-of-the-mill murder, this is brutal and evil. The fact that we're exposed to this type of imagery this early in the film is shocking. It feels like the type of thing you'd see in the gross-out slasher films that were produced around this time. Neither the man's behavior, nor the filmmaking, though, has changed...it's still orderly and fluid. And then a few moments later, we're back to normality, traveling on a ferry with this man on his way to a new family in a new town. Through the next scenes, the man tries to shape this new family into the perfect Leave it to Beaver image of his ideals. However, those few seconds of outlandish gore stay with us. To apply terms from Lacanian film theory, they stain the rest of the film with the gaze of the real. They are like a childhood trauma that we may try to forget, but remain as another layer. As things go on, the man tries to maintain patriarchal order. He rants in the basement that he wants "ORDER!". And the style of the filmmaking and general structure follow suit--things are orderly, classical. In an age of 1980s postmodernism and anything-goes slasher violence, the film's style and tone hearkens back to an earlier mode. But problems persist, things slip through and the contradictions and trauma inevitably reemerge. In the end, it all breaks down, but this time, of course, the man, the Stepfather, is killed. And, in a fitting bit of symbolism, the large, phallic birdhouse that he'd posted in the backyard is knocked down by his wife and stepdaughter--two women breaking down the classic, patriarchal order.