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Junkfood Cinema: The Stepfather 2

By  · Published on June 19th, 2011

After watching your third hour of golf (that Mcllroy sure can play!) and giving your father the same tie from last year, enjoy this special Sunday edition of Junkfood Cinema in honor of all of the fathers that didn’t try to murder us and move on to the next family.

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; your mother and I are very disappointed in you. Kids, fetch me my slippers and my flagon of Scotch because it’s time for me to tell you about another fantastically bad movie. Stop that whining and sit still while I breakdown the birds and the bees of what exactly makes this movie so bad.

Then, if you finish all your chores and refrain from soiling yourselves for once, I will tell you all about what makes me love that same movie so much. Finally, I will whip up an appropriately themed snack food item to ensure your wild, sugar-induced frenzy just as you are supposed to be getting ready for bed.

As today is Father’s Day, this week’s very special treat is The Stepfather 2.

What Makes It Bad?

The Stepfather 2 had the unenviable task of following the original film. The first Stepfather, despite its unfounded relegation to common slasher distinction, is a horror/thriller of legitimate quality. It is well-shot, well-scored, incredibly suspenseful, and features performances that should have netted at least one actor in particular some gold-plated statue of a naked person. There is even a subtle condemnation of President Reagan’s obsessively traditional values and how refusing to accept anything less than the ideal family can actually cause a person to lose sight of their own identity; hence the line, “who am I here?” The film has since garnered a reputation as a “cult classic” which, while it rings somewhat flattering, is an absurd observation considering how much major critical praise it earned at the time of its release. Though to be fair, it didn’t really find its commercial success until it made its way to home video.

But where the casual, uninformed video store patron would be criminally inaccurate with their assumption that The Stepfather is a cheap, run-of-the-mill slasher film, The Stepfather 2 is in fact a cheap, run-of-the-mill slasher film. It dives head first into the genre well and comes up dripping with convention and reeking of inferiority. Suddenly this methodical, calculated maniac is a superhuman wraith distributing grisly demises as if they were handshakes. There are scenes in The Stepfather 2 plucked directly from the Stuff You’ve Already Seen Slasher Playbook. I think my favorite was the scene in which the woman with evidence against our titular blue beard is investigating strange noises as she is alone in her home. She checks open doors and windows and calls out, “who’s there” before erroneously satisfying herself that a rambunctious kitty cat was the culprit of all the commotion. We were seriously one mask and a heavy-breathed phone call away from this thing being paint-by-numbers. It also falls into some pretty familiar slasher sequel traps. For one, the plot is nearly a carbon duplicate of that of the first film; a slight change in protagonist family unit and voila! It also falls into the trap of upping the body count which creates a crass exploitation aesthetic completely counter to the original film. Oh, and let us not forget the utterly superfluous soft core sex scene that is as uncomfortable to watch as your actual parents having sex. But hey, at least with the soft blue lighting and our lead actresses’ gigantic hair there is least the unintentional comedic effect of watching Terry O’Quinn nail Mozart on the set of Top Gun.

Much like Mad Max, Stepfather 2 is a film that takes place in a world teetering on the cusp of apocalypse. But where Mad Max’s impending societal downfall was fictional, the disaster on whose doorstep The Stepfather 2 found itself was unfortunately very real: the 1990s. For those of you who don’t remember these dark times, either because you’ve mercilessly trained yourself to repress those ten years or because your brain was damaged by your only recently-diagnosed flannel allergy, this was a bland, soulless decade. The tentacles of this white-washed era stretched to, and especially tainted, horror films. Whispers of this approaching temporal dung heap are already evident in The Stepfather 2 and contribute in no small way to its schlockiness. The movie has plenty of scenes featuring that cloudy, obnoxious, we’re-shooting-a-Calvin-Klein-commercial-in-the-next-room cinematography that makes you want to change out your contacts and/or beat yourself in the head with a hammer. The matriarch of our endangered family unit, at one point, sports a dress that can only adequately be described as Shirley Temple all grown up…and with a serious drinking problem. But the primary 90s infiltration that sullies this film is its score-in-a-box music. It is the worst brand of lazy composing and makes it seem as though the whole film takes place in John Tesh’s rumpus room.

There are actresses whose popularity and appeal in the 1980s I totally understand and wholeheartedly support. And then there’s Meg Foster. Meg turned up in everything from Blind Fury to Masters of the Universe to They Live so not only is she an 80s mainstay but she was most comfortable in films that either have been or imminently will be featured on this column so my affection for her should be formidable. Unfortunately, I simply cannot stand this woman. Now I’m not saying that she isn’t pretty. What I am saying is that she’s a dead-eyed zombie cat-person who makes my skin crawl. I’m not even saying that she’s necessarily a bad actress. What I am saying is that if I had to listen to anymore of her whispering her every line as if her co-stars’ ears were made of nitroglycerin, I was going to mute her forever with the business end of a table leg. She just puts me ill-at-ease whenever she’s on screen which is decidedly detrimental when you’re supposed to root for the survival of a heroine who turns out to be arguably as creepy as your killer.

Why I Love It!

I am hopelessly in love with the first Stepfather and pleased as punch that it became a short-lived franchise. Slasher movie franchises, for better or worse, were my introduction to horror so I don’t necessarily view the Stepfather sequel’s reversion to more conventional tropes to be a negative. The stuff with Jerry in the asylum at the beginning is fantastic and his inevitable escape not only sets the tone for a bloodier, more visceral followup, but also features a prison shank made from what appears to be a homemade Harrison Ford action figure. Score! My only regret is that the series did not graduate past a third installment, I would have loved to have seen The Stepfather afforded the same rights to shark-jumping as Jason or Freddy enjoyed; The Stepfather VII: Moon Daddy would surely have been a hoot…and in 3D. In any event, any excuse to see more of this character working his devious familial magic is a check in the win column.

The reason for my ravenous appetite for more quality time with The Stepfather, and indeed the reason for the success of the first film, is Terry O’Quinn. While audiences today probably most readily recognize him from his stint on the wildly successful ABC series Twist Island, or whatever the hell it was actually called, O’Quinn is an actor who established himself long before he was forced to do television to pay the bills. Much like in the first film, the thing that makes the stepfather himself such a fascinating movie monster is the complexity of his motivations. Sure, he’s a psychotic d-bag with no qualms about butchering innocent people, but he does so in an ongoing effort to achieve the perfect family. He so desperately wants to snare that American dream but each and every time he attempts it, something goes wrong and the disappointment is too much for him to handle. O’Quinn plays this drive with such honesty and vulnerability that it becomes impossible not to empathize with this serial killer, unsettling the viewer on a whole new level. Not only that, but much of what endears this movie to horror fans is watching the evil within this character violently erupt and the Norman Bates-like proficiency he displays for covering his tracks. This not only created some deliciously mean-spirited kills in The Stepfather 2 but also led to the film’s sadistically ironic, and insanely awesome, bloodied bridal gown scene.

As I alluded before, The Stepfather 2 is not quite the near flawless piece of filmmaking its predecessor was. There are more than a few scenes boasting overall cheese content ratios that would clog the arteries of even the most seasoned Wisconsin resident. The false mustache our villain uses to aid his escape from captivity, constructed from hairs he systematically plucked from his own head night after night, is a little too neatly trimmed and perfectly suited to his face to not elicit a guffaw or two. I also find it funny that none of the police mistakes that allowed Jerry Blake’s criminal success in the first film are corrected in the sequel. Despite the fact that his crimes are now well-documented and everybody knows he was able to elude capture for so long because no one bothered to broadcast his picture, his mug shot is still not shown on TV even after he escapes and is the subject of a massive manhunt. Countless news reports about his escape are broadcast, but not a single one of them includes his picture. How are all the recently-widowed or newly-divorced moms in the tri-state area supposed to know which men are safe to date and which ones will eventually try to murder their children with a silver cake server? I also defy you not to lose your proverbial shit during the group therapy session in which a woman undoubtedly beyond middle age discusses her husband’s musical oral sex proclivities. It lends drastic new meaning to someone receiving a hummer.

Oh, and the young son of our central family unit in The Stepfather 2 is played by a very prepubescent Jonathan Brandis. So…there’s that, I suppose.

Junkfood Pairing: Wedding Cake

As this film’s climax takes place at the church were our heroine and villain are about to be wed, and since there is a pivotal stabbing that occurs with the assistance of that wedding cake’s serving instrument, it seemed only fitting to designate wedding cake as this week’s junkfood pairing. What’s that? You say that no one you know is getting married today? No problem! Just pretend to be someone else to ingratiate yourself into a family you didn’t earn; just like our titular antagonist.

Oh, and make sure you call your father and/or stepfather today not just because it’s the decent thing to do, but also because if you don’t, he may kill you with a broken bottle.

Call first, but then come back to read more Junkfood Cinema. Don’t make us get the belt.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.