Stepfather II Review
Terry Quinn reprises his portrayal of the insanely intense family man and stepfather Jerry Blake in this inferior Jeff Burr-directed 1989 sequel. This time, Quinn’s delightfully demented pseudo-patriarch sheds his Jerry Blake skin and uses his mastery of disguise to purloin the identity of Doctor Gene Clifford, before reigniting his desperate and relentless quest to continually construct (and obliterate) the glimmering image of the American Dream, complete with ready-to-serve family in the form of an attractive wife, expansive suburban home, and troublesome, needy offspring.
Synapse Film’s release eschews the label’s usual predilection for the extreme and the gore-drenched, despite the contrary proclamations of the sleeve. Whilst there is a measured level of bloodshed, Stepfather II rejects any attempt at full-on-in-your-face horror and instead opts to replicate the delightfully edgy, ultra-repressed, psychological tone of the original. Unfortunately, the picture fails to capture this satisfactorily, and we are left in an unhappy limbo somewhere in the middle. The cynical amongst you could claim that the release of this sequel has been arranged to take advantage of the Stepfather remake, the success of talented Terry O’Quinn in Lost, and Rob Zombie’s recent Halloween II outing (which stars Caroline Williams, who also features here). I, however, am not going to suggest any such thing.
Our reintroduction to the nice guy exterior of picture-perfect family obsessive “Jerry Blake” shows early promise (if you can ignore the lazy flashbacks to the first instalment), as we witness his lonely incarcerated existence in the loony bin. Building miniature models of houses and then dramatically smashing one for the benefit of his optimistic therapist, Blake presents a clear metaphor for his personal obsession with the model family household, and his unfortunate tendency to crush the fruits of his toil. Blake makes good his escape using violence and his wily disguise skills, and eagerly heads for the paradise of a generic suburban estate.
Alas, after a tentatively promising opening, Stepfather II soon walks a well-trodden path and adopts a formulaic approach to proceedings, largely following the basic plot structure and modus operandi of the successful original, and the result is a somewhat stale affair with occasional moments of interest.
Equally inconsistent is the quality of the performances. Meg Foster (who featured in John Carpenter’s much underrated low-fi sci-fi flick They Live) puts in a disappointing shift as the crystalline-eyed divorcee target of Blake (who is now disguised as Dr Gene Clifford), Carol Greyland, showing little in the way of depth and provoking scant viewer empathy. Jerk ex-husband Phil is a caricature figure and doesn’t convince either, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for emitting a small cheer when he meets the disturbed wrath of Dr Clifford.
On the other hand, the plucky, loyal, and fun-loving Matty, played by Caroline Williams, presents a far stronger case, and we vicariously experience her emotional and physical suffering far more acutely. Jonathan Brandis is solid as Carol’s errant kid, but the unrivalled star of the show is Terry O’Quinn, whose depiction of the obsessive, disturbed, and psychotic Clifford is excellent. O’Quinn’s nuances of expression, uncomfortable poses, and flashes of violence inject sorely required energy into the lacklustre piece. Some moments of his performance are sublime; take, for instance, the moment where Clifford sits down to eat his breakfast cereal. As he pours on the milk, he slowly bends down to listen to the crackling of the rice in the bowl. Cocking his head to one side, he gives an infantile, satisfied grin before tucking into the food. It’s a subtle moment, but the result is delightfully creepy!
For all the pedigree of O’Quinn’s performance, the more wooden acting of some other characters combined with the dreary TV-movie grade soundtrack relegate the picture to a league far below its predecessor, which nurtured a macabre charm with its remarkably incisive and original encapsulation of the darker shades of the American Dream. Viewers of the first movie will find it difficult to forget Quinn’s stunning bastardisation of the dream, and the wry, implied critique of the ideals it represents.
It would be unfair not to mention some of the other interesting elements of the picture. Director of Photography Jacek Laskus acquits himself well with a competent job. The sequence where a bemused Clifford watches a dating video, complete with clipboard and tick-sheet, is uncomfortably amusing, and the group therapy session during which an older lady confesses her husband’s unusual requests to the prudish, shocked Clifford, is hilarious.
Ardent fans of the original Stepfather, or those interested to see a sterling early performance by Terry O’Quinn, should find material to enjoy here. For those who fall outside this bracket, there’s just not enough going for the entire piece to provide a hearty recommendation, and in this light you can only feel that with a performance as strong as O’Quinn’s, this is something of a missed opportunity.
Synapse take a lot of care with their transfers, and Stepfather II is another success, given the presumed quality of the source material. The picture does have an inevitable graininess, but definition is good enough with clear colour separation. There are some rare moments where parts of the film appear to be damaged – shadow images can occasionally be seen, for a flash – but these aren’t frequent enough to spoil viewing.
The team chose to use film stock from different manufacturers for different scenes, so this, combined with other techniques, means there is some variation in reproduction between scenes – by design. The muted and flatter colour spectrum in the asylum, for instance, conjures a different mood to the sections focussing on Clifford’s life in the suburban paradise, which have stronger and brighter colour.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and we receive a faithful view of the film that is sharp at the edges. It is region 1 encoded.
There aren’t any subtitles.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Given that the film was made on a low budget in the late eighties, reproduction is decent enough with nothing to note in the way of distortion. The main problem is that the soundtrack is largely dreary and insipid, with a depressingly TV Movie-esque ambience that cheapens the impact of the unfolding events. On a positive note, the taut piano stabs that accompany Clifford’s depraved outbursts work well and manage to generate something approaching a feeling of unease.
Bearing in mind that Stepfather II was released to a less than lukewarm reception back in 1989, it’s an impressive achievement for Synapse to include a fair quantity of good quality extras on this release. Further, the material appears to be recently produced rather than being cobbled together from archive sources, and the views expressed by the subjects are refreshingly frank and honest.
Indeed, the inclusion of views and tales from director Jeff Burr and producer Darin Scott generates a measure of sympathy, as, in what sound like resigned and apologetic tones, they describe the difficult conditions amongst which the film was created, and their respect for the superior original, which they admitted they could not even try to match. For starters, we discover in The Stepfather Chronicles: Daddy’s New Home that Terry O’Quinn was reluctant to resurrect his brilliant psychotic patriarch, and the film company had to work on him for a long time to get him back on board for this sequel. Additionally, Burr had little say over the creative direction of the film, and the budget wasn’t enormous, but the guys did “desperately need a job”, so they stepped on board to do what they could within the heavy constraints.
Apparently, what they did wasn’t good enough. Not only did Burr have to tolerate an arrogant executive with somewhat abrupt editing methods (he would snap his fingers to note when any camera shot was too long, which an assistant would scribble down for later cutting), but some sequences were altered and re-filmed after he had finished (without O’Quinn – see if you can spot the shots where a faceless figure commits the crimes!). The film company felt that the gore wasn’t strong enough.
The Alternate/Deleted Scenes segment is a featurette in its own right too. It perfectly compliments The Stepfather Chronicles... by showing some of the removed sequences. It’s actually a fascinating document of some cruel editing by the film company executives; the removal of the carefully constructed model suburban estate is particularly odd, since it would have made for a creative and unique introduction.
Jeff Burr and Darin Scott also provide some interesting audio commentary for the movie, which is laidback and informative without being too overbearing. This must have been recorded at a slightly different time to The Stepfather Chronicles... featurette, as Burr speaks enthusiastically of Jonathan Brandis and how his career is progressing. Sadly, in The Stepfather Chronicles..., Burr talks about the sad passing of Brandis, who was still only in his late twenties and had enjoyed some movie and TV success since Stepfather II.
There’s a black and white stills gallery, which features Terry O’Quinn on the guitar (listen for Caroline Williams discussing O’Quinn on set in the featurettes), plus a trailer of the film which manages to compress and reveal all of the salient plot elements and action (including the climax) into a couple of minutes. Criminal!
Under difficult conditions, Jeff Burr delivers a stab at a respectful sequel, but despite the supreme repeat performance of the excellent Terry O’Quinn, the formulaic approach and film executive interference means that this rehash of a movie doesn’t come close to fulfilling its potential. Fans of the first film are likely to be disappointed, but anyone with an existing interest or fondness for this sequel will enjoy the opportunity to see some fresh new featurettes, and to catch the film in well-presented format.