The Stepfather (1987 film)

The Stepfather

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joseph Ruben
Produced by Jay Benson
Screenplay by Donald E. Westlake
Story by
Music by Patrick Moraz
Cinematography John W. Lindley
Edited by George Bowers
ITC Productions[1]
Distributed by New Century Vista Film Company[1]
Release dates
  • January 23, 1987 (1987-01-23) (United States)
Running time
89 minutes
Country United States[1]
Language English
Box office $2.4 million[2]

The Stepfather is a 1987 American psychological horror-thriller film directed by Joseph Ruben and starring Terry O'Quinn, Jill Schoelen and Shelley Hack. O'Quinn stars as Henry Morrison, an identity-assuming serial killer who remarries a widow with a teenage daughter. After previously killing his family and changing his identity, his killing spree continues after his stepdaughter becomes suspicious about him. It is loosely based on the life of mass murderer John List,[3] although the plot is more commonly associated with slasher films of the era than a true story. The film was written by Donald E. Westlake, from a story by Westlake, Carolyn Lefcourt and Brian Garfield.

The film was theatrically released January 23, 1987, in the United States. Upon its release, the film grossed $2.4 million at the box office. It has since gained a cult following and was followed by two sequels: Stepfather II (1989) and Stepfather III (1992), and a remake also called The Stepfather, released on October 16, 2009.


The film opens with Henry Morrison washing off blood, in a bathroom, before changing his appearance and putting a few of his belongings into a suitcase. After packing his things, Henry leaves through the front door of his house, nonchalantly passing the butchered remains of his family and others. Boarding a ferry, Henry throws the suitcase containing the objects from his former life into the ocean. One year later, Henry — now operating as a real estate agent named Jerry Blake — has married the widow Susan Maine. Jerry's relationship with Susan's 16-year-old daughter, Stephanie, is strained. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Bondurant, advises her to give Jerry a chance.

Meanwhile, amateur detective Jim Ogilvie, the brother of Jerry's murdered wife, runs an article about his sister's murder in the newspaper. While hosting a neighborhood barbecue, Jerry discovers the article and is disturbed by it. Jerry goes into the basement of the house and begins maniacally rambling to himself, unaware that Stephanie has also entered basement. Discovering his stepdaughter, Jerry brushes off his outbursts by saying he was simply letting off steam. He tells her not to worry. Stephanie finds the newspaper mentioning Jerry's earlier killings and comes to believe her stepfather is the murderer mentioned in the article. She writes a letter to the newspaper requesting a photo of Henry Morrison, but Jerry finds the photo in the mail and replaces it with a stranger's photo, allaying her suspicions.

Curious about Stephanie's stepfather, Dr. Bondurant makes an appointment with Jerry under an assumed name, saying he wants to buy a house. During their meeting, Bondurant asks too many questions and Jerry realizes that Bondurant is not who he says he is, beats him to death, and fakes a car accident. The next day, Jerry informs Stephanie of Bondurant's death and succeeds in bonding with her. Jerry's newfound relationship with his stepdaughter is quickly cut short when he catches Stephanie kissing her boyfriend, Paul. Jerry accuses Paul of attempting to rape Stephanie, which causes an argument with Stephanie and Susan, and drives Paul away. Stephanie runs out on Jerry and Susan because Susan says Jerry's her father, but he's not. The next day, Jerry quits his job and creates a new identity for himself in another town. He begins to court another widow, while planning to get rid of Susan and Stephanie.

Having discovered where Jerry is now living, Jim Ogilvie begins going door to door, in search of his former brother-in-law. After Jim stops by, Susan phones the real estate agency to tell Jerry that someone was looking for him, only to be informed that Jerry quit several days ago. Susan asks Jerry, but, while explaining himself to Susan, Jerry confuses his identities, and Susan realizes that Stephanie was telling the truth about Jerry. Jerry bashes Susan with the phone and knocks her down the basement stairs. Content that Susan is dead, Jerry then sets out to kill Stephanie. He first kills Jim, who shows up again at the house, this time with a revolver. ("Next time," he deadpans, "call before you drop by.") After terrorizing Stephanie, he corners her in the attic, only to fall through the weak floor down to the bathroom. Jerry recovers and renews his attack, despite Susan shooting him twice from behind with Jim's revolver. Finally, Stephanie stabs him in the chest. He weakly utters "I love you", tumbles down the stairs and apparently dies from his injuries.

The film ends with Stephanie cutting down a birdhouse she and Jerry had built.



The film was theatrically released on January 23, 1987, in the United States by the New Century Vista Film Company. During its opening weekend, The Stepfather grossed around $260,587; it was released in 148 theatres and earned a total domestic gross of $2,488,740.[2]

The film was released on DVD for the first time in North America by Shout! Factory on October 13, 2009.[4] Shout! Factory released the first-ever Blu-ray version of the film on June 15, 2010.


The Stepfather has an 86% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes and an average rating of 6.7/10 out of 29 reviews.[5] Film critic Roger Ebert, from the Chicago Sun Times, gave the movie 2.5 stars out of 4, and commented: "Violence itself seems to sell at the box office, even when it's divorced from any context. Maybe that's what the filmmakers were thinking. What often happens, though, is that in an otherwise flawed film there are a couple of things that are wonderful. The Stepfather has one wonderful element: Terry O'Quinn's performance."[6]

On "Combustible Celluloid", the film ranked 3 out of 4 stars, and reviewer Jeffrey M. Anderson commented: "Joseph Ruben directs competently but perhaps not as playfully as the material could have used, but O'Quinn gets in a few prime moments, such as the startling one in which he forgets which persona he's currently occupying. Nevertheless, The Stepfather is still a high water mark of 1980s horror/suspense."[7]

For his performance, O'Quinn was nominated for both a Saturn and an Independent Spirit Award. Director Ruben was honored with the Critics award at the 1988 Cognac Festival.[8] The film was also nominated for the International Fantasy Film Award for Best Film at the 1990 Fantasporto[9] and included in Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments on spot #70.[10]

Years since its release, it is also now considered a cult film.[11]


Award Category Nominee Result
Saturn Award Best Actor Terry O'Quinn Nominated
Critics Award Joseph Ruben Won
Edgar Award Best Motion Picture Donald E. Westlake Nominated
International Fantasy Film Award Best Film Joseph Ruben Nominated
Independent Spirit Award Best Male Lead Terry O'Quinn Nominated
NSFC Award Best Actor Terry O'Quinn 3rd place
Best Actress Jill Schoelen Won
Best Film Joseph Ruben Nominated
Young Artist Award Best Young Actress in a Horror Motion Picture Jill Schoelen Nominated
Young Artist Award Teenage Favorite Horror/Drama Motion Picture The Stepfather Nominated


Related films

The film was followed by a sequel Stepfather II in 1989 opening to negative reviews. Another sequel Stepfather III was released in 1992 without O'Quinn's return for the character. The remake The Stepfather was released in 2009 to negative reviews.


  1. 1 2 3 "The Stepfather". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-11-06.
  2. 1 2 "The Stepfather". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2008-07-30.
  3. Ryan, Desmond (December 3, 1989). "How Profitable Sequels Succeed: They Just Bring 'em Back Alive". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  4. "At last! Original Stepfather coming to DVD". Fangoria. Retrieved 2009-06-30.
  5. "The Stepfather (1987)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2016-11-06.
  6. Ebert, Roger (1987-03-02). "The Stepfather". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2008-07-30.
  7. Anderson, Jeffrey M. "The Stepfather (1987)". Who Am I Here?. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  8. "Joseph Ruben Bio". Tribute. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  9. "Fantasporto: 1990". The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2008-07-30.
  10. "100 Scariest Movie Moments Countdown". Archived from the original on May 16, 2008. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  11. Tobias, Scott. "The New Cult Canon: The Stepfather". AV Club. Retrieved 19 April 2013.

External links

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