Monday, May 03, 2010

The murderer who looks like us

The steel-clawed monster, Freddy Krueger, has risen (again) from the dead in a remake of the 1984 hit, A Nightmare On Elm Street. It was number one at the box office this past weekend. I won't see it. I'm supposing it's a jack-in-the-box movie; the viewer is set up by creepy music, then the monster jumps out, levitating the audience out of their seats.

This weekend I watched a movie with genuine suspense and good acting, which manages its scares intelligently and in context. Imagine that! According to the DVD documentary on the making of the movie, they deliberately avoided the slasher movie label. The Stepfather was made in the mid-'80s, had critical acclaim, but was a dud at the box office, probably because it was smarter than a slasher flick. And a lot less killings. Over the years The Stepfather has grown in cult status.

The story's genesis is based on a real life murderer, John List, who was in 1971 living an upper middle-class lifestyle with his family in New Jersey. List, a pious Christian, lost his job, and rather than let his family face an uncertain future, he made sure they had no future by killing them all. He then disappeared, took up a new life and family, and was only brought to justice years later thanks to America's Most Wanted.

Brian Garfield (Death Wish) and Donald Westlake (The Hot Rock), two great mystery writers, collaborated on the script of The Stepfather. Their collaboration automatically made it interesting to me. The filmmakers got lucky with their casting. The title role is played by Terry O'Quinn, now best known as John Locke on Lost, but then a character actor. This breakthrough movie put O'Quinn on the map with critics. Thanks to a low budget, the producers couldn't go for a major movie star, but the movie is better, more believable, for it.

The Stepfather has a disturbing opening sequence. O'Quinn appears in front of us and his bathroom mirror, shaggy and covered in blood. He trims, shaves, showers.

He dresses neatly, smiles at his reflection and new look. The blood-covered killer is transformed into a handsome and well-dressed man. He leaves, and in the hallway picks up a child's toy, which he places in a toybox, and closes the lid. Then he goes downstairs.

O'Quinn steps into the carnage he has caused, while his dead family is sprawled in the living room. The scene is horrifying, but it's dark and it goes by very quick. Details are hard to make out. He uprights a chair, goes out the front door whistling and into a new life.

The bulk of the movie is made up of his new life as Jerry Blake, real estate salesman, his new wife, Susan, played by Shelley Hack, and her daughter Stephanie, played by then teenage Jill Schoelen. Jerry and Susan have been married a year, but while his wife believes and loves him, his daughter is intuitive enough to know that something is off. Smart kid. Everyone should be so intuitive.

Police are stymied by lack of clues, so it falls to the brother of Jerry's murdered wife to track him down. As the story progresses, things deteriorate for Jerry. He wants a perfect family, a perfect life, but he can't be satisfied, and soon he is ready to dispose of this family and go on to another.

Suspense comes from the process that Jerry goes through when those around him disappoint him. He's a narcissist, and murder is his way of removing those he not longer has use for.

The Stepfather, like Nightmare On Elm Street, was remade. I haven't seen the remake and probably won't. I also haven't seen any sequels to the original movie. I don't see the point. With O'Quinn, as Jerry Blake, you have the perfect psychopath. He's much more scary to me than Freddy Krueger, who is supernatural, so could not exist. Unfortunately, the character O'Quinn plays does exist in real life, hiding chameleon-like among us. I'd rather face a boatload of fantasy killers like Freddy than one real Jerry Blake.

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