The Stepfather (1987 film)

The Stepfather is a 1987 American psychological thriller film directed by Joseph Ruben and starring Terry O'Quinn, Jill Schoelen, and Shelley Hack. O'Quinn stars as an identity-assuming serial killer who marries a widow with a teenage daughter. Having killed his previous family and changed his identity, his murderous tendencies continue after his stepdaughter becomes suspicious about him. The film 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 with an uncredited rewrite by David Loughery.

The Stepfather
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoseph Ruben
Produced byJay Benson
Screenplay byDonald E. Westlake
Story by
Music byPatrick Moraz
CinematographyJohn W. Lindley
Edited byGeorge Bowers
Distributed byNew Century Vista Film Company[1]
Release date
  • January 23, 1987 (1987-01-23) (United States)
Running time
89 minutes
CountryUnited States[1]
Box office$2.5 million (US)[2]

The film was theatrically released in the United States on January 23, 1987. It grossed $2.5 million at the box office and was well-received by critics. 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 in 2009.


Henry Morrison washes off blood in a bathroom, before changing his appearance and putting 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 in the suburbs of Seattle—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, Jim Ogilvie, the brother of Jerry's murdered previous 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 the basement. Discovering his stepdaughter, Jerry brushes off his outbursts by saying that 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, who has repeatedly refused to meet him, 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, and, mistakenly believing he is an undercover cop, beats him to death and stages 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 is her father, though 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 Stephanie was right about him. Realizing his mistake, Jerry bashes Susan on the head with the phone and knocks her down the basement stairs. Content that Susan is dead, Jerry then sets out to kill Stephanie. Jim, who has realized Jerry is the man who killed his family, arrives wielding a revolver, but Jerry stabs him to death before Jim can shoot him. After terrorizing Stephanie, he corners her in the attic, only to fall through the weak floor down to the bathroom. Susan shoots Jerry twice when he tries to attack Stephanie, and Stephanie stabs him in the chest. He weakly utters "I love you" and tumbles down the stairs. Stephanie later cuts down a birdhouse she and Jerry had built during the time they bonded.


  • Terry O'Quinn as Jerry Blake "The Stepfather" / Henry Morrison / Bill Hodgkins
  • Jill Schoelen as Stephanie Maine
  • Shelley Hack as Susan Maine
  • Charles Lanyer as Dr. A. Bondurant
  • Stephen Shellen as Jim Ogilvie
  • Stephen E. Miller as Al Brennan
  • Robyn Stevan as Karen
  • Jeff Schultz as Paul Baker
  • Lindsay Bourne as Art Teacher
  • Anna Hagan as Mrs. Leitner
  • Gillian Barber as Annie Barnes
  • Blu Mankuma as Lt. Jack Wall
  • Jackson Davies as Mr. Chesterton
  • Sandra Head as Receptionist
  • Gabrielle Rose as Dorothy Rinehard
  • Richard Sargent as Mr. Anderson
  • Margot Pinvidic as Mrs. Anderson
  • Rochelle Greenwood as Cindy Anderson
  • Don S. Williams as Mr. Stark
  • Don MacKay as Joe
  • Dale Wilson as Frank
  • Gary Hetherington as Herb
  • Andrew Snider as Mr. Grace
  • Marie Stillin as Mrs. Fairfax
  • Paul Batten as Mr. Fairfax
  • Sheila Paterson as Dr. Barbara Faraday




Home media

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.


Box office

The Stepfather was initially marketed as a psychological thriller. When audiences did not respond to this as well as New Century would have liked, they marketed it as a slasher film.[1] The film was theatrically released in the United States on January 23, 1987. During its opening weekend, The Stepfather grossed $260,587 in 105 theatres. Ultimately playing in 148 theatres, it earned a total US gross of $2.5 million.[2]

Critical response

The Stepfather has an 88% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes and an average rating of 6.8/10 out of 32 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]

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.[7] The film was also nominated for the International Fantasy Film Award for Best Film at the 1990 Fantasporto[8] and included in Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments on spot #70.[9]

Describing it as a cult film, Scott Tobias interprets the film as a critique of Reaganism.[10]


Award Category Nominee Result
Saturn AwardBest ActorTerry O'QuinnNominated
Critics AwardJoseph RubenWon
Edgar AwardBest Motion PictureDonald E. WestlakeNominated
International Fantasy Film AwardBest FilmJoseph RubenNominated
Independent Spirit AwardBest Male LeadTerry O'QuinnNominated
NSFC AwardBest ActorTerry O'Quinn3rd place
Young Artist AwardBest Young Actress in a Horror Motion PictureJill SchoelenNominated
Young Artist AwardTeenage Favorite Horror/Drama Motion PictureThe StepfatherNominated

Sequels and remake

The film was followed by a sequel, Stepfather II, in 1989, which opened to negative reviews. A third, made-for-television, film, Stepfather III, was released in 1992, with the title character played by another actor. A remake, The Stepfather, was released in 2009 to negative reviews.


  1. "The Stepfather". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-11-06.
  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. "Joseph Ruben Bio". Tribute. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  8. "Fantasporto: 1990". The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2008-07-30.
  9. "100 Scariest Movie Moments Countdown". Archived from the original on May 16, 2008. Retrieved May 24, 2008.
  10. Tobias, Scott. "The New Cult Canon: The Stepfather". AV Club. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
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