Now let me be clear about this before I get started, the horror of step-parents is by no means particular to the 1980s. If one thinks about it for a bit, other examples throughout the Western canon of literature and film come to mind, like Hamlet‘s King Claudius or Cinderella’s wicked step-mother or even my favorite reverend Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. That said, the 80s provides an interesting cultural moment for the murderous step-parent that is particularly special to me, because the film The Stepfather (1987) was an important one in my life. Let me explain a little bit as to why.
My parents were divorced in 1984 (I was 12 or 13), but it wasn’t so bad because I had six brothers and sisters to lean on, and quite frankly my mom deserved a break—we all knew that. In fact, we were all prepared for it, and one of the best traits of my family—despite being clinically nuts—was that we had the great fortune of being able to joke about emotional turmoil, a trait which buoys us and keeps us close still. By 1986 my mother was re-married, and I entered the world of step-parents. Divorce and step-parents was nothing new to me, most of my close friends from high school came from divorced families, and it was as much the norm as not.
It wasn’t something we ever really talked about, it just was. I have no real horror stories of my own, just more life, but I give you this background to set the stage for why The Stepfather’s appearance on my local video store’s shelf in 1987 was so significant. It was the first time I watched a film wherein I realized how it was intentionally playing on (some may argue exploiting) a social phenomenon that so many people with a given culture were experiencing. The idea of the broken family as somehow horrible, and the nucleus of moral values, “the family unit,” being invaded by outsiders, who might even potentially be homicidal strangers. The heart of the 80s family values cultural tripe might be read into this film, yet at the same time it was comical. It was a film that made my friends and I laugh, we loved Jerry Blake and his constant stammering “Who am I here? Ahhhh, Jerry…Jerry Blake.” This was vintage humor for us, and the very idea that we were together reading this film as a piece of exploitation, of thinly veiled and cheaply packaged cultural commentary that we both acknowledged and reveled in at the same time was a watershed moment for me in retrospect. I was 14 or 15, the world on film was trying to comment on my living room, and I realized there are millions just like it. A narrative ill-equipped to deal with the issues of the day is just as informative, and at times more enjoyable, than those that pretend to be, or even are. The apotheosis of the b-movie in my mind, and the beginning of a love affair with bad films. Yep, that’s right, The Stepfather was the first in that regard. No, not the first b-movie by a long shot, but the first one that gave me a glimpse of perspective on why I liked them so much. It was a moment that very much informs much of my writing on this blog, and my own fascination and great respect for cultural media studies.
Who am I here? Ahh , Jerry…Jerry Blake.
Here’s the trailer
And here’s the classic opening scene