Horror of the 80s: Step-Parents

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

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5 Responses to Horror of the 80s: Step-Parents

  1. wow…it never ceases to amaze how many films we both enjoy. maybe it’s just because we’re both 80’s kids…and from broken homes!

    Just waiting for the Night Flight post….Admiral Balzey!

  2. James says:

    I loved this one back in the 80’s and remember it well. I seem to recall the over-the-top psychosis of the step-dad in this one. Sort of like Norman Bates, but without the gender-bender.

    I didn’t go through a family breakup when I was a kid, but unfortunately my kids went through it. They’re both almost adults now and we’re very close, but I don’t think they ever got completely over the turmoil of what followed the breakup.

    I won’t go into this flick and my kids’ step-dad … whoops, did I say that?

  3. Jason says:

    At least maybe the image of step parents in the movies has softened somewhat over time. In the 90s I always thought it was funny how in films like Mrs. Doubtfire, Liar Liar, The Santa Clause, etc. the new guy is portrayed as a pretentious twit (at least better than a homicidal maniac) while the biological father is glorified as the flawed but lovable hero.

  4. Reverend says:

    That’s pretty cool, because I never saw Night Flight before, in fact it’s totally new to me. But according to the Wikipedia article it looks awesome. I wonder if the have boxed sets of that show? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_Flight_(TV_series)

    HAHAHAHA! Yeah, how different for us parent types now to potentially be on the other side of this horror story. I always wonder how much the disintegration of communities frames the horror of another person coming into a family. The isolation becomes so great, that when it changes, a glacial shift in relations follows. Just think about the fear surrounding foster children and parents, etc. Crazy…

    That is an interesting follow-up to this, does 90s culture finally take the horror out of these figures to some degree? And I think while the “not real” father is always in question in the media (except for maybe The Brady Bunch), the fact remains that our understanding of these relationships through a kind of biological essentialism affords so much of the fear, which may suggest why the early Cronenberg is so amazing. He takes biology and mutates it so horrifically.

  5. MEBR says:

    My parents were divorced when i was 1 or 2, I’m not sure, I never asked, never wondered, never bothered them about it. They both loved me, I loved both of them, that was enough for me. I am a stepmother to a 5 year old now, his parents never got along, it was a missed pill case. The father mentions/talks to the mother as little as possible,just concerning school issues. I don’t talk to her at all. The child, by court’s decision, spends most of the week with us. We get along fine, I am more scared about the teenage stage, because he’s overall a great child but he has sometimes anger fits, (after his mother, a bad person). To cut to the point, I’ve been trying to find any sort of cartoons or movies in which stepparents are portrayed positively, and I have found just one, “Liar Liar’ with Jim Carrey, and even still, the stepparent is good, BUT a bit of an idiot it seems… I’m tired of watching movies where the stepparents are the bad guys. Had to switch the channel with supernanny last time because they made a point in higlighting a soppy moment when children are crying over their parents divorce, hence the parents let them talk bad towards them and hit them and not respect them… >.> Does anyone have any ideas for good shows? (Moreover, it’s 21 century, time for the stepparent to stop being the evil one, if someone witnessed what I had to go through the first months that I moved in with my husband, they would pity me, not the child. I’m very shy, responsible, an introvert, and was very very patient, and it took at least 4 or 5 months to get him to treat me the right way… and seas of my tears after each tough day)

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