Picks and Pans Review: The Stepfather

updated 05/18/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/18/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A man, with no distinguishing features save the beard he's now shaving meticulously in the bathroom mirror, whistles a bit of Camptown Races, dresses and leaves his home. With no more than a passing glance, he walks by his wife and stepchildren, their bodies mutilated and lifeless in the family parlor. Then he's off, putting a jaunty spin on his whistle, in search of a new widow with children and another chance to commit murder. So begins one of the most marrow-chilling movies of recent years. Credit director Joseph (Dream-scape) Ruben and crime novelist and screenwriter Donald (Cops and Robbers) Westlake with knowing how to grip an audience without resorting to constant bloodletting. Terry O'Quinn (Debra Winger's boss in Black Widow) is sensationally effective as the stepfather whose rage is sparked whenever his idealized vision of family life goes askew, a psychopath posing as an average Joe. With his bright sweaters to offset his rigidly bland personality, O'Quinn could have stepped off a Father's Day card. The film focuses on O'Quinn's latest identity, as a real estate salesman who marries the widowed Shelley (Jack and Mike) Hack. She has a 16-year-old daughter, played with likable orneriness by Jill (D.C Cab) Schoelen. The teenager doesn't like her new dad. She sees through his attempts to buy her affection with a puppy and suspects something sinister when she catches him throwing a tantrum in the basement. Helped by her therapist (Charles Lanyer), Schoelen finds herself heading for a fearful confrontation. Ruben works the eerie give-and-take in these daughter-stepfather scenes with a finesse that recalls Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright in Hitchcock's 1943 classic, Shadow of a Doubt. To reveal more would be a cheat. The Stepfather is a rare find in this gore-glutted era, a terrifying thriller that plumbs the violence of the mind. (R)

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