The Stepfather (1987)

Dir: Joseph Ruben, 1987. Starring: Terry O'Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack, Stephen Shellen. Horror.

The whole "death to remakes" wave didn’t really hit me until there was a remake of this film. It seems as though when one produces a remake of a movie that was very popular or influential to a genre, such as The Thing or Clash of the Titians, audiences will keep in mind the differences and critical aspects of both, often remaining loyal to the original or the "better" of them. At the very least, every generation is aware of the fact that it was a remake. With The Stepfather, it seems as though no one really remembers the first, which is a shame. Along with Arachnophobia, it remains one of the few films, horror or otherwise, which can get under my skin in a good way. I’ll admit that I am not a horror buff, which I’d argue is very common for people born after the mid-'80s. Horror films seemed to stand out, if not dominate audiences back then, as they should following a baby boom that left a considerable amount of teenagers and young adults who expected the ultimate theater experience. Many of the films that I’ve just been introduced to are some of the most well designed films around, in any genre. Not just for story, but for the lack of computer effects and some notorious soundtracks by awesome conductors.

The Stepfather plants its tactics in the home, unlike most other horror films. There are no (fictional) monsters—no radiated zombies or blood thirst beasts. The film opens with its most psychologically disturbing scene. A peaceful suburb is overlooked and all the attention is placed on a beautiful home. A man washes his bloody hands in a bathroom. He looks like a gangly lumberjack. Within minutes, he is showered and begins to change his appearance right down to his eye color. Standing in the mirror now is a clean-shaven gentleman in a nice suit. The look on his face both before and after his transformation tells us that there is a screw loose up there in his big head. He puts his old clothes, spectacles, and wedding ring into a suitcase and walks into the hall, where the buzz of a phone off the hook has spread throughout the house. He returns some toys to their bin (he's a tidy man, after all). You see adorable photos off-kilter on the stairway and still you are not alarmed, until he reaches the bottom of the steps and blood is smeared on the wall. The mangled bodies of his wife and young daughter are on the floor; it becomes obvious that he is the killer. But what does he do before he leaves the grizzly scene? Places the blood-smeared phone back in its cradle and puts the cushion of a chair back where it belongs. It’s as if he’s thinking that when the cops find the massacre, they will note that barbarians didn’t live there.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 21, 2010 6:25pm

True Believer

Dir: Joseph Ruben, 1989. Starring: James Wood, Robert Downey Jr., Margaret Colin, Yuji Okumoto. Mystery.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for court room, investigative drama; no matter how pedestrian. The ace-up-the-sleeve for True Believer is the dynamic performance by James Woods. Working at the peak of his acting powers, Woods plays a once celebrated, radical lawyer, now burned out and living on defending drug dealers. Woods, a wiry and intense actor, had spent years specializing in unhinged types, before he really came to the public's attention in the late '70s with his work (opposite Meryl Streep) in the TV miniseries Holocaust, and his searing performance as a petty criminal in The Onion Field. He spent most of the '80s in potentially important films that didn’t break him out (Once Upon a Time in America, Against All Odds), fascinating misses (Videodrome, The Boost), with some little seen gems mixed in (Fast-Walking, Split Image). In ’86 he finally broke through, winning every major TV award for the small-screen movie Promise and getting his first Oscar nomination for his powerhouse work in Oliver Stone’s Salvador. True Believer fell in the post-award buzz period, when he was scoring those big-star leading-man roles. Here he fully delivers on the promise.

Though wrapped up in a mystery, True Believer actually works better as one of those what-ever-happened-to-our-heroes-from-the-'60s? movies (The Big Chill, Running on Empty, etc.). The true believer in question here is Edward Dodd (Woods), a sorta William Kunstler like lawyer who once fought for civil liberties, civil rights and other groovy ideals, but now, even though he still has his long hair and openly smokes pot, prefers to defend whoever has the bread to pay him (usually real criminals). An idolizing, young law school graduate, Roger Baron (Robert Downey Jr, a couple years before his performance in Chaplin made him a major actor) volunteers to be his clerk, hoping to experience some of that '60s magic. He pushes Dodd to become better, until the older lawyer slowly comes to realize he has been cheating himself and his own ideals. Oh, and also there's some kind of loser case that Baron convinces him to take; something about a Korean-American kid wrongly convicted of murder that leads to the uncovering of all kinds of legal system corruption, as well as some suspense and some lawyerly heroics.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 23, 2016 1:25pm
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