Frame by Frame: The Stepfather (1987)
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A seemingly bland suburban realtor (Terry O’Quinn) marries into a widowed family and reacts violently when the clan doesn’t live up to his ideal of family values.
A link has frequently been drawn between the violence in the horror films of the 1980s – particularly the slasher flicks of the era – and the decade’s shift toward moral conservatism. When characters flaunted the tenants of the religious right that flourished under Reagan, their demise was swift. Have sex and you die. Take drugs and you die. Joseph Ruben’s clever low-budget thriller The Stepfather is one of the few films to intentionally and explicitly make that connection, presenting a portrait of unhinged patriarchy raging against the white middle class male’s dwindling influence that still feels relevant 30 years later.
Groups of Frames
The opening scene of The Stepfather is worth studying for its pure visual storytelling. There is no dialogue in the nearly six minute scene, which shows O’Quinn’s character changing his appearance, leaving behind his slaughtered family in their spacious suburban house, and dumping the evidence off the back of a ferry.
The opening shot (directly below) is a long tracking shot done on a Titan Crane that begins booming down as a paperboy rides toward camera. As he lofts a newspaper, the camera pans left to follow it before pushing in all the way to a close-up of one of the house’s windows.
(Above) The opening sequence ends with a cross-dissolve linking O’Quinn and his new stepdaughter (Jill Schoelen), similar to the way Alfred Hitchcock visually links Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright at the beginning of Shadow of a Doubt, a film whose structure The Stepfather is indebted to.
(Below) A low-angle push-in heightens O’Quinn’s sinisterness. We start with a shot of Schoelen in the foreground working on her bike as the garage door begins to open in the background. Cut to the garage door, with the camera tilting up as the door opens and then pushing in to an O’Quinn close-up.
(Below) A slow push-in that travels all the way across the family dinner table and into a tight O’Quinn close-up to show the character on the verge of his breaking point.
Unlike most slasher films of the 1980s, The Stepfather is not concerned with body count. The first on-screen kill doesn’t come until roughly the 45 minute mark, when O’Quinn’s realtor disposes of his stepdaughter’s snooping psychiatrist during a home tour.
Scene Length: 30 seconds
Number of shots: 12
Average Shot Length: 2.5 seconds