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Movie Reviews : 'The Stepfather 2' Is a Crazed Attempt at a Sequel

November 16, 1989|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Joseph Ruben's 1987 "The Stepfather"--written by the novelist Donald Westlake and featuring a remarkable, little-known actor, Terry O'Quinn, as a chameleonic psychotic searching for the perfect family and killing the failures one after another--was a shocker aimed at a genre audience that caught the critics instead.

"The Stepfather 2" (citywide), on the other hand, is the sort of sequel that shouldn't have been made. Not simply because it repeats so many of the devices of the original--the plot, the theme, O'Quinn's airy post-murder whistling of "Camptown Races"--but because it makes nonsense of its predecessor by existing at all.

At the end of "The Stepfather," O'Quinn's murderous, multi-identitied all-American Dad was shot in the back, stabbed in the arm and stabbed again, apparently near the heart. But here, at the opening, he suddenly thrashes up in a prison bed, none the worse for wear except for some nasty chest scars. Having established his extraordinary recuperative powers--a match for Jason's in "Friday the 13th"--the movie makers then whip up an unlikely way to spring him from maximum security prison, involving a credulous psychiatrist and another of Pop's toy houses.

Then, perhaps dizzy with relief, they switch into low gear and simple repetition for the remainder--with O'Quinn, now a counselor, sporting another of his endless supply of pseudonyms and toupees and courting another single mother, with the same relentlessly mild manner hiding the same psychotic rage at his inability to achieve TV sitcom-family bliss.

For a medium-budget horror feature, Ruben's film had unusually lively camera movements and dialogue that satirically sliced up middle-American family iconography. And O'Quinn--as the crazed father who kept switching identities after each massacre and had a smile as smooth and a voice as friendly as Ward Cleaver's--gave an immensely subtle and defined comic-horrific performance.

But the sequel (rated R for sex, violence and language) doesn't have anything extraordinary besides O'Quinn--just as subtle, just as eerily off-center, now drowned in bluishly evocative cinematography, in suspicious females and more temper tantrums.

Director Jeff Burr and writer John Auerbach show a laudable taste for moody tension over non-stop blood baths. But they can't disguise the fact that they're walking around waving a corpse and trying to make it do tricks.

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