“You will NEVER find a better family man than me, Pumpkin!”
This is a flashback within my current retrospective series. STEPFATHER II: MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY was a theatrical release in November of ’89 that got itself a made-for-cable sequel in ’92. I reviewed the original THE STEPFATHER way back in 2005, but I hadn’t revisited part II since around the time it came out on video, so I thought I should do that before part 3.
THE STEPFATHER is (like POISON IVY) the template for about forty thousand made-for-cable domestic suspense thrillers, but it’s a damn good movie. Terry O’Quinn (SILVER BULLET) is outstandingly creepy as the family values loving psycho who serially creates new identities, marries suburban single mothers, loses his shit when life isn’t perfect, massacres the family and starts over.
This first sequel comes from different filmmakers. It’s actually the first sequel by director Jeff Burr (FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM), who would go on to direct LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, PUPPET MASTER 4 and 5, and PUMPKINHEAD II: BLOOD WINGS. It’s produced by Darin Scott (who later produced TO SLEEP WITH ANGER, FEAR OF A BLACK HAT, MENACE II SOCIETY and TALES FROM THE HOOD) and written by John Auerbach (sound editor on Jim Jarmusch’s STRANGER THAN PARADISE and DOWN BY LAW?).
Crucially, O’Quinn returns as the title character, who has improbably survived a stabbing and been locked up in a mental hospital in “Puget Sound, Washington.” He spends his time building a miniature model of his dream home, complete with a little clay version of himself that hides a shiv he uses to murder his psychiatrist (Henry Brown, RING OF STEEL) and escape.
He decides on the next chapter of his life while watching the (actually cancelled at that point, but thematically perfect) game show Dream House, hosted by Bob Eubanks. The show is giving away a home in an exclusive community. When they say the slogan “Family values and easy living will have you agreeing that Palm Meadow Estates is where the American Dream comes true” he crawls onto the bed like he’s getting horny.
(It would be funny if a contestant from the game show moving in was a plot point, but it never comes up again.)
The Stepfather, now claiming to be a family therapist named Dr. Gene Clifford, is such a pro at what he does that his next victim is the very first woman he meets in Palm Meadow Estates – the real estate agent who sells him a house right across the street from her own. Her name is Carol (Meg Foster between BLIND FURY and TRIPWIRE), she’s been separated for a year, she has a 13-year-old skateboarding son named Todd (Jonathan Brandis, SIDEKICKS, in his first major movie role), and her dickhead husband Phil (Mitchell Laurance, Not Necessarily the News) is trying to get back together with her, so you can imagine how that will go.
Dr. Gene immediately sets up a weekly group session for the women of the neighborhood, who find him charming, except for Carol’s best friend Matty (Caroline Williams – Stretch from TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2!), who notices that he doesn’t seem to listen to her at all and then discovers that the notebook he pretends to be writing in is completely empty. She’s also the mail lady (delivering to her own street?) and notices that he doesn’t get any mail from where he claims to have moved from. She gets suspicious enough to investigate and figure out that neither the guy he claims to be or any of the people on the high school basketball team he said he played on where white guys.
Uh oh. She’s a goner. It’s fun to see Stretch again, though, and her postal service hat is covered in various bangles which I suspect is a quirk she added to give the character more personality. Man, she was a good friend to Carol. She even has a framed photo of her on her table right there to give her that creepy THEY LIVE stare as her stupid fiancee murders her! She tried to warn Carol and she wouldn’t listen. “If you’re my friend you’ll respect my feelings,” Carol said. I hope that haunts her.
One lapse of judgment by all these characters is that not one person seems to think there’s anything remotely weird or unethical about the psychiatrist marrying his patient. They’re all happy for her except for Matty.
While not drastically more trashy than the in-my-opinion-pretty-respectable original, this is definitely somewhat in an ‘80s slasher sequel tradition. I’m not complaining – I like that kinda shit. On the negative side it means they lean into him whistling “Camptown Races” so he has a trademark. On the positive side there’s some dark humor, even one-liners and puns (though O’Quinn is tasteful enough not to go full Freddy on them). My favorite is when he’s supposed to be having a talk with Phil and kills him. Yes, he says “I think it’s time I cracked open this bottle” and breaks a wine bottle over his head, but that’s not the part I’m talking about. The part I’m talking about is right after Phil dies, and then Carol calls. Gene pretends everything is fine, hangs up, and then deadpans to Phil’s corpse, “Carol wants you to call her.”
(Burr says on his commentary track that O’Quinn improvised that one.)
Some of the other humor is bent toward that type of satire that’s very much at the heart of this character, making fun of what Scott calls on the commentary “this perfect image of family life and American life… the Ozzie & Harriet universe” and Burr calls “the media perception of the American Dream as it was fed to the Baby Boomer generation.” He’s so delighted by this place where the benches are scrawled with the slogan “Good Homes. Good Families. Good Life.” He seems to have full glasses of milk with every meal, even Chinese takeout. When Carol questions why her friend would (allegedly) commit suicide he attributes it to her not being able to find “Mr. Right.” In maybe the silliest moment in the movie (maybe) he pours milk on his “Crispy Rice” and then leans down to listen to the snap, crackle and pop.
There’s a goofy little scene before he comes to Palm Meadows where he’s watching videos from “Video-Tronics Dating Service” and gets really upset by videos where a woman mentions something like using a diaphragm or prioritizing her career.
And there’s a nice mix of humor and discomfort when this uptight prude can’t keep his unhinged side under control. Disposing of Phil’s car he starts doing donuts and purposely crashing, seeming to have a fun time.
Nerd note: Matty uses an umbrella with bat-symbols on it because, according to Burr, Tim Burton’s BATMAN was in production at the same time and he knew it would be a big deal by the time this came out
I think this is a solid slasher sequel because it follows the formula just right, pretty obviously setting things up and then satisfying you by paying them off as hoped. For example, when he’s in World’s Greatest Stepdad mode he helps Todd build a skateboard ramp (with his name cut into the side!) and teaches him how to hammer nails properly. So yes, you better believe when Gene goes crazy before the wedding and locks Todd in a closet, the boy finds a hammer and uses it to kill the fucker. And since the final battle takes place before the wedding Gene’s weapon of choice is the cake cutter. And he knocks over the cake and there’s a shot of the happy couple cake topper plummeting to the ground.
There are also those little touches you don’t see coming that make it all worthwhile. Like, I love that when mail lady Matty is trying to fight for her life she reaches for a letter opener. And there’s a perfect moment at the end when you realize everybody’s been waiting in the church while Carol and Todd were battling Gene to the death in the room where the reception was supposed to take place. Everybody’s grumbling that they’re late and then they come in and the organist starts playing “Here Comes the Bride” before they see that they’re stumbling in covered in blood. You know I’m a sucker for a good chaotic intrusion into normalcy.
This was edited by Pasquale Buba, who had been a biker in DAWN OF THE DEAD and cut four movies by George Romero and one by another guy he worked with on MARTIN, so this was kind of his first non-Pittsburgh movie. Six years later he was one of the editors of HEAT, beginning a five movie collaboration with Al Pacino.
I didn’t notice it on the credits but I read that the fucking Weinsteins were executive producers and they thought it wasn’t gory enough but Burr and O’Quinn refused to take part in the reshoots they wanted so they hired Doug Campbell (ZAPPED AGAIN!) to shoot inserts of gore that they added in. I don’t think it was a bad idea, honestly, but I do wonder why they cut the opening involving model houses that was cool enough to be the basis of the trailer.
I can’t give this an A+ simply because Gene makes a big deal about playing catch and calling Todd “slugger,” yet Todd does not throw a baseball hard at his nuts during the final battle. Nor does he jump a skateboard into him. Still, it’s an enjoyable unnecessary exploitation of an earlier horror gem, with another great performance from an actor who hasn’t had enough lead roles.