In domestic thrillers, there’s a dark threat from someone from within a family unit or an outsider that’s close to a household.
Interestingly, most of the genre focuses on women being the villains. ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’, ‘The Bad Seed’, ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle’, ‘Ma’, and ‘Single White Female’ are just a few. Sometimes the women villain is an obsessive, rebuffed romantic interest like ‘Play Misty for Me’ or ‘Fatal Attraction’. Sometimes the guy morphs into a villain, but only after being goaded into it by a manipulative woman as in ‘Vertigo’, ‘Rebecca’, and ‘Marnie’.
Now and then, the domestic threat is male, as is the case in 1987’s ‘The Stepfather’.
The premise is pretty simple: the stepdad’s a serial killer who marries into a family, eventually gets mad, and kills the whole family before moving on. Yes, it sounds absolutely ridiculous. Yes, it opens with synthesizer music and bloody red text on black. Yes, as per the trend in the olden days, there is a shower scene with a nude teenaged character for no good reason. Yes, most of the acting is flat as a smooshed pancake.
But the best part of the movie, and why I recommend it as a hangover movie, is the performance of character actor Terry O’Quinn. You’ve definitely seen him here and there in bit parts. I was personally stunned to see him in this movie not only with hair but with a very appealing dad bod. I guess slaughtering people helps keep you in shape.
O’Quinn takes this role fully by the horns. Even though the movie opens with him cleaning up after his latest murderfest, you forget in some scenes that he’s not a normal guy. And when he has his freak-out scenes, you fully believe that you’re uncomfortably observing an actual nervous breakdown rather than an overdramatic flailing.
[Terry O’Quinn was apparently having a lot of fun with psychotic characters in the 80s. The same year ‘The Stepfather’ came out, O’Quinn also starred in a different domestic thriller named ‘Pin.’ In it, O’Quinn plays a doctor who uses ventriloquism via a life-size anatomically correct dummy to teach kids about how the body works. And he ISN’T the bad guy. That sounds so amazingly insane, I’m going to go watch it after writing this article.]
O’Quinn’s performance and the direction for the character are so nuanced, with great little touches here and there. In the opening sequence, the stepfather straightens up some stray toys. Then he strolls out the door without a second glance of the room filled with blood and bodies. The film paints a very textured picture of this character with a fixation on the ‘old fashioned’ way, including being enamored with the idea of a perfect family with father always knowing best.
Of course, ‘The Stepfather’ had plenty of material to work off of for this character.
O’Quinn’s character is clearly drafted from a real person: John List, one of the most notorious family annihilators in true crime history.
In 1971, John List systematically murdered his mother, wife, and three children. And then, just like the start of ‘The Stepfather’, he strolled out of the house and into the world.
John List followed the path from a strict, dour, ‘old fashioned’ head of household to becoming the pinnacle of what criminal profilers call ‘the organized killer’.
He was a churchgoer, an accountant, and a lieutenant in the ROTC. It was a life of order, and it brought him success. He became second husband to his wife, Helen. He had two sons and a daughter with her. His growing career enabled them to buy a 19 room mansion in New Jersey, large enough to accommodate his aging mother in a separate apartment.
But then things started to go wrong. The marriage between John and his wife had its difficulties, as his wife was allegedly an alcoholic. Then in 1969, it was revealed that for their entire two-decade marriage, Helen had concealed having tertiary syphilis.
Both conditions can strain a marriage, but in any event: his wife was sick, but in ways that were not ‘wholesome’. And to List that only meant that she was a deviation from what was correct and right.
This perception was exacerbated when Helen reportedly said she wanted to leave the Lutheran church. For List, a devout Lutheran, this was beyond the pale—and further evidence that Helen was a threat to the family unit’s wellbeing.
List’s oldest daughter, Patricia, was another splinter in List’s domestic ideals. She was participating in the school play and openly discussing dreams of becoming an actress. Of course like any sensible person, List didn’t approve because he knew actresses = make Jesus sad.
In 1971, List encountered another stressor. He was fired from his bank job. List’s response to this was orderly in its own bizarre way: he pretended to go to work every day, spending his ‘working’ hours at the train station reading the newspaper. He paid the mortgage on the extravagant house by skimming his mother’s bank accounts. Just everyday living a lie and stealing from family, like a good Christian son.
List knew the financial situation was not sustainable. And deciding like any good conservative that death was better than going on welfare, he set about making a plan. All those hours in the train station gave him a lot of time to think. “After much thought,” List planned a perfect murder of his household.
In the days leading up to the killings, List quietly scheduled the stopping of milk, newspaper, and mail deliveries. He informed the children’s schools and part time jobs that the family would be away for several weeks due to a family member’s illness.
On November 9, the three List children went to school. While Helen drank her morning coffee, her husband shot her in the back of the head. Then he went up to his mother’s apartments and shot her. List wrapped his wife up in a sleeping bag and dragged her into the ballroom. He didn’t move his mother because “she was too heavy to move.”
List cleaned up where he had killed his wife, and waited. Daughter Patricia came home a little early from school and List shot her in the back of the head. Then youngest son Frederick arrived home after school and met the same fate.
In a true show of psychopathy, List continued through the day like knocking out tasks on a daily ‘to do’ list. He ate a sandwich and closed his bank accounts. Then he drove out to the school soccer field and cheered on his oldest son, John Jr. at a game.
List drove his son home and killed him too. His three children and wife were all neatly wrapped in sleeping bags and arranged in the ballroom.
List turned down the temperature of the house. He turned the internal house sound system to a choral radio station. He turned all of the lights on. And then he cut his face out of every photo in the house, so that when the police eventually discovered his crime, they would have no recent photos to help with IDing him.
After a hard day’s work, List turned in and slept in the house filled with his slaughtered family. The next morning, List left to begin a new life. While some family annihilators kill themselves in the midst of their murderous sprees, List later claimed that he couldn’t, as suicide was a sin. Apparently, so was being arrested by authorities. And, to be fair, speaking to the cops never worked out well for Jesus.
John List did such a good job preparing for his crimes, that his murdered family wasn’t discovered until almost a month after he’d walked out the door.
We know all of this, the how and why of the murders, because List couldn’t help but to tell someone how smart and ‘righteous’ he was. He left behind a 5 page confession letter addressed to his pastor. This is how we have a full picture of List’s personality, from his meticulous actions to his aggrandized defense of them.
And that’s how ‘The Stepfather’ was able to recreate List’s persona in its script in 1987. I’ll be candid: I struggle to find any explicit admissions of the link, but you can make a point-by-point comparison that is too close to be coincidence. Thus, ‘The Stepfather’ stands out due to a very particular, chilling reason.
List was captured in 1989 thanks to some great profiling, forensics, and media work. But in 1987, List could’ve walked into a theater and watched the grindhouse version of his own crimes. And he would’ve been watching it along side his new, totally unaware, wife. How many layers of awkward would that have been? You have to wonder if he would’ve been sweating or cheering….
There have been questions about whether true crime as entertainment is exploitative. As Your Intrepid Host clearly consumes and presents true crime for entertainment purposes, I’m not in a position to deeply examine that question. But this film is an interesting case.
‘The Stepfather’ isn’t like Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’, a close depiction of true events. While ‘Zodiac’ is a vehicle of entertainment and profit surrounding unsolved crimes and a murderer that escaped justice, Fincher takes his subject seriously.
But ‘The Stepfather’ takes a real horrific event, fictionalizes it, and takes it to full slasher-movie mode. Yet in retrospect, the movie isn’t remembered as especially distasteful. This could be because the film was well regarded when it released, because the List case wasn’t in the public consciousness at the time, or because John List was later caught due to totally unrelated events.
A comparable example might be 2010’s ‘All Good Things.’ You’ve probably never heard of it, in spite of Ryan Gosling starring in it. But you’ve likely heard of Robert Durst, the suspected psychopath the movie is based on. Also a domestic thriller, the film is a fictionalized (yet practically identical) account of everything you’ve already heard about in 2015’s ‘The Jinx.’
Just as like Robert Durst in real life, the Ryan Gosling character gets away with disappearing his wife. The movie was reportedly not that good, and seems a pretty gross use of a real life tragedy. For example, the title of the movie comes from the real health food store that Durst operated with his missing (presumed hella murdered) wife, Kathy McCormick.
In a weird twist, maybe the only saving grace of ‘All Good Things’ is that it captured the real Robert Durst’s attention. This caused Durst to reach out to the film’s director to tell his side of things. That relationship spawned ‘The Jinx’ documentary, renewing public and legal interest in Durst’s alleged (cough cough cough) crimes.
Another, more recent comparison might be this year’s ‘The Haunting of Sharon Tate.’ This film’s neat ‘so edgy maaaaan’ idea is that Sharon Tate had premonitions of the horrific Manson murders. In other words, the idea is that this real life murder victim had graphic, interactive, slasher visions of her and her friends getting slaughtered. Aaand she did nothing. Cause, like, fate or whatever.
The film’s been almost universally panned and judged ‘pure, unadulterated cheeseball exploitation’.
Because it’s the 50th anniversary of the murders, Charles Manson is getting a lot of film time this year. But what’s the difference between ‘The Haunting of Sharon Tate’ vs the other fictional depictions this year like Tarentino’s ‘Once Upon a time in Hollywood’ or Netflix’s ‘Mindhunter?’ Is it just because Tarentino and Fincher are superior filmmakers that they are seen as less exploitative over rehashing the same events/perpetrators?
Exploitation is very much a broad, gray line. But maybe there are some litmus test questions that can be applied to identify particularly egregious examples. If based on real life events, what are they being used for artistically? How does the film’s portrayal compare to those real life events? How are the victims/perpetrators regarded? Are there real injustices being glossed over or abused for the sake of entertainment?
Or, ya know, just eat your popcorn and watch when you like.
Today’s Lesson: Don’t ever become a movie blogger, friends. It’ll ruin fun FOREVER.
As a final note:
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is: 1-800-799-7233.
There is hope, there is help.
It will be there now, when you need it, and when you’re ready.