The Stepfather

(Joseph Ruben, USA, 1987)


Joseph Ruben's excellent The Stepfather is an example of the ‘minor’ thriller – minor in the Deleuze-Guattari sense of quietly but surely bending the genre from within. Its assumed subversiveness was noted, at the time of its release, even by hack reviewers and, in particular, celebrated wildly in a Film Quarterly article (Winter 1987-8).

Ruben is certainly hip to a bit of traditional thriller-thematics; he obviously has a rough sense of what people have said in recent years about the radical implications of some of the old Hollywood melodramas and thrillers like The Reckless Moment (Ophuls, 1949), Undercurrent (Minnelli, 1946) or especially Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock, 1943).

Ruben can mimic both Hitchcock the Entertainer and Hitchcock the Subversive Artist. The Stepfather is certainly anti-patriarchal, anti-American Dream, anti-old fashioned values. But Ruben sprinkles around the traces of such radical sentiments like he sprinkles around stunning dolly shots or bits of inscrutable ambiguity – it's all, largely, for effect, frisson, perhaps not for the primary purpose of expressing a conviction about or insight into social norms.

I don't think we can say, however – as Patricia Erens in Film Quarterly did – that The Stepfather smashes patriarchy and creates a space for female viewers to enter a nurturing relationship with the mother. Ruben's pure cinema is simply more abstract than that.

a sequel: Stepfather III

MORE Ruben: The Forgotten, The Good Son

© Adrian Martin August 1988

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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