Last week, one of my coworkers asked me the name of the guy who killed his entire family in their mansion in the 1970s. I told them it was John List. She nodded and said that she was sure that I would know and that’s why she asked me. I guess I have a bit of a reputation for knowing things like that.
For the uninitiated, John List lived in a 19-room mansion in Westfield, NJ. He lost his job and was living beyond his means but he kept commuting to work every day like nothing happened instead of telling his family. List was very religious and saw his wife and children interested in what he considered worldly matters. He shot his wife, mother, and three children to speed their passage to heaven and was sure that he’d be forgiven and be reunited with them. Then he dragged them into the ballroom (Yes, his mansion actually had a ballroom), placed them on sleeping bags, and left them with church music playing over the house intercom system. This was thoroughly premeditated, in case you couldn’t tell. List left notes requesting that the milk and mail deliveries be stopped and even gave notes to his children’s’ schools saying that they’d be gone for the next couple of days. The bodies weren’t discovered for a month. List was long gone by then and wasn’t apprehended until over a decade later.
I’d like to add that this isn’t just part of my general knowledge of mass murderers, serial killers, and atrocities. I grew up in North Plainfield, NJ, which is very close to Westfield. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an old-timer in North Plainfield who didn’t remember John List. The mansion burned down in an unsolved case of arson. Otherwise, I’m sure that visiting the List house would be a rite of passage like visiting Demon’s Alley or Shades of Death Road.
I was thinking about John List because I watched The Stepfather (1987). Now there’s a case of life inspiring art. I was vindicated when I watched the special feature “The Stepfather Chronicles” on the Shout! Factory DVD. The filmmakers were indeed inspired by List. I just like to be right.
The movie is about–you guessed it–a stepfather who isn’t what he seems. Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn) is a man so obsessed with the idea of the perfect family that he’s willing to slaughter his current, imperfect family to find a new, better, faster, stronger family. The movie opens with what I think is a very quietly creepy scene.
Jerry washes the blood off of himself, shaves, discards his glasses, like an actor preparing for a new role. He goes from Steven Keaton to Alex P. Keaton, if both Keaton men were spree killers. I have a theory about this. He goes down the hall in his new, preppy form, and the audience catches a glimpse of the slaughter.
Blake ignores what remains of his family but picks up an errant toy sail-boat and puts it away.
One year later, he’s married to Susan (Shelly Hack). Her stepdaughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), is suspicious of him. I love Stephanie. She’s resourceful, smart, and actually looks like a teenager (Even though Jill Schoelen was 24 when she played her.) We’re given glimpses of Jerry unraveling but nothing from his past is ever explained. I actually appreciate this. Monsters are always scarier when there isn’t really an inspiration. Is Hannibal Lecter really scary when you discover that he had a bad childhood? No, no he’s not.
The movie was beautifully shot and fun to watch and I wanted to like it more than I did. I just didn’t find it too scary. The violent scenes managed to be brutal while subdued. Nothing was cartoonish or over the top but O’Quinn definitely brought an intensity to this role that leaves me terrified of him today. However, nothing really creeped up on me and nothing really scared me. It was nice to look at though. I especially loved this scene with Dr. Bondurant.
There’s something so intense about that hand and the blood isn’t cartoonish.
My only other problem was with the music. At points it was creepy, especially when contrasted with the suburban normalcy of the setting. But it overwhelmed other scenes. When Susan is having a heart-to-heart with Stephanie in one scene it sounds like they’re being stalked by Depeche Mode.
The message of the film is pretty clear. How do you fight something bad that comes from within? The movie was conceptualized in the 1970s but it wasn’t made until 1987, which was the end of the Reagan administration. His administration was a pretty big cheerleader for traditional family values. I’m not sure if the filmmakers’ intended this but The Stepfather actually seemed like an interesting reaction to the politics of its time.
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- Scarina--the authoress and editrix of this site. I like scary movies and have dedicated my free time to cataloging horror--the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes there are books too.
There's film criticism, literary criticism, and humor here. I can be highbrow but there's lots of pop culture too. And feminism.
I fervently love "Twin Peaks" and wish it were a real place so I could move there. I can't list my favorite scary movies because they change depending on my mood, the season, and how much coffee I've had.
I'm an artist looking for ways to blend creepy with cute. I try to channel my childhood nightmares, my love of horror, and my experiences with sleepy paralysis.
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