Before There Was Scream Factory, There Was... The Stepfather (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)


1987's The Stepfather is a taught little horror thriller that stands out just by virtue of being a little better in every department. It's got above average writing, thanks largely to a terrific idea taken from a shocking, true life story. There's this very traditional, middle-class, high family values kind of guy who seems completely innocuous and friendly. He's got a beautiful wife, nice kid; and everything's great as long as things are going his way. But if anything starts to go wrong, he'll murder his whole household rather than face their failure to live up to his idealistic fantasy of the perfect American family. And just like his real-life counterpart, instead of spending the rest of his life in jail, the titular stepfather simply changes his identity and moves in with a new family to try again. A family who has no idea that they'd better try their best live up to his fragile expectations, because their lives are on the line.
More than just the writing, though, it's an effective, well-directed little film with a subtly haunting score and most notably a defining role played by Terry O'Quinn. He delivers one of cinema's all-time memorable performances, as he turns from charming to chilling on a dime, to the point where it's taken him decades to go from being known simply as the stepfather to "that guy from Lost." He's crafted the perfect image of the very last guy you'd ever want to marry your mom and take over your home.

Not that the film's flawless. The plot flops around a bit in the middle, introducing and eventually just getting rid of a whole other lead character. A surviving member of a prior family is plodding along on the stepfather's trail while bickering with the local police, and it just never gets interesting or has any influence on the main characters. Really, everybody who gets between the audience and the main nuclear family, which is where all the drama is, just feel like they're padding the running time. But hey, you can't begrudge a horror film too much for tossing in a couple extra murders, and every time the camera focuses back on the leads, the film's back to firing on all cylinders again.
There's another potential issue that hangs over any issue of this film: is it uncut? The Stepfather's IMDB board is full of people looking for a television version with alternate scenes. And having grown up with a copy of this film taped off of cable TV, those scenes sound familiar to me, too. I'm pretty sure they're right. But they're not included on any commercial release to date, either as part of the feature film or deleted scenes. So it's a nice dream, but unfortunately the standard R-rated cut is the only version on the table.
For the longest time, The Stepfather was conspicuously MIA on DVD, at least here in the US. There were a couple of generic, fullscreen VHS-sourced releases overseas. And in the mid-2000s, an alluring German DVD became the disc to try and import. It was anamorphic widescreen, and a must-have for US fans who didn't even have a domestic barebones disc. But finally, the 2009 Stepfather remake made the studio realize, hey, we don't even have the original out there. And so, there was no Scream Factory back then, but the parent label Shout Factory had dipped their toes slightly into the horror genre with their line of Roger Corman cult films and Miike's Audition. So they got this high profile title and made what is essentially the first Scream Factory Collector's Edition before there were Scream Factory Collector's Editions. At first this was a DVD-only title, released on its own in late 2009. But then they came back and issued a blu-ray version in 2010. Naturally, I thought we'd take a look at both.
2009 Shout Factory DVD on top; 2010 Shout Factory blu-ray below.
Both discs are full 16x9 widescreen at 1.78:1. The DVD has a very slight single letterbox bar going across the top that's lifted on the blu, giving the blu a very slim extra bit of image. But it's the kind of thing you'd only catch in a side-by-side analysis like this, and probably hidden by most viewers' overscan area, but technically it's there. Otherwise, these look very similar and are obviously struck from the same master. Transfer-wise, that little bar is probably all there is to show for the time between the two releases, as otherwise they still play like concurrent discs where one's just pressed on a DVD and the other on a blu.
 2010 Shout Factory blu-ray left; 2009 Shout Factory DVD right.
So naturally, the difference isn't terribly overwhelming, and that's less a compliment to the DVD than it is a mark against the blu. It's not bad, just kind of soft and light on detail. The grain looks kind of uneven and random on the blu; whereas it's almost entirely smoothed away on the DVD. So overall the blu is better, with a clearer, slightly more distinct image (look at the mouth above). And it's not that I imagine the original footage has a vast wealth of detail hidden away that Shout has neglected to tap into, but I'm just not sure it would be worth jumping to the blu if you'd already bought the DVD in 2009. It's a pretty unexciting double-dip.

Both discs have fairly basic 2.0 stereo tracks with no subtitles. Again, fine for standard def but there's no reason to swap out your DVD.
Extras-wise, it's a pretty unexciting double-dip, too; but at least there is a difference. Most of the extras are the same. You have a pretty solid audio commentary with director Joseph Ruben, who's thankfully got Fangoria's Mike Gingold enthusiastically prompting him along. Even more engaging, I found, was the almost half-hour documentary The Stepfather Chronicles, which is a great portender for the excellent featurettes we'd find on Scream Factory's releases. It's made by Red Shirt Pictures and is very slickly edited, talking to almost all the key players, from writer Brian Garfield to fan favorite Jill Schoelen. The only one we really miss Terry O'Quinn, who I suppose would've still been too tied up in Lost at the time. That's about it, though, for the DVD. The only other features are the theatrical trailer and a fold-out insert with notes by Cliff MacMillan.

The blu keeps the commentary, doc and trailer, but loses the insert. Instead, they added a couple additional trailers including a German one, a video store promo, and trailers for both of the sequels. A slight improvement, but nothing to break out the checkbook for. It would've been great if they could've dug up those deleted missing scenes.
So it all keeps adding up to the same thing. If you'd bought the DVD when it came out, the blu was a disappointing follow-up. Just kind of annoying that it wasn't available to get right away, and no big upgrade to make it worth replacing. But if you're coming to The Stepfather for the first time, the blu's maybe a little soft and underwhelming, but still the best version available. Maybe somebody could come along and do a fancy 4k transfer, including the missing footage, and blow this disc out of the water. But as it is, it's fine. The extras are nice, and you can stand it right alongside all your Scream Factory spines.

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