Our current Movie of the Month, the 1993 creature feature Stepmonster, is psychosexual-id horror for kids, very much of the Troll 2 & The Pit variety – complete with monstrous “tropopkins” standing in for The Pit‘s “tra-la-logs”. It feels like producer Roger Corman trespassing on Charles Band’s territory in that way, recalling the straight-to-VHS kiddie horrors Band produced under his Full Moon sublabel Moonbeam. There’s a rhythm to Corman’s classic drive-in creature features that carries over to Stepmonster, briefly revealing the titular monster in an early attack and then steadily doling out “kills” (kidnappings, really) throughout the rest of the runtime to maintain the audience’s attention. Otherwise, this is pure Moonbeam; all that’s missing is a dinky Casio score from Charlie’s brother, Richard Band. That doesn’t mean it’s too generic to be unique, though. The tropopkin’s rubber-suit design reads as a human-sized variation of the Gremlins knockoffs that VHS schlockmeisters were making in this era (Ghoulies in Band’s case, Munchies in Corman’s), but by the time she’s wreaking havoc in her wedding gown—trying to consummate her marriage to Alan Thicke under the full moon—the movie achieves a kids-horror novelty all of its own. I’m not surprised to hear it wormed its way into its pint-sized audience’s subconscious through that kind of kindertrauma imagery, even if it has plenty of direct corollaries in Band & Corman’s respective catalogs.
It would be easy, then, to recommend further viewings in Corman & Band’s other kindertrauma horrors, but they’d likely be too monotonous when watched in bulk. What distinguishes Stepmonster from other Moonbeam & Corman productions is the monstrous stepmother angle succinctly headlined in its title, tapping into a very specific fear children have of the strangers in their homes who married their parents. It’s a long running tradition in the genre, dating at least as far back as the wicked stepmother villain of Cinderella. And since it’s Halloween season, it feels important to highlight some of the all-time great titles in that canon: the greatest evil-stepparent horrors of all time. To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more iconic horror films about the monsters our parents married.
The Stepfather (1987)
Without question, the greatest evil-stepparent horror of all time is the 80s slasher The Stepfather, a superlative indicated by its definitive title. Terry O’Quinn is the stepfather, a sociopathic serial killer who cycles through families like he’s updating his wardrobe, killing the old batch in cold blood instead of dropping it off at Goodwill. O’Quinn is an explosive volcano of white-man rage, barely suppressing his violent outbursts under a thin facade of Ward Cleaver, Father Knows Best-style suburban Family Values. It is one of the all-time great villain performances, regardless of genre. There was already a bland, forgettable remake in the aughts, but the only other actor who could maybe pull this performance off is Will Forte, whose comedic version of bottled-up fury is a direct echo of the terror in O’Quinn’s piercing, hateful eyes.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Something you’ll notice about all of these evil-stepparent horrors is that they’re all movies about real estate. Terry O’Quinn’s genre-defining killer is a local realtor. Alan Thicke’s oblivious dad in Stepmonster is an architect and land developer. And then there’s The Amityville Horror, in which a couple moves into a dream home they can only afford because the previous family who lived there was murdered inside. James Brolin stars as the stepfather substitute for Jack Torrance, driven mad by the Bad Vibes of the titular home to the point where he’s axing down the bathroom door to murder his family cowering on the other side. He starts off mildly resentful that his wife’s children call him “George” instead of “Daddy,” escalates to complaining “Those kids of yours need some goddamn discipline,” and eventually settles on “Those kids of yours need to be decapitated.” Overall, the original Amityville is quintessential mainstream 70s horror, in that it’s sometimes deeply chilling, often vaguely boring, and features a grotesquely overqualified Margot Kidder. It’s an essential entry in the evil-stepparent canon, though, not least of all because it’s about a valuable piece of cursed real estate.
Enough about evil stepdads. Fans of Stepmonster deserve some iconic evil-stepmother villainy, for which I’ll direct them to Clive Barker’s cosmic horror masterpiece Hellraiser. The Hellraiser series is remembered for its demonic S&M cenobites Pinhead, Chatterer, Butterball, and—wait for it—The Female, but the scariest villain in the first movie is the stepmother figure, Julia Cotton. Julia is the last stepmother you’d want to have as a vulnerable teenage girl, even further down the list than the tropopkin bride of Stepmonster. Caught up in a torrid affair with your undead sex-pest uncle while neglecting your father, she lures strange men home from the bar for casual hookups, only to murder them with a hammer for her lover’s disgusting amusement. She doesn’t even come to your defense when your uncle hits on you, beckoning “Come to daddy” while wearing your father’s skin as a Halloween mask. “Hellraiser” is already a great title, but maybe this is the movie that should have been called “Stepmonster.”
To my shame, rewatching Hellraiser for this feature was the first time it really clicked with me as one of the all-time greats. I’ve always enjoyed it in parts but was trying to fit it in a Hellbound: Hellraiser II shaped box that did it no favors. Now I’m finally able to embrace the domestic melodrama at its core instead of looking past it for all the lurid, putrid filth that makes it spooky. All it took was a little soul searching about who qualifies as the worst stepparents in the history of horror, a list of which Julia Cotton deserves to rank near the very top.
2 thoughts on “Bonus Features: Stepmonster (1993)”
Great article. The eighties has to be the time when I got a bit de-sensitised thanks to the sheer amount of suburban, insidious horror films.
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