Boomer: Did you ever have one of those movies that’s stored so far down in the back of your brain that it just haunts you? I don’t know how old I was the first time I saw Stepmonster. I know that it was on TV, the Disney Channel specifically, and that it must have been during one of their free preview weekends. With this having a 1993 release date, I’m going to peg it at 1994/1995, when I was (I’m going to date myself here) seven. I think if I were even marginally older, this movie would never have lodged itself so deeply in my brain. There were countless tiny images from this movie lodged in my brain that I knew originated here: the guy from the Michael Bay Aaron Burr milk PSA running a comic book store, our young protagonist standing in a demolished living room holding a bat, that super cool monster and what she looked like in a wedding dress, and (most distinctly for some reason) Alan Thicke playing the violin. There were even other images that, if I imagine my child mind as a kind of filing cabinet, had fallen out of the Stepmonster file and gotten stuck in the back of the drawer, summoned up very occasionally by an unexpected mental misfire and with no real idea of their origin: a goldfish skeleton being spat out of a jewelry box, John “Gomez Addams” Astin dressed as a priest and smoking, a woman falling downstairs in her wedding dress, and what I guess we could call “the PG-13 Body Double sequence.” It’s also the movie that prompted me to ask my mother what “phlegm” was. For years, I couldn’t track this movie down. It was out of print, didn’t seem to have held any interest for any library in any place I lived, and never showed up on the shelves of any Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul that I frequented. Three years ago, the Alamo Drafthouse on S. Lamar was hosting a VHS swap meet, and there it was: Stepmonster. As someone who was a VHS apologist and hobbyist for a long time but one who only ever built his collection out of thrift store finds and hanging around dying rental stores like a carrion bird in the last days of the independents, I paid the most I had paid for a cassette after 2003: a whopping $5. “It’s rare,” the man behind the folding table had said. And I knew he was right.
And then it sat in my collection. I knew it would make its way to Movie of the Month one day. After all, this movie was all but lost media, right? Out of print, out of sight, out of mind. I just had to wait until my month fell during spooky season, and in 2022, it was finally time. Vexed to nightmare, this rough beast’s hour has come round at last. I only hope it was worth it.
Here’s the plot breakdown for our readers at home, accounting for the lack of widespread availability: Todd (Billy Corben) is a normal kid with an active imagination: he hates violin lessons, spends maybe too much time reading comics, and loves baseball. He’s at the age where it’s common to butt heads with your parents, but he’s having a particularly hard time with his father, George (Alan Thicke). George is an architect whose rationalistic, detail-oriented nature is reflected in his inability to fully communicate with his son, and an inability to disguise his frustration with his progeny’s fantasies and impatience for Todd to grow out of what he thinks is a phase. Truthfully, he spends an awful lot of time policing his son’s reading habits and taking away his comics, and not nearly enough time making sure Todd isn’t being a peeping little pervert vis-a-vis his spying on teenaged neighbor Wendy (Ami Dolenz). When Todd’s mother, Abby (Molly Cheek), goes missing in the woods, George seems to waste no time in getting remarried, as a mere six months later, he’s engaged to the titular stepmonster, Denise (MotM alum Robin Riker), a lovely woman for whom George was building a woodland cabin when Abby went missing. The immediately suspicious Todd sets out to find out what Denise is about, and although he immediately discovers that she’s a “tropopkin,” a scaly comic book monster, he’s unable to convince anyone else of this and is forced to set out to break up his dad’s engagement before the two get married on the summer solstice.
This is a movie that is clearly an attempt by producer Roger Corman to horn in on some of that sweet cash that his old frenemy Charles Band was making via his sub-Full Moon family imprint Moonbeam, famous for Prehysteria and Magic in the Mirror. The difference is that, despite the general melange of filth of a regular Charles Band production, those Moonbeam films are still kid-friendly, and the two I named are rated PG and G respectively. But that Corman sleaze just doesn’t wash off, and you can see it in the way that Stepmonster misses the mark with both its PG-13 rating (making it only recommended for viewers who are older than the protagonist in a film that can only really appeal to kids just a little younger) and its Pit-like choice of having our lead be a peeping tom, through whom the audience is presumably supposed to vicariously live. It’s a weird, unmistakably Corman touch. When Todd’s grandfather (George Gaynes, of Altered States and Police Academy) first says the word “horny” at the breakfast table and then recites the old adage about buying the cow, I was surprised that this was something that the Disney Channel used to air, and was only further dumbfounded by just how many times Todd aims his telescope at Wendy’s window. It makes for a tonally bizarre viewing, as the attempts to make this appeal to adults just make you a bit discomfited. The film still bothers to do some clever things, like having the father and his bride-to-be hammering that real estate sign on the inside of the literal white picket fence (because she’s not really intending to sell the house anyway, just eating the family and retreating back to her cave). One could try to argue that this was aiming for a slightly older demographic than middle schoolers, but this is completely undercut by the fact that the mother is discovered alive and well at the end, for a laughably happy ending.
What did y’all think? Devoid of any nostalgia factor, what were your thoughts? Is Todd too creepy to root for? Is George too dumb to live? Do we love Denise?
Brandon: No matter what rating the MPAA slapped on this thing, this psychosexual id horror is clearly aimed directly at kids. It’s very much of the Troll 2 & The Pit variety in that way, complete with the “tropopkins” standing in for The Pit‘s “tra-la-logs”. I also noted that this feels like Corman trespassing on Charles Band’s territory, so we appear to be on the exact same page this round. There’s a rhythm to Corman’s classic drive-in creature features that carries over here, briefly revealing the (step)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 Charles’s brother, Richard Band. That doesn’t mean it’s too generic to be unique, though. Denise’s monster 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 running around in her wedding gown the movie does achieve 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 imagery, even if it has plenty of direct echos in Band & Corman’s respective catalogs.
What I am surprised to hear is that this aired on The Disney Channel. I’ve only watched exactly one Disney Channel Original Movie in my lifetime (Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century), but from what I’ve observed of that channel’s programming from afar, it’s usually severely asexual, presenting an entire universe hostile to the vaguest suggestion of sex. While little Todd isn’t quite as creepy as Jamie in The Pit, he is preoccupied with sex, to the point where the movie is just as much about his sexual curiosity as it is about fears of step-parental intruders. Beyond Todd’s inappropriate sexual fascination with his teenage babysitter neighbor, the movie is also weirdly hung up on the consummation of his dad’s marriage to Denise – something Denise is delaying until their wedding night as part of a full-moon blood ritual. I have to assume it’s that exact sexual undercurrent that landed the film its ludicrous PG-13 rating, since the monster attacks are relatively tame in their suspense & gore. Or maybe it was Todd’s passionate line-delivery of “Eat my shorts, you bloodsucking, bat-faced witch!” that pushed it over the line. Either way, I love that Corman and Band (and, in this case, special guest producer Fred Olen Ray) were making these inappropriate-for-children kids’ movies in the VHS era, and there’s something especially delicious about one of them sneaking its way onto the squeaky-clean Disney Channel lineup.
Alli: I started out thinking, okay, this is just one of those bizarre PG movies that came out, had some really weird scenes that stick in your mind, and disappeared into the ether. Then, I nearly choked on my drink as the grandpa said the word “horny”. This film immediately dips right into creepy 80s sex humor (despite it’s 90s release date), going from 0-100 in very little time. Sure, there was already Denise emerging out of the woods in that tight dress with no bra, but it was fairly tame before that “horny” line. A good ol’ family horror comedy romp.
With that in mind, once we got to Todd being a peeping Tom and photographing Wendy without her knowledge, and the grandpa letting it happen, I definitely lost some sympathy for the kid and his family. Not that I was really backing Denise either. Sure, she’s cool, using her sexuality as a weapon to ensnare this clueless, uptight man in order to make more tropopkins and then eat him and his weasel son, but I just wasn’t into her whole “Let’s get the kid labeled as crazy” attitude. The real heroes in this story are Phlegm and Wendy! Wow, I love them so much. Corey Feldman steals the show as the goofy bad boy Phlegm, while Wendy has got everything under control. I kept expecting Phlegm to be more of a key character than he was, like maybe he had a rare comic book issue that would save the day. Still, it was at least nice that his band’s equipment was part of the scheme that saves this undeserving family in the end. Likewise, Wendy does not receive enough credit as the hero of the story: digging through the trash, sticking by the kid even after his creepy photos, and giving said creepy kid rides all over town.
Even with the creepy main character and his bizarrely messed up family that only consists of his dad, his dad’s in-laws, and a monster, I thought this movie was a lot of fun. Like Boomer said, there are images that are going to stick with me for a long time, especially the tropokin in the wedding dress (so great) and the kid standing on top of a Marshall stack swinging a baseball bat at a bat monster. I was definitely on its sense of humor’s wavelength. I’m so glad Boomer found this rare media and could share it with us.
Britnee: When we make our Movie of the Month selections, Brandon is very diligent with ensuring that no one (other than the Swampie presenting) has watched the selected film. When asked if I ever watched Stepmonster, I was 110% sure I hadn’t. However, once Alan Thicke hit the screen, 15 years of suppressed memories were unleashed. I was immediately reminded of a goldfish skeleton being spit out of a box . . . I had seen this movie before! But I honestly remembered only fragmented images without being able to identify any sort of plot or characters, so it’s like I watched it for the first time. The Movie of the Month tradition is still going strong!
Funky children’s films from the late 80s/early 90s are sort of my jam. The crappy effects, nonsensical plots, and adult themed humor is a perfect combination. Trash for kids! I love how there’s been mention of Prehysteria and Magic in the Mirror in the conversation because those are absolutely fantastic films that are in the same realm as Stepmonster (the ultimate Band, Nicolaou, Corman trio). Needless to say, I thought this movie was a blast! Dad and Grandpa were such strange goobers who I found to be hilarious. They’re sort of these stereotypical “all-American” characters that say and do weird things that caught me off guard (like the aforementioned “We all get horny, Georgey Boy.”). However, the true star of this show was Denise. She’s the closest to a human version of Greta the Gremlin that we will ever get and great at being the perfect evil stepmother/tropopkin. All of those witty remarks and monster transitions are so good. My favorite scene is when Denise transitions into her true tropopkin form while chatting with the psychiatrist (Edie McClurg!).
Britnee: The tropopkin makeup effects are incredible. Makeup effects artist, Gabe Bartalos, has made his mark on many classics, such as Frankenhooker, Leprechaun, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, and you guessed it, Gremlins 2: The New Batch. He’s definitely up there with Swampflix’s favorite special effects master, Screaming Mad George.
Alli: The grandpa is such a weird person. He dislikes so many decisions his son-in-law makes but backs them anyway. He tells his grandson about tropopkins but doesn’t seem to be the source of the kid’s love for comics, since he’s never taken him to the comic book store before. Also, he played major league baseball? I don’t normally like to nitpick or search for plot holes, but he really is a true enigma.
Brandon: I really liked the choice of presenting the tropopkins as “real life” creatures from the pages of Todd’s EC horror comics. Corman & company obviously routed most of the budget to Denise’s creature design, so it was smart to borrow some on-the-cheap visual style from classic horror comics to give the movie some life between her effects shots. Besides, it reminded me a lot of the EC horror stylings of Tales from the Crypt & Creepshow, which were the exact kind of age-inappropriate media I was sneaking past my parents’ censorship as a kid.
For anyone who’s desperate to watch Stepmonster but isn’t close enough friends with Boomer to borrow his personal VHS copy, there’s currently a low-quality scan of the film uploaded to YouTube in glorious 480p (courtesy of user myx360games, a true champion of cinema).
Boomer: I spent a truly inordinate amount of time trying to figure out exactly when Stepmonster would have aired on Disney Channel. One would think that old TV listings would be the easiest thing in the world to find, but as it turns out, not so much (unless you’re going to go down to the library and dig through microfiche). I couldn’t find any dates or any Disney Channel schedules from the likely years at all. However, while we’re here, I wanted to go ahead and speak out in favor of this great video from YouTube channel Yesterworld, which provides a pretty good rundown on the history of the channel, including some great historiography of the “free preview” years. YouTube channel Pop Arena, as part of their ongoing project to chart the show-by-show history of Nickelodeon (after five years, they’re up to 1990), did a great video about Nickelodeon precursor Qube that happens to function as a great delineation about the creation of cable television as well; it can be found here and is a great companion piece to the video above.
Next month: Alli presents A New Leaf (1971)
-The Swampflix Crew