TV REVIEW : ‘Stepfather III’ on HBO Takes a Step Down

“Stepfather III,” which premieres at 9 tonight on HBO, is another sequel that exists only to exploit its antecedents. It’s a ship deserted by all hands, with only its nameplate above water. Gone from the much-admired 1987 satire-shocker are director Joe Ruben and writer Donald Westlake. Gone from that and the miserable 1989 “Stepfather 2" is Terry O’Quinn--whose chameleonic stepdad was the last connecting thread.

Only the title remains, plastered over a bloody, empty formula job.

The original “Stepfather” was part flashy shocker, part brainy satire on the American Dream--which O’Quinn’s murderous stepdad kept trying to tap into. It was clear--through O’Quinn’s cannily modulated performance and Westlake’s ironic writing--that the Dream itself somehow produced or encouraged this monster.

That’s not the theme of “Stepfather III.” Here, the Dream is perfectly fine, and the stepfather himself another movie bogeyman, sent to raise hell with darling moms, beaming priests and cute computer whiz kids--in a suburbia that would be paradise except for this scorpion.


Since O’Quinn has jumped ship by now, “Stepfather III” must first explain his absence. Apparently, cheap plastic surgery has turned the stepfather into a different actor; co-writer/director Guy Magar whips up a few drips of suspense by making us guess who. Is it the seraphic gardener (Robert Wightman) hopping around at Easter in a pink bunny suit? Or the spurned suitor (Stephen Mendel), who complains that he wants to be the stepfather?

It doesn’t really matter. There’s no real suspense in “Stepfather III,” no point, no humor--just apprehension over impending bloodshed. The characters seem borrowed from soap operas and dog food commercials and the stepfather himself has become a sort of Freddy Krueger, ripping off one-liners while slaughtering victims.

There’s something depressing here: the gleaming cinematography, the suburban settings, the high-tech glitz pasted onto sophomoric carnage. How, in three steps, could one of the ‘80s’ more ingenious thrillers become a model of everything it satirized?