Psychological thrillers are a dime a dozen these days but back in the late 80s a real tragedy inspired this excellent thriller about suburban murder and insanity.
The film begins with an awesome sequence in which a man (whom we later learn was named Morrison) stares deeply into a mirror before altering his appearance by shaving off his beard and applying contact lenses. He leaves the bathroom and observes a few scattered toys on the floor. He puts them back in the toy box and diligently straightens up around it. On his way out the door he passes the living room and that’s where the film grabs you. It resembles an abattoir. The walls are drenched in blood and their appears to be several corpses on the floor but he doesn’t stop to look at them. We are only given a glimpse of the carnage.
Cut to one year later. Morrison’s now called Jerry Blake and he has married a widow, named Susan, and inherited her teenage daughter Stephanie. Jerry, we learn, has an old fashioned sense of the family that appears to be idealized to the max. This guy believes that sitcoms like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” are portraits of Americana and achievable goals. Unfortunately he’s not just delusional ,he also suffers from low frustration tolerance. It’s a match made in hell. Stephanie is still struggling with her dad’s death, so Jerry is the enemy in her eyes. She acts out at school and threatens Jerry’s image of the perfect daughter but there’s even more trouble coming.
Turns out that Morrison’s wife had a brother, Ogilvy, and he is back in town and looking for her killer. He collars a reporter and gets him to write a follow-up story on the Morrison family slaughter. The story runs but they fail to add Morrison’s picture. Stephanie reads the story and she begins to suspect that her mother has married a murderer.
Meanwhile Ogilvy gathers more information and learns, from the police, that a working theory labeled Morrison as a serial killer. Detectives believed that he married into existing families and murdered them when they failed to live up to his exalted expectations. Turns out that Morrison quit his job months before the murders but never told his family. Ogilvy surmises that Morrison used this period to set up a new identity. But while he frantically retraces Morrison’s steps things at the Blake household are coming apart. Will Ogilvy find his sister’s killer before he can do it again?
This is a crackerjack thriller that should please fans of all things Hitchcock. It is beautifully executed thanks to a tight screenplay from the late Donald E. Westlake(arguably the father of the detective thriller and an Oscar winner for his screenplay for ‘The Grifters’). The film also benefits from a brilliant bit of acting from Terry O’ Quinn as Morrison/Blake. He’s great in the grandiose moments(such as when he rips a guy’s stomach out for not calling before he dropped in on the Blake family)but he’s even better in the quieter moments like watching a neighborhood dad come home to the warm reception from his family.
It’s been a bit of a wait for this to come to DVD but it’s worth the wait. You get a decent “Making of..” short in which you learn about the real case that inspired the film. It was based on the story of John List, who murdered his New Jersey family after losing his job but then disappeared.
A few years after the film came out List was captured after his picture was shown on the first ever episode of “America’s Most Wanted.” Turns out that Westlake was actually onto something with his screenplay. List had actually set up a new identity and was living with a new family in Florida.
Best Line: “Huh? Wait a minute. Who am I here?”
Tom Doty is a columnist for The Floyd County Times.