The Stepmother/Impulsion (1971) -*½
The Stepmother is not the movie you imagine. I say this with complete confidence, despite not knowing the vast majority of my readers personally, and having therefore no basis for believing that I understand how their imaginations work— there’s simply no way that anyone other than writer/director/producer Howard Avedis could independently arrive at quite this confused intersection of “what the fuck?” and “are you shitting me?” In addition to all its many minor peculiarities, The Stepmother is the Rat Pfink a Boo-Boo of sleaze melodramas, neatly divisible at the halfway mark into what seem for all the world to be two totally separate stories whose only connection is that they revolve around the same characters.
Most central to both segments are Los Angeles architect Frank Delgado (Alejandro Rey, from Satan’s Triangle and The Ninth Configuration) and his much younger wife, Margo (Catherine Justice). This is actually Frank’s second marriage, but we won’t be finding that out for a good 45 minutes or so. It’s sometime around midnight, and Delgado is flying home after a week-long business trip to his native Mexico. Margo, meanwhile, is at home in bed, having mildly naughty dreams about her husband. Suddenly, she is awakened by her friend, Alan (Megaforce’s Mike Kulcsar), the last holdout of a whole group who’d been over at the house for a party that evening. Stoned out of his mind, Alan has decided that it would be a fine idea to climb into bed and force himself on his host. This being an exploitation movie from the early 1970’s, Margo’s resistance to the affront is a little on the halfhearted side, as if she regards being raped by a longtime pal in her own home as an annoyance on par with an April Fool’s Day prank. Frank’s reaction, on the other hand, is rather more commensurate with the seriousness of the situation— or it would be if he correctly understood what he was seeing. Delgado arrives home just in time to spot Alan and Margo getting dressed through the bedroom window, and the moment that boner-biting bastard steps out into the driveway afterward, Frank pounces, knocking him to the ground and choking him— to death, by the time the wave of rage has finally receded. Margo, busy in the shower scrubbing herself clean of rape cooties, notices none of that. The trouble is, Frank didn’t realize that he was avenging his wife’s violation. He thinks he just caught Margo cheating on him, and in any case, murdering Alan was slightly more drastic a revenge than he truly intended to exact. That doesn’t make Alan any less dead, of course, and Frank spends the rest of the night disposing of the evidence.
Delgado bundles Richmond into his car— which Frank will also have to get rid of, after all— and drives to a secluded stretch of hilly shoreline. He’s just about finished burying the body when Pedro Lopez (David Renard) comes along with his girlfriend, Maria (Priscilla Garcia). Luckily, these two have other things on their mind than checking the surrounding trees for people in the midst of covering up crimes. Despite the seemingly clear ramifications of going out to the edge of nowhere with her boyfriend in the middle of the night, Maria is in no mood for Pedro’s amorous advances, and her resistance is markedly more strenuous than Margo’s had been earlier. Lopez responds with much the same good grace and sound judgement that we would expect at this point from Delgado. He slaps Maria silly and— that’s right— strangles her, then runs off and leaves her to whatever scavengers prowl those hills. And if he hadn’t been already, that makes Pedro far too preoccupied to pay any mind to Frank, who drives off unseen to dump Alan’s car in the ocean some twenty miles down the coast. Delgado finally gets home around 4:00 in the morning.
Far too few hours later for Frank’s taste, his partner at the architectural firm, Dick Hill (Larry Linville, from The Night Stalker and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Forever), drives up to the Delgado house in company with his wife, Sonja (Marlene Schmidt, of Mortuary and Scorchy), and a second couple much closer to Margo’s age, who call themselves Rita (Claudia Jennings, of Deathsport and The Unholy Rollers) and Goof (John D. Garfield, from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Candy Stripe Nurses). Evidently they’re all on their way to a party at the deceased Alan’s beach house, and they insist that Frank and Margo come along. Just what Frank’s guilty conscience needs, right? (I’d say, “Just where Margo wants to spend the day, right?” too, except that I can see no evidence that Avedis ever thought of that angle on the situation.) Naturally none of this bunch realizes as yet that Alan is dead. That comes only when they have their beach party interrupted by Inspector Darnezi of the Los Angeles Police Department (John Anderson, from The Satan Bug and Cotton Comes to Harlem), the detective investigating both Alan’s murder and Maria’s. Nothing Darnezi learns in the ensuing interview is concretely helpful, but he both rightly and justifiably comes away with the impression that Frank is lying when he says that the nearly five-hour delay between his plane’s touchdown and his turning in for the what little remained of the night was due solely to him dropping by the office to organize the paperwork resulting from his Mexico venture.
Darnezi’s puzzlement doesn’t decrease much with the arrest of Pedro Lopez. Lopez confesses to killing his girlfriend, but he swears he never heard of Alan Richmond, and Delgado and his friends similarly swear that they no more recognize Pedro than they had Maria in the photo Darnezi showed them earlier. And frankly, there’s no reason Darnezi can see why either side should know the other, beyond that the two victims were killed the same way at about the same time, and their bodies discovered together. Obviously the latter could just be a coincidence, and Delgado sure acts like he’s guilty of something. It doesn’t take long, though, for the detective to discover that his preferred alternate suspect had a compelling reason not to kill Alan: Delgado and Hill were building Richmond yet a third house, and Hill had just finished finagling the promise of another $125,000 out of him. What kind of fool murders a man who’s about to write him a check of that magnitude?
Then Dick Hill takes a fatal fall off the roof of Richmond’s unfinished house, and hints of a whole new picture start emerging. What really happens is this: Frank, having discovered (or so he believes) Margo’s inconstancy, has been intently on the lookout for signs of further dalliances ever since. He’s also withdrawn his affections from Margo in a way that she can’t possibly fail to notice, and his perpetual preoccupation with his guilt is similarly unmissable by his friends— even if none of them has a clue as to what’s eating him. Dick and Margo band together in the hope of figuring Frank out, which he inevitably interprets as just the indication he’s been watching for. Frank and Dick confront each other at the construction site, and when things get a bit physical, Dick loses his footing and goes *splat*. It isn’t just the fact that Delgado was the only witness to the accident that subsequently has Darnezi scrutinizing extra-closely the judiciously edited version of the story that Frank feeds him, either. Sonja winds up with 300 grand thanks to her husband’s life insurance, and her first impulse is to take on Dick’s old role as Frank’s partner, pouring every cent of that windfall back into Delgado & Hill. There isn’t actually any conspiracy afoot between Frank and Sonja, but it sure does look suspicious. So basically, Darnezi finds himself closing in on the real culprit in Alan’s murder for completely mistaken reasons.
Nevermind any of that, though. No, seriously— nevermind any of it. Darnezi’s cat-and-mouse game with Delgado will spend the rest of the movie meandering in the background toward a desultory wrap-up, yes, but from this point on, the focus is on something else altogether. Many of you are no doubt wondering by now just what in the hell stepmothers have to do with anything; I certainly was. Well, it turns out that first marriage I mentioned before (but which Avedis completely neglected to) left Frank with a teenaged son named Steve (The Teacher’s Rudy Herrera Jr.). Steve’s been at boarding school in Mexico City all this time, but the term is over now, and he’s coming home for a vacation. Relations have always been a little strained between Steve and Margo. Two years isn’t very long for a kid accustomed to having his sole parent all to himself to get adjusted to the presence of a stepmother anyway, but there’s more to it than that. For one thing, Margo is a gringa, and for another, she’s only a few years older than Steve. Throw in her stint as a model before she married Frank, and it isn’t too hard to understand why Steve thinks of her more as Dad’s new piece of ass than as someone to whom he owes any sort of filial respect. Also, and perhaps as a direct consequence of all that, Margo just plain tries too hard, and no adolescent wants that in a stepparent— or a parent either, for that matter. In truth, though, Steve and Margo have something very big in common. They’re both in constant competition with Frank’s business for his attention, and they both believe they consistently come out the loser in that contest. So when Frank and Sonja fly off to Acapulco together for yet another client meeting (playing right up to Darnezi’s suspicions, for those of you still trying to follow the old plot) on the very night of Steve’s return from school, spouse and child are left feeling neglected and unwanted, with no one but each other to share the misery. The ad campaign put what happens next thusly: “She forced her husband’s son to commit the ultimate sin!” And for once, an exploitation movie’s tagline isn’t too far from the truth.
I’m not a bit surprised to see that The Stepmother was Howard Avedis’s first feature. It has “novice” written all over it, and not just in ways related to the mystifying plot derailment halfway through. If you can imagine a TV movie written and produced by David Friedman, you’ll be pretty close to the overall tenor of the thing. The Stepmother combines the amateurish dialogue, implausible characterization, and scummy attitude of late-60’s grindhouse fare with the bland technical professionalism and exasperatingly low steak-to-sizzle ratio of contemporary television productions. Alejandro Rey, Larry Linville, Marlene Schmidt, and John Anderson especially punch the clock and get it done like the prime-time stalwarts they were, but they can’t do much with this misshapen two-headed goat of a screenplay, and you’ll begin forgetting about their performances the second the closing credits start to roll. 1971 was too early for anyone to recognize that Claudia Jennings could be good for something beyond standing quietly in the background until it was time to take off her clothes, and that’s all she gets to do here. The day-late, dollar-short bid for hippy appeal represented by Goof is fully as embarrassing as its counterpart in any Al Adamson movie, and it’s a significant mercy when he disappears from the film around the hour mark, even if he does take Rita with him when he goes. A truly bewildering freeze-frame tic adds a modicum of amusement early on, but pulls a vanishing act of its own at about the same time— which is to say after it’s worn out its welcome, but before it’s had a chance to earn it back by sheer pig-headed persistence like the rotary slo-mo effect in Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead. But in the end, it really is the bifurcation of the plot that hurts The Stepmother most, even as it provides the movie with its only real point of interest. Assuming you’re part of the target audience for films about sexy young trophy wives seducing their stepkids, you’re probably not going to care about the sorry little wet fart of a crime programmer that The Stepmother spends its first half being, and if you’re somehow in it for the Delgado-Darnezi story, you’re going to feel cheated when it gets mostly dropped in favor of Margo and Steve’s icky tryst. So congratulations, Howard Avedis! You’ve managed to make a picture guaranteed to piss off everyone who tries to watch it.