by Joel G. Robertson
UPDATE: A special thanks to Jill Schoelen herself for permitting me to post this retrospective to her Facebook wall!
It’s seventeen days and counting until the official launch of Forgotten Flix and we’re going to keep plugging right along with another installment of “Forgotten Flix Recommends.”
Today, Forgotten Flix recommends 3 movies starring actress Jill Schoelen! Ms. Schoelen was an unconventional scream queen in the late 80s and early 90s. She appeared in no less than six (possibly seven if you consider one of the honorable mentions below) horror films. Schoelen’s characters always had a scrappy resourcefulness to them. She came across as confident, self-assured, yet always possessing the vulnerability that allowed an audience to identify with her. Have no doubt; she ranks right up there with Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau and others as a great scream queen, especially when you consider her talent and contributions to the genre.
I highly recommend checking her out this Halloween season (or any season for that matter) in these five flix that should not be forgotten:
1. The Stepfather (1987) I remember when I first saw The Stepfather on the video store shelf. The VHS box art was innocuous. It looked more like a Lifetime movie than the taut, suspenseful horror-thriller contained within. On the cover, Schoelen, looking innocent, her all-American smile beaming as she cuddles a dog, is blissfully unaware of the shadowy figure looming over her with a knife. That shadowy figure is Jerry Blake played to perfection by the amazing Terry O’Quinn (who played John Locke on LOST). He’s the titular stepfather who is searching for the “perfect” family by marrying a widow or divorcee with children. Of course, no family is perfect, and when his new family inevitably disappoints him, well, Jerry has a special way of dealing with them.
So, when Jerry marries Stephanie’s mom, (played by the very talented Shelley Hack), Stephanie is immediately suspicious of “Mr. Perfect”. However, in classic horror movie fashion, no one believes the kid. Of course, O’Quinn plays Jerry as such an affable, charming, unassuming fellow that it’s totally believable that no one would believe her.
What makes Schoelen’s performance so riveting is that she never plays Stephanie as one-dimensional. And since the audience is in on Jerry’s dark secret, knowing what kind of danger Stephanie and her mom are in, the tension is ratcheted up as we eagerly anticipate the moment when Stephanie’s fears about Jerry are confirmed.
The Stepfather ranks as one of the best horror-thrillers of the 1980s, or any decade for that matter. It’s an absolute shame that so many who watched the awful 2009 remake are unaware that this version even exists. (We’ll examine the original The Stepfather further in an upcoming podcast!)
2. Popcorn (1991) pre-dates Scream by five years in its attempts to have movie- loving characters that are up against a psychopath fueled by the cinema. In this world, however, the movies the kids are watching are fictionalized parodies of 1950s films, rather than the real-world, self-referential movies discussed in Scream. Schoelen plays Maggie, a film student, who, along with several classmates decides to put together a film festival in an old movie house. The only problem: the place may or may not be haunted by a filmmaker who killed his entire family there in the 1970s during a screening of his only film.
Schoelen is effective as “final girl” Maggie, who has a possible familial connection to the cinema slayings. This movie is also notable for starring Dee Wallace Stone, who appeared in many genre classics, including The Hills Have Eyes (1976), Cujo (1983), and The Frighteners (1996); although, she’s probably best known as the mom from E.T. (1982). One other interesting piece of trivia: The script for Popcorn was written by Alan Ormsby, who was also originally slated to direct the film. Ormsby often worked with director Bob Clark dating back to Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1973). He also wrote Porky’s (1982) and The Substitute (1996).
3. When a Stranger Calls Back (1993) is a T.V. movie sequel to the 1979 thriller When a Stranger Calls starring Carol Kane and directed by Fred Walton, who also directed this one, April Fool’s Day (1986), and the 1988 T.V. movie remake of I Saw What You Did. The first ten minutes of When a Stranger Calls Back is reminiscent of the original movie’s opening sequence with Carol Kane.
It features Schoelen as Julia, who is babysitting the children of an affluent couple. When a stranger knocks on the door claiming his car broke down, Julia won’t let him in, but when he won’t go away, she discovers the phone line is dead and the stranger wants more than a tow truck. It’s a suspenseful and effective opener that really showcases Schoelen’s talent. And even though this was the last major genre production Schoelen appeared in, she proved she could still connect with her audience no matter how short her screen time.
Some additional Jill Schoelen horror films you might find interesting are:
- Phantom of the Opera (1989) Also starring Robert Englund.
- Cutting Class (1989) is notable for one primary reason other than the fact that it stars Jill Schoelen. It also stars Brad Pitt. And this was before everything. Before Seven. Before Interview with a Vampire. Before Kalifornia (1993) (great thriller that also starred David Duchovny and Juliette Lewis) and Cool World (1991). This is a definite skeleton in the proverbial cinematic closet for Mr. Pitt and one I think we can safely assume he leaves off his resume. Regardless, it’s pretty standard late-80s slasher fare, although the mystery of who the killer is does take a few unexpected twists.
- Curse 2: The Bite (1988) Sequel to the The Curse which starred Wil Wheaton.
- Chiller (1985) A television movie directed by Wes Craven. Not particularly horrifying (well, not nearly as horrifying as Craven’s Music of the Heart (1999) anyway), but since it was directed by Craven and Schoelen was in it, I thought it should be included.
Well, that wraps up this “Forgotten Flix Recommends…” Check it out next Friday when I’ll bring you the “3 Flix of John Carl Buechler”!
Until next time, remember, a flick is only forgotten if you’re not talking about it!
Here’s the original trailer for The Stepfather (1987):