THE STEPFATHER (2009)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on October 16, 2009, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


Every horror fan has their own idea about the worst-case scenario and result when it comes to the remaking of a classic ’70s or ’80s fright film. Some rue the day Michael Bay grabbed the rights to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; others can’t abide what Rob Zombie did with Halloween. For me, it was the day the team behind last year’s execrable Prom Night got their hands on the superb 1987 psychothriller The Stepfather. The result isn’t quite as awful as Prom, but it is a flat, one-dimensional movie that significantly dumbs down what was previously a provocative and genuinely chilling narrative.

It also robs the title character of the complexity and depth of the 1987 film’s Jerry Blake, played so memorably by Terry O’Quinn. David Harris (Dylan Walsh) also wants a perfect family, charms his way into the lives of widows or divorcees with kids and turns murderous when things don’t work out. But neither Walsh’s performance nor J.S. Cardone’s screenplay suggest the layers of buried psychosis and tortured history that O’Quinn and original scripter Donald E. Westlake teased out—not to mention the undercurrents of black humor—and there’s no underlying pathology behind David’s obsession. That’s made clear in the new movie’s restaging of the original’s opening sequence, in which David walks through a house strewn with the corpses of his latest wife and stepchildren. He stops along the way for a snack, and leaves a jar of peanut butter open on the counter—something the order-obsessed Jerry would never have approved of.

We’re then taken to a police squad room where cops and detectives discuss David’s case, history and m.o. in ridiculous and exacting detail, to make sure the dumbest teen in the audience understands exactly what’s going on. Part of the first Stepfather’s achievement was the way Westlake and director Joseph Ruben set up the title villain’s identity and methods from the get-go, yet twisted the foreknowledge into suspense rather than predictability. Stepfather ’09’s helmer Nelson McCormick and Cardone, on the other hand, have little to offer once they’ve set up the premise—no surprises or revelations, just the playing out of the inevitable conflict between David and teen hero Michael (Penn Badgley) once the latter has returned home from military school to find David sharing the house with his mom Susan (Sela Ward). (It should be noted that David’s not really Michael’s stepfather. David and Susan are only engaged, and planning their wedding—or at least, we have to take their word, as we never see them actually doing it—which is one of a few elements here that have actually been lifted from Stepfather II.)

Michael, needless to say, is suspicious of this guy whom his mom seems to have fallen for and invited into her home too quickly, and even as David turns on the full-court press to win him over, Michael maintains his doubts. He confides in his girlfriend Kelly (Amber Heard, decked out in a series of bikinis and similar skimpy outfits while given disappointingly little to do), but no one will believe Michael even as cracks appear here and there in David’s facade. Further complications arise when the “cat lady” next door sees a police sketch on America’s Most Wanted that surprisingly resembles David, and Susan’s ex-husband Jay (Jon Tenney) interferes in her new relationship. But with the exception of Jay’s scenes with David and Michael, the movie plays out with a dispiriting lack of energy and dramatic involvement. Everything develops and pays off just the way you know it will, and even when the movie occasionally suggests it’s going to get into edgy or interesting territory, it pulls back every time.

Same goes for The Stepfather’s negligible horror content. The setpieces in which David eliminates those who stand in his way are executed in a perfunctory, generic manner, and the direction as a whole falls back on conventions instead of going for the gusto or anything stylistically ambitious. Yes, there’s a cat scare, not really justified by the fact that it involves the aforementioned “cat lady,” and plenty of false-alarm jumps with loud stingers by composer Charlie Clouser, whose in-your-ear music is much more appropriate for the Saw films he scored than a subtler domestic suspenser. It’s a moot point by now to complain that the mayhem has been kept toned down for a PG-13, except to note that the similarly rated Disturbia wrung far more excitement out of its climactic action, to which the conclusion of The Stepfather owes a significant debt—while also throwing in an unflattering visual shout-out to Psycho.

The Stepfather is yet another remake that, with nothing to add to its predecessor or any ideas about how to adapt its material in interesting new directions, has no reason to exist. The only possible justification was the prior nonavailability of Ruben’s version on DVD, which makes it a tad ironic that the redux’s production inspired Shout! Factory’s special-edition disc (on which—full disclosure—I moderated Ruben’s commentary). Perhaps Badgley’s young fans from Gossip Girl will get some thrills or kicks here—but when a movie trading on the success of a previous feature can only possibly be enjoyed by those who have never seen it, you know something’s wrong.

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