Reviews

The Stepfather (2009)

Now in theaters!

Cast:

Dylan Walsh as David Harris

Sela Ward as Susan Harding

Penn Badgley as Michael Harding

Amber Heard as Kelly Porter

Sherry Stringfield as Leah

Review:

I know it’s a physical impossibility to kick a movie in the balls but I’d really like to do that to the remake of The Stepfather – preferably while wearing steel-toed boots. I’m very laid back about horror remakes; it’s something I rarely get up in arms about. After all, once movies as legendary as King Kong, Dawn of the Dead, and Psycho have already been remade, what else is worth getting pissed over? The fact is, the originals are always there to be enjoyed, forever untouched by whatever ineptly handled remake might come along. So given my attitude towards remakes, I’m not irate at the thought that the original Stepfather will be tarnished in any way by this new version. No, I’m just pissed this remake exists because I think it’s unforgivable to make a movie this moronic from such smart source material. It always irks me when I read interviews with writers and directors connected with a remake where they swear up and down about what great fans they are of the original and how they want to honor the earlier film and so on and so forth but then they make a film makes it appear as though these people have never seen the original. Or if they saw it, they damn sure didn’t understand it. That’s how it is with The Stepfather.

It’s been some time since I’ve seen the 1987 Stepfather but I still remember how chilling it was. With a story and screenplay concocted by Carolyn Lefcourt, Brian Garfield and acclaimed mystery writer Donald E. Westlake (with a rewrite by David Loughery) and as directed by the then up and coming Joseph Ruben (who had already impressed genre fans with Dreamscape and who would go on to score big hits with Sleeping with the Enemy and The Good Son), the original Stepfather was imbued with keen pulp sensibilities and was layered with an underlying critique of the Reagan-era return to family values. The remake, in comparison, doesn’t even merit being described as a dumbed-down version of the original. To call this a dumbed-down version would imply that it needlessly over explained elements that were suggested or implied originally when really what screenwriter J. S. Cardone has done is to go in a completely new direction, keeping only the most rudimentary set-up of a serial killer who slaughters his new family when they fail to live up to his impossible expectations. Unfortunately, even though my standards aren’t nearly as impossibly high as the Stepfather’s, this movie is still a crushing disappointment. For awhile, I thought I could deal with The Stepfather. Early on, the movie comes off as unexciting but competent but as it slowly began to reveal its true nature I knew we were done.

Cardone and director Nelson McCormick massacred the 1980 slasher fave Prom Night with their remake of last year but hey, that was Prom Night and even the most ardent fans of the original concede that it’s a lousy movie (unless they’re such ardent fans that they’re also delusional). A bad remake of that film doesn’t seem like such an affront, although on the other hand you’d think that making a better film than the orginal Prom Night would’ve been a cake walk. Well, if this duo couldn’t improve on Prom Night I guess it was a safe bet that they couldn’t do any better by The Stepfather.

Whereas the original pitted a widowed single mother (Shelly Hack) and her teenaged daughter (underrated ’80s scream queen Jill Schoelen) against the Stepfather, here the new soon-to-be stepdad (Dylan Walsh of Nip/Tuck – whose performance here, in case you were actually wondering, isn’t even a patch on Terry O’Quinn’s indelible performance in the original), under the name of David Harris, really takes on a challenge by worming his way into the life of Susan Harding (Sela Ward), who is not widowed, merely divorced, and who has two young children and one troubled teenaged son, Michael (Penn Badgley), who is due to return home after a stint in military school.

Now, while one might think the new film deserves some credit for going with a different set of dynamics, the new storyline only makes the Stepfather character seem like an idiot, rather than a calculating sociopath. For the character that Terry O’Quinn played in the original to target a widow and her daughter was evidence of his inate cunning in that it was – at least on the surface – a manageable situation. Less people to con, less people to have to control. But in the new film, keeping a lid on the many new people in his life should’ve seemed like an impossible task from the get-go – especially when he suspiciously refuses to let any pictures of himself be taken (what was he planning to do on the wedding day, one wonders) or to give out any personal information (he has to bail on a job when they press him for basic info for company tax forms – because clearly he couldn’t have anticipated that a real estate company wouldn’t want to pay him under the table).

In the original, the stepfather’s new life could have worked, if not for his new family disappointing him. That character had everything in place and it was only that no one could possibly live up to his standards of perfection that ultimately caused his situation to unravel. Yes, that character slipped up now and then but he could cover his moves. His decision to slaughter and move on came when he knew that he couldn’t make the new family work out – not because his past had caught up with him. Here, it’s more a matter of too many people asking questions and David having no way to deal with them And by the way, the remake botches the most famous line from the original – “who am I here?” In the original it was chilling because when that line is spoken, O’Quinn’s character had already set up his next identity in another town, and was already in the process of courting another widow. Here, it just looks as though David is one befuddled dude.

And David isn’t the only one that seems intellectually challenged. Sela Ward’s divorced mom, sadly, comes off as impossibly dense. While it’s true that even a smart woman can be attracted to the wrong man, in Susan’s case her intense devotion to David is hard to figure. For one, he’s flat-out creepy. This is more a problem with Walsh’s unnuanced performance (I had thought that initally Law & Order SVU’s Christopher Meloni had been cast in this role – a choice that would’ve been a much stronger pick) but yet it makes Ward’s reactions to him – where she constantly has to defend his actions and her intent to start a new life with him – seem more and more exasperating. As incidents pile up, it’s hard not to wonder what would it take for some bells to finally go off with this woman. The excuse that the film gives for Susan is that she really, really needs a good man in her life but it’s just hard to accept that this person’s life was so empty prior to David’s entrance. Sure, divorce is no picnic but as Susan is anybody’s idea of an attractive woman and as she has two kids living at home to occupy her time (a much different situation than having teenagers out living their own lives) and as she also has a concerned circle of friends and family around her, the film fails to make a plausible case that this person with so much going on would jump so readily – desperately, even – at the first ‘nice guy’ who shows an interest in her.

Despite Susan’s best efforts to convince everyone around her that David is really a great guy, things inevitably start to implode in their would-be happy home. And as things get worse for David, they get worse for the film as various inconsistencies and gaps in logic consume the storyline (how David ever got away with murder in the first place is a mystery as he doesn’t seem to have much of a knack for disposing of evidence or throwing people off his trail) long before the obnoxious, sequel-baiting conclusion. The one positive thing about this remake is that it’s spurred the release of the classic original on DVD. Although it’s offensive that the DVD of the original has to contain a featurette on the making of the new film, viewers of both Stepfathers won’t have any problem knowing who their real daddy is.