Archive for October 19, 2009

"The Stepfather" Movie Poster

"The Stepfather" Movie Poster

If there’s one thing the horror community has been near-unanimous about recently, it’s that the remake of the 1987 suspense-thriller classic “The Stepfather” is bound to suck.

There’s plenty of evidence to support this preconceived notion. It’s directed by Nelson McCormick, who gave us the thoroughly uninspired reworking of “Prom Night” a couple of years ago. It’s a PG-13 teen horror. It’s thoroughly superfluous since the original still holds up terrifically. And most importantly, it doesn’t have Terry O’Quinn, whose standout performance as the titular homicidal quasi-family man was the heart and soul of the ’87 flick.

Again with the silent tyranny of expectations. I figured this movie would suck, and suck bad. I was wrong.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first — Dylan Walsh, The Stepfather himself, is no Terry O’Quinn. Not even close. The fact that O’Quinn has gone on to huge success as John Locke on “Lost” is no surprise to anyone who’s followed his career since the original “Stepfather.” He should have won the Oscar for that, no question, so it’s good to see him doing so well these days.

Walsh can’t come close to replicating that performance, but he really doesn’t even try to. His take on the idea of a guy who marries into “broken homes”  in a never-ending, thoroughly insane quest to find the perfect family to call his own, and then kills them all if things aren’t working before moving on to give the same homicidal hustle another try in another town is entirely different. As good? Hell no. It’s less subtle, less detailed, less complex, and much more overt and, frankly, two-dimensional. But it’s okay. It’s not enough to carry the film on its own, but he’s not asked to as much as O’Quinn was.

Calling himself David Harris, he moves to Portland, where he meets recently-divorced Susan Harding (Sela Ward, who the years have been very kind to) at the grocery store. In no time at all, he’s moved into her house and marriage is on the horizon. Susan’s sister gets David a job at her real estate office. Susan’s two youngest kids take to him nicely. Her ex-husband was a philandering jerk who abandoned his family and our guy David has no problem looking like the “good guy” up against “competition” like that.

Things start to go a little pear-shaped for him, though, when her oldest son, high school senior Michael (Penn Badgley), comes home from military boarding school, where he was sent for unspecified disciplinary reasons. At first, David tries to ease Michael’s concerns about him taking up with his mother and gets him readmitted to his local Portland high school so he can be closer to his girlfriend (current horror “it” girl Amber Heard, who spends most of the movie poolside in a bikini), He even asks Michael to be his best man when he takes his mother’s hand in marriage. Things seem to be off to a good start.

But Michael can’t shake the feeling in the back of his head that this guy is bad news. Soon he and, eventually, others begin to notice things about David his mother either can’t or won’t. He pays for everything in cash. He builds storage cabinets in the basement that he keeps locked. He screws up important details about his past. He doesn’t like his picture taken.

Okay, we know from the very first scene that David (or whatever name he’s going by) is a ruthless serial killer. There’s no question about that. The suspense her doesn’t come from wondering if he really is who we’re afraid he might be — we know that from the get-go. The suspense comes from wondering if he’ll be found out in time, and if everyone will survive that revelation if indeed it comes about.

Like the original, the bodycount here is low. For a serial killer flick, it’s relatively bloodless, it must be said. But it’s taut, well-paced, thoroughly suspenseful, and features some solid characterization from all the principal players. In short, it’s a believable premise, believably executed.

I confess to being somewhat disappointed that the new version has chosen to put a male character in the smart-kid role rather than the tough, independent young female we got in the original — a role which really stood out at the time because in the 1980s cinematic landscape, the job of women in horror films was to take their shirts off, scream, and get killed. But that’s my only major gripe. Apart from that, this is a pleasantly smart, well-realized updating.

If you’ve never seen the original, this movie will be all kinds of fun(and you should then take it upon yourself see the original ASAP—it’s finally out on DVD from Shout!Factory). If you have seen it, you won’t be nearly as disappointed as you expect to be. This new version of “The Stepfather”  is hardly the classic the first was, but it’s much better than any admittedly unnecessary, teen audience-marketed horror remake has any business being.  Okay — it didn’t actually need to be made by any stretch of the imagination, but since it has been, I’m glad the end product turned out to be so surprisingly enjoyable.

"Paranormal Activity" Movie Poster

"Paranormal Activity" Movie Poster

Ah, the silent tyranny of expectations. Yesterday, you host did a bit of theater-hopping at the Block E megaplex and took in both of this weekend’s big new horror releases,  the studio-engineered “viral” marketing sensation “Paranormal Activity,” and the largely-dreaded remake of “The Stepfather.” I found myself enjoying both and finding them more-than-worthy additions to our little monthlong Halloween countdown here, but didn’t rank them in the order that I expected, so let’s get started with “Paranormal Activity” and take a look at the “Blair Witch of the 21st century” before moving on to a flick that virtually everyone assumed would suck but doesn’t.

Let’s be honest here — at this point, “Paranormal Activity” — that is, the film itself — is essentially inseparable from its rather ingenious marketing campaign. Paramount has spent a whole lot of money making this look like a word-of-mouth, “because you demanded it”-type thing. In reality, while it looks like a whole new type of “internet phenomenon,” what we’ve got here is essentially a high-tech updating of Mishkin-esque 42nd street ad campaigns. It’s carnival-barking with the audience enlisted as the barkers, and you know, while seeing it for the sham it is, my hat’s still off to the folks behind it, because it follows in the grand exploitation tradition even if most people can’t see it, which is probably the best part of the trick. 1,000 demands will get this into your city? You could get 1,000 demands for just about anything these days, and the theaters were already booked in advance, with full knowledge that this “grassroots campaign” would work.

Which is not to say that first-time filmmaker Oren Peli’s little (at one point) indie horror hasn’t had a circuitous path to wide release. Completed around two years ago, it languished around a bit on the small festival circuit for quite awhile until Steven Spielberg (audible groan) started singing its praises and brought it to the attention of Hollywood execs, who threw a little bit of cash at Peli (not much, it must be said, and the total budget for the film is around $13,000) to reshoot some of the ending and got to work on coming up with a unique way of marketing the film, namely having us do a lot of their work for them. From the horror convention circuit to limited-release midnight shows to its incrementally- timed rollout expansion, this has all been planned.  But I digress.

What’s driving this studio-engineered “demand” is the promise of one of the scariest damn movies you’ll ever see. Why, everyone says so. It’s “Blair Witch” all over again — a tight little suspense shocker that’s so cheaply-made it could pass for a documentary. Some people can’t take it and have to leave the theater, it’s just too intense (so we’re told). Some people actually think it’s real (so we’re told). And it’s really harrowing stuff (so we’re told).

In truth, though, what we’ve got here is really just the latest in the DIY/YouTube-style horror genre that really got going with “Cloverfield” and continued with “REC.” and it’s later English-language reworking “Quarantine” and  then with George Romero’s criminally-underrated “Diary of the Dead,” the only qualitative difference being that this flick’s budget really is damn close to actual DIY levels.

So yes, it does feel authentic. And claustrophobic. And like it could really happen. And it is, in fact, pretty good. But about halfway through this little story of a young couple being haunted by an indefinable presence, I realized I had to divorce myself from the high expectations I had for it if I had any hope of enjoying it. Because it’s not, as the review quoted on the poster claims, one of the scariest movies ever made. It’s plenty scary, sure, but it’s not, as the kids would say, all that.

The setup is pleasingly simple — a young couple, Micah (played by Micah Sloat) and Katie (played by Katie Featherston) move into a new rental townhouse-type thing in San Diego. She’s an English major (who still says “unexplainable?” Please.), he’s a day trader. Her house burned down when she was a young child and she’s been followed by some type of malicious presence ever since. When things start going bump in the might in their new place, they decide to set up cameras all over the place, most prominently in their bedroom, and watch the footage the next day to say what happens while they’re asleep.

And that’s it. We never leave the confines of their house apart from a brief sene out at their swimming pool. The only other notable character included into the mix is a “ghost hunter”-type of guy who pays them a couple of visits. It’s really just the two of them, their place, and their uninvited guest. This minimalistic setup really works, and the conceit of having the actors play characters with their own names adds a further frisson of “everyday horror” to the proceedings. In fact, “everyday horror” is the entire modus operandi here. The fact that this film feels authentic is its greatest strength, and, in fact, it’s only real one.

It’s essentially a one-trick pony. But it’s a good enough trick to keep you glued to your seat for 90 minutes. Each successive scene ratchets up the fear factor a notch at a time. It builds to a shockingly satisfying climax that really explains nothing but feels “just right” nonetheless. But I have to admit that I’ve seen better ultra-low-budget, minimally-scripted films (a couple of which have been reviewed on this very blog — “Last House on Dead End Street” and “Combat Shock”).

All of which is not to knock what Peli has achieved here. It’s certainly remarkable enough in its own right. He and his collaborators can hold their heads high. “Paranormal Activity” is a well-crafted, minimalist flick that wrings as much fright as it can from its contents.

But its rather unique add campaign — remember, inseparable from the film itself — is also its undoing. It’s doing its job of getting what would otherwise be an otherwise unnoticed piece of backyard filmmaking (well, okay, indoor backyard filmmaking) plenty of attention “buzz” — but it’s also setting people up for a bit of disappointment by promising one of the scariest movies ever, and “Paranormal Activity” just plain isn’t. In true exploitation style, the promise is better than the payoff.

Time will tell how this flick is eventually judged, of course. “Blair Witch” started as a huge sensation, endured something of a backlash in ensuing years, and has recently been re-evaluated as a seminal horror movie after all, which it really is, warts and all. I don’t think “Paranormal Activity” will prove to be quite as groundbreaking — or even as groundbreaking as it seems right now. But in Peli’s defense, he didn’t set out to make some trailblazing cinematic phenomenon, he set out to make the best scare film he could with limited resources. And in that respect he succeeds quite admirably.