Great Halloween Movie Countdown #5 : “The Stepfather” — Yes, The Remake

Posted: October 19, 2009 in movies
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"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.

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