THE STEPFATHER Blu-ray Review

     March 18, 2010

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In my experience, horror remakes tend to suck especially hard. But every once in a while, one comes along that bucks the trend and totally kicks ass. Consider, for example, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead or, most recently, Breck Eisner’s The Crazies: movies that take an original concept and deftly rework it to create a fitting homage that’s relevant for a new generation. Alas, Nelson McCormick’s The Stepfather is not one of these films; not only does it sully the good name of its source material, it commits the cardinal sin for any film in the genre. Far worse than simply being formulaic or mindlessly gory, The Stepfather is just plain dull from beginning to end. Hit the jump for more, but, in case you don’t read on, let me make one thing perfectly clear: this movie is an absolute mess with no zero redeeming qualities.

The Stepfather movie image (1).jpgA redo of the cult classic 1987 flick (which starred Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn in the title role), The Stepfather centers on a psychopath who travels from town to town, inserting himself into the lives of fatherless families, leaving a trail of dead women and children in his wake. As we enter into the story, the stepfather (Dylan Walsh), fresh off a Christmas morning massacre, makes contact with his next target, Susan Harding (Sela Ward) at the supermarket. Flash forward to a few months later and Susan’s son Michael (Penn Badgley), returns home from military school to find the villainous patriarch (now operating under the alias of David Harris) engaged to his mother and playing surrogate father to his two younger siblings. At first, David seems like a great guy. However, as the film progresses, his increasingly erratic behavior, along with a slew of odd occurrences and disappearances cause Michael to become seriously suspicious…that is, when he’s not busy having pool sex with his incredibly hot girlfriend (Amber Heard). It’s a tense and terrifying game of cat and mouse between stepfather and son, culminating in a nerve-wracking final battle for the very survival of the family…

…or at least that was the plan. What we actually get is a mind-numbing slog toward a completely predictable, totally uninspired climax. I have rarely seen a film made under the umbrella of the horror genre (it’s really more of a hard thriller with slasher-ish elements) that manages to so completely drain every bit of inherent tension out of its premise, leaving behind nothing but the dried out-husk of a shocker. Due to completely uninspired efforts from director McCormick and screenwriter J.S. Cardone (the duo that brought you the equally inept Prom Night remake), the viewer is subjected to a flick that spends an hour and a half going through the motions of a scary movie without ever actually scaring us.

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To start with, what few kill sequences there are to be found are staged in gratingly pedestrian fashion. Of course, you’ve got the standard quick reveals (one second, David’s not there; then the camera turns, and he is!!!) that may manage to eek out a slight jump or two. But for the most part, we know where and when he’s going to pop out, and once he does, his method of dispatching his victims is decidedly bland. What’s more, we’ve already pegged the characters that he does kill as being expendable well in advance of their deaths, and we don’t care about them, leaving the lead-ups to their deaths utterly lacking in tension. A movie like this might be able to get away with either uninventive kills or totally disposable characters, but it certainly can’t get away with both.

Unfortunately, these sequences actually prove to be the most interesting in the film. In between, things slow to a mundane, repetitive crawl. This is the time that we’re meant to watch the stepfather’s descent into insanity, becoming more and more terrified of what he’s going to do next and desperately hoping that Michael figures things out before it’s too late. But we don’t…we really don’t. Nip/Tuck star Dylan Walsh plays David as volatile and erratic, but the problem is he’s never really frightening. He lectures incessantly on the importance of family; he deletes incriminating e-mails; and most horrifying of all: he grabs a kid’s neck REALLY HARD! However, none of these things are particularly scary, and McCormick isn’t able to stitch them together to create any sense of escalation or dread of what’s to come.

Not helping in this regard is the fact that we see precisely what the stepfather is capable of in the opening sequence of the film, which has David calmly eating breakfast with the corpses of his most recent victims rotting in their den. This scene is probably as close to scary as things get, but it also robs the rest of the film of any tension going forward. David’s subsequent volatile behavior fails to even be unsettling because we already know exactly what kind of monster he is. And when the cracks start showing in his nice-guy façade, we don’t wonder what it means or what he’ll do next, because we’re shown precisely where his relationship with the Hardings is headed at the beginning of the film. This makes the balance of The Stepfather a pointless and monotonous build-up to an inevitable final confrontation, which alas proves to be just as dully staged as every other “horror” sequence in the film.

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I like most of the actors involved here, and I wish I could say that they elevate the material even a little bit, but they don’t. Walsh (who’s great on Nip/Tuck), alternates convincingly enough between nice guy and cold-blooded killer with an ever-so-brief glimpse of unchecked insanity toward the end, but he’s never scary, and his struggle to make things work with this family fails to be even a little bit relatable or sympathetic, which is a problem since we see a good chunk of the film exclusively through his eyes. The other half of the film’s central struggle, Gossip Girl‘s Penn Badgely characterizes Michael with nothing but a faint broodiness. He doesn’t register as being terribly concerned about his family’s safety and does little to earn our support in his struggle against David. For their parts, the always-charming Sela Ward and up-and-comer Amber Heard are both likeable but largely irrelevant for most of the film, existing only to be in peril for the last 5-10 minutes.

Ultimately none of the actors are truly to blame for this film’s shortcomings. Again, more than anything, this is a case of shoddy scripting plus bland direction equaling a bad movie. Nelson McCormick and J.S. Cardone have now proven conclusively that they don’t know how to scare us. The Stepfather is a complete failure of a horror-thriller that you should steer clear of at all costs. Even if you’re bored on a Saturday night, planning to rent a scary movie and smooth away its flaws with a few beers, I promise you that you can find a wealth of bad horror flicks that are a lot more fun than this.

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