My notes on the remake of The Stepfather.This is a step up from Prom Night, the last remake directed by Nelson McCormick and scripted by J.S. Cardone; that took almost nothing from the slasher movie whose masthead it was notionally trading under, and was indeed one of those rare films which seem to have no story whatsoever, but this at least recognises the solid plot elements of the 1986 suspense-horror item, and reproduces a couple of scenes (the opening, for instance) exactly while reusing the mechanics of the storyline as we wonder when the seemingly affable but actually simmering central character will boil over and try to kill his latest adopted family.
Much of the spadework involved in redoing the Donald E. Westlake script is the now-familiar business of filling the script with gadgets we didn’t have in the 1980s – this is full of distracting business about PDAs, mobile phones, voicemail, text messages, wiped digital photos and internet caches, which mean suspense sequences revolving around rooting about under a car seat for a phone charger so the heroine can deliver a vital warning to her thicko boyfriend or a ringtone that sounds out through the ventilation system when the phone subscriber is supposedly miles away. We open, as in 1987, with a middle-class man altering his appearance by removing coloured contacts and shaving as he prepares to leave a home – he has tidily cancelled the newspapers – littered with the corpses of the wife and kids who have ‘disappointed’ him. Just to rub it in, the house is decorated for Christmas – though that’s famously a stressful time of year, and we could conclude that it was a ‘batteries not included’ notice or a very poor cracker joke which spurred the massacre. Then we get a single long-shot scene with the FBI talking about the case, and revealing that the mystery man has done it at least once before – though the policier aspect of the film only recurs when a nosy neighbour looks at the America’s most wanted website and sees a familiar artists’ impression.
Then, in a supermarket, a nice guy calling himself David Harris (Dylan Walsh) picks up hot divorced Mom Susan (Sela Ward) and her two younger children – don’t bother to learn their names, because they’re nonpersons in the film and even off on a sleepover during the climax – and, six months later, they’re engaged. The POV in the 1987 film was a teenage girl who got suspicious about her new perfect Dad (the role which turned Terry O’Quinn from Third Cop or Balding Dad to superstar character actor); here, the lead is a brooding, twitchy teenage son, Michael (Penn Badgley), who comes home from a spell in military school after unspecified troubles, and is soon distracted (unbelievably) from his super-hot bikini babe girlfriend Kelly (Amber Heard) by suspicions about why there are locks all over the basement (weirdly, the killer locks away his tequila stash but later leaves a corpse in an unsecured freezer) and his new prospective father can’t keep the name of his supposedly dead daughter consistent. Typically, this is a film which doesn’t trust its actors or its premise: instead of the slow burn realisation and girl-who-cried-wolf business, it’s plain to almost everyone who walks by that ‘David’ is a maniac and so he has to rack up a biggish body count (nosy neighbour, ex-husband, lesbian auntie) in standalone kill sequences before the finale in which he menaces Susan, Michael and Kelly … only to be beaten off, and resurface in a coda picking up a new family in case they ever want to remake Stepfather II.
Walsh is potentially okay in the lead, though he has broader strokes to play than O’Quinn – and is never given the crucial speech his predecessor had in which he makes a heartfelt plea for his outmoded values, and complicates our view of the stepfather as a monster. Heard – who seems to own ridiculously few clothes – is a lively presence, but stuck with a conventional girlfriend role which makes you realise how rare the interesting female lead role she had in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was in the contemporary horror genre. The weak note is sounded by Badgley, who isn’t remotely credible as a supposed troublemaker – frankly, he looks like Shia LeBoeuf could kick his ass, and is among the whiniest amateur sleuths in the business. It doesn’t even do well by the hokey scare stuff, and setting the final face-off during a thunderstorm – like the Christmas bit at the outset – just suggests a tendency to over-egg the stale pudding.