The mere fact that the idea for The Stepfather is at least 20 years old now should tip you off pretty quick that you’re not going to find a lot that’s new here. The original movie that came out in 1987 starring Terry O’Quinn also had its flaws, but it was a much more efficient vehicle than the lumbering 2009 version.
Both movies work with the same premise – a psychotic wanna-be dad, here named David Harris (Dylan Walsh), with a perfect family complex hops from home to home where ever there’s a daddy/husband role that needs to be filled and tries to live out his dream of having the wholesome American family. But of course, he’s a roiling beast underneath that warm and friendly smile, and when reality starts to rear its ugly head and he realizes he’s not living in an episode of ‘Father Knows Best’, he goes all murder spree on everybody and then moves on to the next town.
As slashers go, it’s a pretty great concept, created by the great pulp novelist Donald E. Westlake, who wrote the screenplay of the original. It’s sort of a reaction to those parents who read things like ‘Raising PG Kids in an R-rated Society’ and are worried that a rock album might make their kid blow up a school. The stepfather in this scenario is the immovable object – things must work his way or everyone dies. But the irresistible force of societal change is driving him to a meltdown every time. Who will survive?
The combo of a strong storyteller and O’Quinn’s natural ability to be spooky while being warm and friendly is what made the original movie sing. You could believe people would want to spend some time with him. And when the murderous rage comes bubbles to the surface, it felt like it was there all along.
But in the new version, as strong as the cast is, Walsh’s friendliness is closer to a safe blandness – he’s not really lovable so much as he’s not unlovable. Not to mention – and this is not meant as an insult to Mr. O’Quinn – Walsh is a good-looking dude, whereas O’Quinn is pretty non-descript. He’s not going to stand out for his chiseled features and boyish good looks. He belongs in an IBM Team Building portrait, not GQ. That’s strike number one against it being plausible that David Harris could get away with this killing thing.
Strike number two is that sometimes he’s very careful about leaving clues behind – as when he wears gloves during one murder – while other times he stops to have a bite to eat at a murder scene and leaves prints everywhere. It seems that he meets everyone in the neighborhood with each new family and the only thing standing between him and conviction is, for instance, a thin beard. It’s tough to believe Walsh’s stepfather has been so slippery for the police.
Bolstering the story is Sela Ward’s Susan, a newly single mom who is both smart and needy, a combination that explains a lot. Penn Badgely doesn’t do badly as Susan’s son, Michael, the one who really has the showdown with his new dad, but at the same time his character doesn’t quite live up to the description. He’s been away at military school, a place for – as he puts it – ‘screw-ups’ like him. Yet, he doesn’t seem to have a temper nor a tendency to get into trouble. Maybe he’s rehabilitated? But then, if so, why the complicated backstory?
Thing is, this SHOULD be a very complex story. These are some heavy issues – divorce, a new parent – that would throw any household into chaos, even without a live-in psycho. Outside of a few jabs between Michael and his mom, you don’t see much of this strain in the story. Instead, everyone seems generally well-adjusted until all the killing starts. It seems like a story ripe with the possibility of examining family dysfunction, but instead keeps things running along the lines of the run-of-the-mill slasher.
The film is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen and the production values are very pro. The audio is in English and French 5.1 Dolby Digital with subtitles in English, English SDH, and French. The audio is similarly clear and strong.
Commentary with Director Nelson McCormick, Penn Badgley and Dylan Walsh – a solid commentary. If you’re interested in a scene-by-scene account of the film, you’ll find it here.
Open House: Making the Film – As a fan of the original, I gotta say that Director McCormick’s feeling that the original had a great idea and he thought that he should “bring it to life” kinda makes my blood boil. There are a few interesting points about set dressing and production prep. The rest is the usual ‘this cast and crew is the best ever’ stuff. (20:10)
Visualizing the Stunts – An interesting bit on planning out the fight scenes in the film and how they were realized. (11:35)
Gag Reel – Bloopers and on-set gags – not many gutbusters, here. (4:51)
Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots – (2:33)
The Bannen Way Episode – “The Criminal Lifestyle” – episode of an unrelated web series. (7:17)
Previews – Trailers for Armored, Salt, Zombieland, and twelve other movies.
The Stepfather feels perfunctory, with all the basic steps of a slasher with not much personality and no new twists.
Screen Gems presents The Stepfather. Directed by: Nelson McCormick. Starring: Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Penn Badgley, Amber Heard, Jon Tenney. Written by: J.S. Cardone. Running time: 102min. Rating: Unrated. Released on DVD: February 9, 2010. Available at Amazon.com.