Monday, February 15, 2010

‘The Stepfather’: Paternal Instincts of the Familiar Kind

One of the inherent problems with remakes – unless the creative forces behind them really veer from the source material (think John Carpenter’s THE THING) – is that the audience knows what’s coming. And when an audience walks into a theater with a good idea of how it will all pan out, logically, building suspense is an uphill battle. Such is the main problem with last year’s remake of THE STEPFATHER, an otherwise competent thriller whose main crime is familiarity.

Like its 1987 predecessor, the new and improved STEPFATHER concerns a psychopath (here played with deranged calm by NIP/TUCK’s Dylan Walsh) who has a penchant for loving and leaving (and butchering) entire families. Chameleon-like, our dangerous Daddy is just one pair of contact lenses and a box of Just For Men hair coloring away from his next set of victims. Following the prologue in which we see the aftermath of the titular character’s Christmas-time massacre of his current family, psycho pappy hits the road for Oregon where he quickly spies desperate divorcée Susan Harding (the always solid Sela Ward) and kids at the local grocery store. On cue, conversation and flirting ensue.

Flash forward six months, and stepfather-to-be has ingratiated himself into the Harding’s lives in tree-lined suburbia. But while young’uns Beth (Skyler Samuels) and Sean (Braeden Lemasters) take to the new paternal figure in their life, teenage son Michael (Penn Badgley) arrives home from military school with eyebrows and suspicions raised. And he’s not the only one. As the film progresses, those closest to the Harding family (the ex-husband, the concerned sister, the nosy feline-loving neighbor) also become suspicious of the man who’s got aversions to family photos and filling out his W-2 form — and that’s when the film’s respectable body count begins.

The whole thing comes to a head when Michael, with girlfriend Kelly (Amber Heard) in tow, uncovers the secret of the locked cabinets in the Harding house basement. If the whole thing sounds a bit like a Hardy Boys novel, well, it kind of is — right down to Badgley’s quasi-rebellious teen earnestness and the dark-and-stormy-night finale.

Acting is above-average here, with veterans Walsh and Ward ably aided by a recognizable supporting cast that includes Jon Tenney, Sherry (ER) Stringfield, and Paige Turco. Badgley, while lacking the qualities that endeared fans of the original to Jill Schoelen’s final girl, is an appealing enough ‘final guy’ — while Amber Heard is reduced to a clothing-challenged sidekick, spending the majority of the film’s running time in either her underwear or a bikini. Heard – who’s not unfamiliar to genre fare with roles in ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE and ZOMBIELAND already under her belt, while upcoming roles in AND SOON THE DARKNESS, THE WARD, and DRIVE ANGRY (from the team that brought audiences MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D) seem certain to cement her status as a bona fide scream queen – deserves better here than the film’s PG-13 T&A element.

Director Nelson McCormick and screenwriter J.S. Cardone both show marked improvement here over their last collaboration, 2008’s colossal PROM NIGHT misfire. McCormick’s direction hums along at an appropriately brisk pace, occasionally getting bogged down a bit by some extraneous bits of character exposition and dialogue in Cardone’s otherwise faithful treatment of Donald Westlake’s original screenplay.

Where THE STEPFATHER falters is in the lack of risk the creative team takes with the source material. There are very few variations on the original film, with killer Daddy escaping at film’s end and already chatting up his next family. Hey, if Rob Zombie decided that Michael Myers needed a backstory, couldn’t Cardone come up with something for David Harris? Getting to know the why behind this always-a-stepfather-never-a-Dad character has some serious potential, and almost feels somehow necessary considering the brutality of the character’s modus operandi. That would have been interesting. And any hints of freshness (including a few bits of homoeroticism between Walsh and well-pectoraled Badgley) are never fully realized. There are no surprises to be found here, no bit of originality that takes the film in a slightly different direction from the original. And a slight detour on a road less traveled would have made all the difference in this otherwise respectable slasher/thriller.

1 comment:

Pax Romano said...

It's still on my Netflix queue, but I keep pushing it back down...dare I move it to the top?