Written by: J.S. Cardone (screenplay) & Carolyn Lefcourt, Brian Garfield, and Donald E. Westlake (earlier story)
Directed by: Nelson McCormick
Starring: Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Penn Badgley, and Amber Heard
Reviewed by: Brett G.
ĒDo you know who your family is?Ē
As the remake has become the dominant horror trend for the decade, it comes as no surprise that any and all horror properties are subject to the treatment. While re-imaginings of the bigger horror franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were a given, studios have more recently turned to their lesser known contemporaries like Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and The House on Sorority Row. The latest in this line to be revisited is The Stepfather, a minor cult classic from 1987 thatís well regarded in horror circles but little known elsewhere.
Itís Christmastime in Utah, and Grady Edwards isnít out to enjoy the silent majesty of a winter's morn or the clean, cool chill of the holiday air; instead, heís calmly fixing himself breakfast as the corpses of his entire family lay strewn throughout the house. Six months later, Edwards resurfaces in Oregon as David Harris and charms his way into the life of recently-divorced Susan Harding and her children. Susanís oldest, Michael, is also returning from military school and is obviously distrustful of his new stepfather-to-be. Will David be able to handle Michaelís rebellion and keep his family together, or will yet another family manage to disappoint him and revive his murderous tendencies?
Featuring both the writer and director of the aforementioned Prom Night remake and a trailer that reveals nearly the entire film, The Stepfather admittedly didnít inspire much confidence. Perhaps itís the low expectations speaking, but this was a decent example of a remake done right in theory: it takes the same basic concept of the original, keeps many of the same story beats, yet feels fresh enough that it doesnít feel like an entire retread of the original. The concept of a maniac marrying into and later murdering a family is one thatís rife for a wide variety of situations and contexts, and the one presented here is interesting. Itís actually a bit of a mish-mash of the original film and its sequel in that Susan is divorced rather than widowed, and the kidsí biological father is still in the picture. This is a nice wrinkle for those familiar with the original, as it shakes things up a bit and keeps them on their toes.
As previously mentioned, however, the film does retain many of the same story beats as the original, so the story does unfold somewhat predictably at times. Being familiar with the original film, itís a bit difficult to judge the remake on its own merits in this respect because itís the equivalent of having a cheat sheet. Despite this, there is still a good amount of suspense to be found here, as the film establishes some high stakes early on, and youíre never quite sure who is safe from Davidís homicidal rage. Like the original, itís basically a slow burn for most of its running time as the film builds towards the moment where everything completely unravels for David. The final showdown here is a bit more bombastic and imaginative than the original in its structure, but I canít help but feel the film peters out a bit at this point.
However, the film does manage to build well to this point on the strength of its script and the performances involved. Dylan Walsh steps into the large shoes previously filled by Terry OíQuinn and does an admirable job. Like OíQuinn, Walsh is able to move between the multiple personalities demanded by the roleóone minute, heís calm and caring, the next minute, heís a cauldron of rage. His interaction with the rest of the cast is truly well doneóitís easy to believe that he was able to charm his way into the family, as he presents himself as a perfect husband and father. Horror veteran J.S. Cardoneís script also gives the character a chance to be normal for a decent amount of time; unlike his counterpart in the original, Michael isnít immediately distrustful of David, and even manages to get along well with him for a time. This is another interesting wrinkle that only serves to further build suspense as you wait for it to all crash down at the end.
The rest of the cast is serviceable, if not nearly as memorable. It was nice to see Paige Turco in the role of Susanís concerned sister, and Jon Tenney does well in his limited role as the kidsí true father. It would have been nice to see this character get more time to shine and basically inhabit the role played by Stephen Shellen in the original, but alas. Penn Badgley is a decent protagonist, though his role doesnít demand much for him; such is also the case for Amber Heard, who basically is asked to fill out a bikini and other similarly-sparse clothing (not that the target audience for the film is complaining). Director McCormick brings a bit of flash and style to the table, and the film is certainly very polished, almost to the point of being sanitized. While the original was no gorefest by any means, thereís hardly a drop of the red stuff to be found here. Even though weíre told David brutally slashed his former family to death, it looks more like he simply drugged them all in the opening scene, as thereís not a drop of blood to be found. This is symptomatic of the filmís overall blandness in this regard, as McCormick doesnít do much to separate the film from a slew of other modern horror films.
Still, itís hard to argue that the film isnít pretty suspenseful at times and basically takes the same approach as the original. Though the story is just different enough, it does feel like this is The Stepfather with all the grit removed and with a fresh coat of paint applied. Itís certainly nothing new and could basically be seen as another sequel (and itís certainly better than the direct-to-video third entry in the franchise). As such, itís tough to say how this one will hold up with repeat viewingsóitís certainly a well crafted film all the way around and managed to hold my interest during most of its running time. However, it just seems to be lacking something to send it into fifth gear and make it anything more than a fun little time-waster. Fans of the original will no doubt be intrigued, but those unfamiliar wonít exactly find anything truly memorable here. Rent it!
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