Case Number 18264

THE STEPFATHER (2009) (BLU-RAY)

Sony // 2009 // 102 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // February 5th, 2010

The Charge

Who am I here?

Opening Statement

"Family is the most important thing. Without it, we have nothing."

Facts of the Case

Recently and acrimoniously divorced Susan Harding (Sela Ward, Sisters) meets handsome and friendly David at a grocery store. Throwing caution and reason to the wind, she asks him to go out for pizza with herself and her two adolescent children. In the most whirlwindy fashion imaginable -- a jump cut and onscreen text telling us six months have gone by -- she and the courtly stranger are living together and planning to be married. Trouble arrives in the form of Susan's errant eldest child, teenage son Michael (a decidedly post grad-looking Penn Badgley, Gossip Girl), who's just finished his junior year at a military-type school for bad boys.

Susan doesn't know it, but there's even more trouble around the bend for her. It seems David (Dylan Walsh, Nip/Tuck) isn't really "David" at all. He's actually a murderous psycho/sociopath who sometimes goes under the name "Grady Edwards." David-as-Grady keeps trying to find the perfect family to marry into, but the last two disappointed him, and he expressed his paternal petulance by slaughtering them.

Will the increasingly agitated and suspicious Michael be able to convince his blissfully ignorant mom that she's sleeping with danger? Or will Papa Dave be adding another notch to his toolbelt of disapproval?

The Evidence

For the 118th time, why do filmmakers insist on remaking fondly remembered and cherished cult movies? If director Nelson McCormick, writer J.S. Cardone, and whoever else was responsible for this were all so enamored of the 1987 Terry O'Quinn sleeper, why didn't they just take the elements that worked and graft them onto a new story? By extracting the plot wholesale and keeping the title, the new film is bound to suffer by comparison to the original.

The original Stepfather was a product of -- and sly commentary on -- its time, when President Reagan's "traditional family values" agenda was on full display. While this new film is updated, its sensibilities aren't. The idea of replicating in real life the Father Knows Best experience doesn't resonate in the 21st century the way it did in the '80s, and The Stepfather '09 ends up being just another suburban horror flick without much wit or irony.

As far as updates go, time seems to have stood still in the universe of The Stepfather. As in the first film, David cleverly disguises himself by shaving his beard and lightening his hair. There are no pictures of him anywhere -- a little ridiculous in this age of heightened identification procedures and security cameras. He's somehow purchased and registered cars and held jobs without having to provide a photo ID, and while slaughtering a family of four would seem to be the kind of crime that would attract national attention, he's gotten away with it twice with only a mention and a generic-looking pencil sketch on America's Most Wanted to show for it.

Forensics science evidently hasn't evolved much either. The police are stymied by the lack of fingerprints he's left at the crime scenes, and they don't seem to have the wherewithal to take DNA samples (despite David's conveniently leaving a piece of bloodstained tissue in front of his last house). Wouldn't the bloody annihilation of two families -- one on Christmas, for Pete's sake -- be the stuff of screaming headlines and dogged manhunts? Wouldn't there be Web sites dedicated to these gory yet fascinating unsolved mysteries? Not here. As far as technological advances of the last quarter century, while there are lots of new tech toys, these seem to exist only to malfunction at critical times or to be misused (such as sending an easily interceptible e-mail rather than leaving a voice message on someone's cell phone).

Sela Ward's Susan must be the most desperate of housewife hopefuls. She moves this evasive stranger part and parcel into the home she shares with her young children and accepts at face value his story of losing his wife and child to a drunk driving accident -- something else that a curious person might Google. Despite there being enough flags on the field to cancel the Super Bowl, Susan barely bats an eye at David's off-kilter behavior or lack of any discernible past. She blithely ignores the concerns of friends and neighbors -- when one woman mentions America's Most Wanted, Susan doesn't bother to even check the Web site, just for a laugh. Casting the beautiful and intelligent Sela Ward is a mistake, since there's no way we believe that this woman would so blindly stand by the bourgeoning loon that is David as though he were her last chance Charlie.

Having the amiable Dylan Walsh as the quietly unhinged David should have worked better; unfortunately, Walsh plays his "I've got a secret" card a little too upfront. While O'Quinn's stepfather could easily pass as an earnest, family-loving wonk, Walsh plays at the character's straight-arrow persona like parody. We don't believe him when extols the virtue of family dinners and bonding time; it's more like a take-off on Steve Douglas from My Three Sons. When he goes full-bore stark raving, it's not the fun curveball that O'Quinn's stepdad pitched us.

As scripted, Walsh's David also tips his psycho hand too early and too often, having outbursts and killing people. The body count is higher here than in the first film -- though the grue stays comfortably in the PG-13 zone -- but overall, it's much less quirky and suspenseful. Lest you forget for a second that David is a dangerous whack job, we get an ominous music cue every time he opens his mouth. Seriously, the guy can't ask for a cup of coffee without the soundtrack going all Bernard Herrmann on us.

While the first film featured a disaffected and angry teenage stepdaughter, the update gives us a disaffected and angry teenage stepson in the person of Penn Badgley. Far too mature to be a believable high school junior, Badgley has two functions here: to walk around in a bathing suit and to whine about David. This is one more function than Amber Heard has as his girlfriend (she doesn't whine -- much). Even this savvy high schooler doesn't turn to the Internet for answers, though if he did, we'd only have a 20-minute movie.

Director Nelson McCormick seems most comfortable when he's ripping off the '87 film (and giving us a shameless but amusing two second steal from Psycho), but otherwise, he doesn't bring anything new to the table. Same old, same old...jump scares, generically creepy music score, pop-scored romantic interludes for the past-their-prime teens, villain with seemingly super-human powers, climactic fight scene so ridiculously brutal that the participants would have to be made of rubber to survive...you get the idea. What McCormick hasn't yet mastered are things like pacing, suspense building, nuance, and subtext.

As far as Blu-rays go, this one isn't really exceptional. The picture looks fine, though the film itself isn't exactly a marvel of cinematography. It's fairly unimaginatively shot, looking a few hairs better than a well-made cable TV thriller, but the transfer is crisp and clear. There are plenty of foreign-language audio options, and a generally good DTS 5.1 English track that's a little too heavy on the bass. For extras, we get a run-of-the-mill commentary with McCormick, Badgley, and Walsh -- subtitled in Spanish and Portuguese -- and two featurettes. "Open House: Making the Film" is the standard-issue "making of" puff piece. "Visualizing the Stunts" describes the stunt work (though the stunt co-ordinator acknowledges at the beginning of the piece that this isn't really a stunt-heavy film). A "Gag Reel" consists of around five minutes of actors flubbing lines and dropping things, and there's a whole bunch of trailers and TV spots. The only "Blu-ray exclusives" are BD Live and a MovieIQ trivia track. This is also the "Unrated" version, though as is usually the case with these things, I don't see anything here that wouldn't have been acceptable in its PG-13 rated form.

Closing Statement

If you want to see a creepy, chilly, and fun movie called The Stepfather, get your hands on the 1987 original. If you want to see a derivative contemporary time-waster, feel free to check this out.

The Verdict

Guilty, though I think this case should be resolved in Family Court.

Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 85
Audio: 85
Extras: 70
Acting: 70
Story: 50
Judgment: 55

Perp Profile
Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)

Audio Formats:
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)

Subtitles:
* English
* English (SDH)
* French
* Portuguese
* Spanish

Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Unrated

Distinguishing Marks
* Commentary
* Featurettes
* Gag Reel
* Trailer/TV Spots
* MovieIQ
* BD-Live

Accomplices
* IMDb
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0814335/combined