Thursday, December 03, 2009

510 - The Stepfather (2009) review

“Father knows best,” is what I kept waiting for the titular Stepfather (Dylan Walsh) to say, but he never days. Man, this guy’s a jerk! I wanted to like him, I really did. But his habit of butchering his family and their neighbors makes this nigh impossible.

The Stepfather has a cruel MO. He moves to a new town and assigns himself a brand new identity and begins dating the prettiest divorcee/widow he can find, assuming they have kids. When the new life goes awry in one way or another, he murders the family and moves a few states over to begin anew. The first sign that he’s about to bring down the axe? He cancels the family newspaper subscription. Ladies, be wary if you catch your husband or boyfriend calling the Courier.

For most of the film he is posing as one David Harris, groom-to-be for Susan Harding (Sela Ward), a divorced mom with a very, very pretty family. Her son Michael (Penn Badgley) just got back from reform school and is predictably skeptical about this stranger shacking up with his mom. It’s a healthy skepticism, seeing as Evil Stepdad has murdered both the elderly neighbor and Michael’s father within a couple days of his return. But that won’t be figured out until time for the finale, where the family struggles to survive one of those stormy nights where the bad guy swings knives and hammers and buzz saws just close enough to not hit anyone really important. I guess he’s not all bad, just a poor melee fighter.

About 30 minutes into “The Stepfather,” it occurred to me that I could stop the film, pick up the script where it left off, and finish a new version that would be at least 75% similar to the one actually shot. The production values are excellent, the performances exactly where they need to be (Walsh is particularly effective), and the right notes are hit, all on time, like a decent song you’ve heard on the radio so often that the stereo in your head is just as effective as the one in your car.

“The Stepfather” is a remake of a 1987 horror film of the same name, had potential to be more than a standard scare machine. Think of the possibilities: a deranged killer finds a new family in the suburbs, joins it, and then murders them when things don’t work out. I went in hoping that the film would be laced with some wicked commentary, such as a satire on the suburban middle class’ tendency to place great emphasis on illusory values or how the pursuit of some objective perfection is but folly. Nothing of the sort here: anything intellectually offensive has been diligently scrubbed away, leaving a polished, vapid thriller.

2 out of 5

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