If you’re going to trade in the blood and guts for a PG-13 rating, at least make it exhilarating. The horror genre has diverged into two paths: the brutally gruesome and the suspenseful. The Stepfather clearly is going for the latter category, which would have been fine if it were in fact thrilling. The premise is strong and the characters are appealing but the movie is missing the one element that might earn it an audience: terror.
Much of The Stepfather mimics the original. The film opens with a vignette of Dylan Walsh as David Harris going about a seemingly typical morning routine sprinkled with a serious makeover. Just as Terry O’Quinn’s Jerry Blake did back in 1987, David cancels the house’s newspaper subscription, packs up his belongings and heads out the door for good leaving the bodies of his former family behind.
This updated version trades innocent Stephanie Maine for bad boy Michael Harding (Penn Badgley). Michael comes home from military school to find his recently divorced mother shacked up with David. While Michael has been away, David has played the role of loving boyfriend, now fiancé of his mother Susan (Sela Ward) and has gone out of his way to fill in as a loveable father figure for Michael’s younger brother and sister, Sean (Braeden Lemasters) and Beth (Skyler Samuels). When the neighborhood’s local little old cat lady and perpetual busybody Mrs. Cutter (Nancy Linehan Charles) challenges David’s nice guy persona, Michael becomes suspicious of his stepfather-to-be himself.
The only one Michael can confide in is his girlfriend Kelly (Amber Heard). She’s willing to listen but urges Michael not to get so obsessed with something that’s mere speculation fearing he’ll be sent back to military school. There’s also Michael’s real father, Jay (Jon Tenney), but after Jay split, their relationship turned sour. Once the stage is set, The Stepfather is just a race against time to see if the Harding family can put the clues together before David cancels their newspaper subscription.
The Stepfather is a souped up version of its predecessor. The screenplay is modernized, the soundtrack will get your heart pumping and the cast is packed with pretty faces. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; the original film was not perfect. Yes, the concept is frightening and yes, many consider it a classic, but it’s not terrifyingly suspenseful. The scare factor rests solely on the shoulders of one man and like O’Quinn back in 1987, Walsh isn’t that terrifying. The concept of a masked killer running around hacking people up makes creating suspense much easier. The killer could be anyone, which forces you to be wary about every character throughout the film. In The Stepfather you know what’s coming the entire time.
Walsh is great at being scary but when it comes to hiding behind his mask, that of a good guy, he’s not as convincing. His psychotic nature bleeds through in awkward moments, which are so obvious, it makes Susan’s naivety nearly unbearable. Another character that isn’t very believable is Michael. How can such a nice kid have gone to military school? The concept might have worked if an explanation was provided but the only detail we get is that he was kicked off the high school swim team. Did he dive in a ‘no diving’ zone or something?
Character faults should be blamed solely on the script. Walsh, Ward and Badgley perform superbly. Heard is also very effective in adding dimension to Badgley’s character and has an especially unnerving scene with Walsh. The acting is there and the solid story line is there; the problem is The Stepfather just isn’t that scary. Rather than gearing the movie towards the easily bored, The Stepfather needed to put more focus on the psychosis of its killer. That’s what’s so terrifying about the story. The scary part isn’t that a lunatic wielding a knife is chasing someone; it’s that this normal guy manages to become part of a family even though he’s hiding a violent secret.
Like I said, The Stepfather is much more of a thriller than a horror film. Think Disturbia. Badgley is no Shia LaBeouf and Walsh isn’t nearly as frightening as David Morse’s Mr. Turner, but it’s still a fun movie. It’s an enormous step up for director Nelson McCormick. His last horror flick, Prom Night, was dismal at best. As with most modern horror flicks, if you take it for what it is, it’s a fun time at the movies, but nothing more.