"Sometimes I get carried away with the whole family thing..."
Do you have any Advil? I still have a hangover from Prom Night. So for all intents and purposes, I should hate the 2009 version of The Stepfather, the remake of the small 1987 chiller that fizzled in theaters but become a word-of-mouth hit on home video. This modern take seems to represent all that is awful about recent horror retreads, and it's directed by Nelson McCormick--the same man responsible for that tween horror travesty from 2008. Is he at it again with this neutered PG-13 version of a genre hit catered to teenagers? (OMG! It's that guy from Gossip Girl!)
The new Stepfather features hot young talent in bathing suits listening to the hottest tunes of the day--a carefully constructed soundtrack whose first priority is money, not mood. And make no mistake--the cast here is as sexy as they get, and not just rising stars Penn Badgley and Amber Heard. For the more "seasoned" viewers, you get Dylan Walsh of Nip/Tuck, TV goddess Sela Ward and Jon Tenney of The Closer, a trio who could school the youngins' on the art of silver screen seduction. (Sadly, their shirtless scenes are minimal...)
So color me crazy if I admit, to my surprise, that even with the familiar plot and the ever-present thriller conventions (the cell phone was the worst thing that ever happened to the genre!), I enjoyed this version just enough in a mindless thriller kind of way. Is it better than the original? Hey, don't get all crazy...this one doesn't have Shelley Hack! But the tone of the new film is different enough from the original (directed by Joseph Ruben and written by Donald E. Westlake) that it ultimately isn't aiming for the same tone. The humor element and near-campy quality is almost nonexistent--this one goes for more straight-up suspense, and our protagonist isn't nearly as kooky as he was in 1987 ("We rode the line between humor and horror," noted Ruben). Terry O'Quinn (Lost) was brilliant, but he also cracked wise a lot ("Buckle up for safety!") and blurted out catchphrases ("Come to daddy!") as he became more unhinged.
His Jerry Blake was more obviously batty. Here, Walsh is more subdued and stoic--his David Harris is like a stern ex-marine that doesn't crack quite as loudly. But in a great sequence that mirrors the original's highly effective opening (love the "Silent Night" addition), we catch a glimpse at just how violent our villain is. A year later, poor Susan Harding (Ward) has no idea what she's walking into at the grocery store, where "David"--having done his homework--plots his introduction. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe the Hardings--including daughter Beth (Skyler Samuels) and sons Sean (Braeden Lemasters) and Michael (Badgley)--will provide the perfect family he has craved for so long.
But not so fast says Michael, a slightly troubled teen fresh out of a stint in a military "school for screw-ups". Something doesn't sit quite right with the eldest sibling, who starts to question David's motives. The soon-to-be stepfather's presence also doesn't sit well with Susan's ex-husband Jay (Tenney, who starred with Walsh in the short-lived series Brooklyn South), who already has a fractured relationship with Michael--one he's desperately trying to rebuild. Susan's sister Jackie (Paige Turco, coupled with a sadly underused Sherry Stringfield) sets David up with a real estate job--but thinks it's a little odd that he still hasn't submitted his paperwork and photo for human resources.
But even though her fiancÚ always pays in cash and apparently doesn't like having his photo taken, Susan doesn't see any problem--ditto Michael's bikini-clad girlfriend Kelly (Heard). Not even when that nosy neighbor lady stops by unannounced to tell Susan about that report she saw on America's Most Wanted. Hmm, doesn't David look just like that man who got away with murder? Could he be the serial killer stalking single mothers? Naa! That's silly, right? David actually seems to be a nice guy after all! (Tick tock, viewers! Tick tock...)
This entry isn't as bloody as the original, but for a PG-13 film I thought it faired decently enough with its few minor jolts. (I didn't see the theatrical cut, but this "unrated edition" is only a minute longer and none of the footage is too extreme). After some slow goings early on, the film picks up steam and the ending is entertaining enough to keep your interest. Yes, it looks like a patchwork of scenes from other thrillers and you have to make a few leaps in logic: Susan is a little too quick to fall under David's spell (their initial meeting may have been best left unseen, like the original...an instant dinner invite with your kids, Susan?!), and overall she's conveniently blind to the obvious (but so was Shelley); the exacting David's insistence on locking the basement door (and those mysterious cabinets) should have been major red flags (David is a "wannabe carpenter"); Kelly is far too dismissive of Michael's fears; and, oh yeah, none of these people feel like real actual people with any common sense.
Sure, I rolled my internal eyes a little, but not nearly enough that I ever wanted to turn it off (hardest to sit through are the poolside chats between Michael and Kelly, displays of teenage angst set to sappy songs). This Stepfather has a lot more in common with the decent Disturbia than the pre-pubescent Prom Night, and that's a world of difference. And while you may think that the America's Most Wanted subplot is silly, note that in the real-life case the original story was based on, John List ("The Boogeyman of Westfield") was apprehended after his case was featured on the popular crime show (18 years after murdering his family, and two years after the first Stepfather was released!). That's a nice nod from the writers, and even the original wasn't without its hard-to-swallow scenes ("This punk was trying to rape our daughter!").
Many of the original's signature lines, scenes and imagery are still here (love the buzz saw tribute, ditto the mirror shard), and at least two instances (one where David mixes up his dead daughter's name, one where he has a cold response to a tragic news story) are sold more convincingly in this newer version (not that the original was going for "convincing"). Gone is the therapist character and the subplot involving Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen), the brother of one of Jerry's victims who was on the hunt for the killer (their reunion results in the original's weakest scene, where our would-be-hero turns out to be a monster idiot). The body count here is low, which is intentional. A few sequences work well, but one has a lame setup by the pool (honey, just let the umbrella go!).
Also sadly gone is the resourceful Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), a smart and tenacious heroine with great taste in music (I still get giddy hearing Pat Benatar sing "Run Between the Raindrops", one of my favorites that never got any attention). Badgley is great at taking his shirt off, while Heard's character is the more frustrating--she's blind to the point of annoyance, but that certainly isn't her fault (now how about a release for All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, where she gets to have a little more fun?). Ward does the best with what she's given, and while Walsh isn't as captivating as O'Quinn, he does what the film asks of him. Unlike the original, this isn't as much a vehicle for the killer to strut his stuff.
All things considered, I actually wasn't disappointed that I watched this. Routine as ever, it still got the job done for a thrill-seeker like me. Granted, I'm easier to please in the horror/suspense realm, but there's nothing more terrifying to me than the phrase "Focus on the Family"...
The anamorphic 2.40:1 transfer is good, but the film has gone for a few tones that don't lend themselves to eye-popping visuals. Brown and blue hues are present throughout, and I was surprised at how many times browns and blacks were paired, which only served to highlight the lack of definition and detail in many scenes. Some brighter scenes were also a little too bright, with some of the characters drowning in light. My guess is that it was intentional, and the picture does have some nice detail in close-ups.
Far more fun is the 5.1 track (also available in French), which makes great use of all channels and has crisp dialogue. Birds, sirens, crickets, diner noise and the all-important storm sounds in the film's final sequence are strong, as is the score. Subtitles come in English, English SDH and French (the audio commentary also has available English subtitles).
A decent collection of bonus material is included. Open House: Making the Film (19:47), which talks with the cast and crew about the production. "Bravo had published a list of the hundred greatest horror films of all time," recalls producer Greg Mooradian. "I found that I had seen almost all of them...except for No. 70 I had never seen, which was The Stepfather." Director Nelson McCormick talks about his appreciation of the original (which almost had a "cult-like following"), how he wanted to keep the haunting opening sequence in the new film and how he was influenced by films like Shadow of a Doubt and The Talented Mr. Ripley, as well as domestic thrillers form the '80s and '90s like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Sleeping with the Enemy.
The cast talks about their characters, the director and each other--most interesting is Penn Badgley talking about the challenge Dylan Walsh faced with the David role, and how the actor layered it just right to avoid being too obvious or too subtle. While a lot of this is the generic "making of" stuff, this feature is slightly more interesting than most standard PR pieces. Part of that is due to the contribution of production designer Steven Jordan, who talks about his search for the right home and the challenge of architectural interest for the shoot, which necessitated a variety of angles and depth. McCormick also talks about the shooting style and camera variation reflected the lead character's state of mind. Also of interest: It was the studio that suggested they change the Stephanie character from the original to a boy, and the diner in the film also appeared in Seven and Training Day. (And because I love Sela Ward so much, I'll forgive her for likening this film to Jaws...)
Next up is the surprisingly cool Visualizing the Stunts (11:27). Stunt coordinator/second unit director Mike Smith is on hand to explain how he went about constructing the few crucial scenes involving stunts, filming "pre-viz footage" based on storyboards to find out any potential problems (which he did) before the shoot. McCormick chimes in with his thoughts, noting how crucial it was that the choreography look real and seamless. This was pretty entertaining and interesting stuff to watch from a filmmaking perspective, and it was kind of funny seeing all of the actors' stunt doubles on set. Also funny? Jon Tenney's story about his daughter.
The gag reel (4:45) was funnier than I expected and provided a few laughs--including Ward's propensity for dropping things and two lines that stuck out (about broccoli and gay porn...not together, silly!). The film's theatrical trailer and six TV Spots are included (I wish all releases included these). Two things of note here: While I like the vintage feel injected into the latter half of the theatrical trailer, as a whole it gives away far too much (especially if you haven't seen the original). It's also clear that some footage wasn't included in the film: A scene with Michael's siblings ("He takes us to the movies and stuff!") and some footage at the end in the final chase, which McCormick notes (in the audio commentary) that they cut because it slowed things down--yet there's no deleted scenes/footage here (boo!).
The audio commentary with McCormick, Walsh and Badgley (who joins via New York via the phone) is decent but surprisingly dry--a disappointment considering the gag reel seems to show these guys having some fun. The requisite casting, set design and story developments are discussed, with an exploration of how times (and the modern family) have changed. The cast also notes how their No. 1 priority was to keep the film from being cheesy, while the director talks about shooting (and editing) for PG-13. While the track is informative, it's not as fun as I hoped. The gang talks about the difficulty of the final sequence, and also references a few shots that were deleted--Walsh mentions "different versions" of various shots a few times throught the track, yet we don't get any of that footage on this disc.
Some of the better moments come when they talk about the original's influence, and a few other fun facts come out--they actually did film a shot of a buck naked Walsh in the opening scene (a nod to O'Quinn in the original). "It's a good thing you're a runner," McCormick tells Walsh. "But we didn't need it." (Hey, where's that deleted scene?!) Badgley also talks about how they made him get into better shape (a week-long crash course in training, protein shakes and peanuts: "They shot all the shirtless scenes first!"), and the challenge of saying dialogue without your shirt on ("You feel even more exposed..."). The actor also likes to say "lesbian" a lot, and compliments Sela Ward for the life she gave to her character (one that maybe wasn't as deep "on the page"). McCormick also has a keen observation about people in supermarkets (a truth I never really thought of), and notes that a scene with Badgley gripping a racketball is a nod to Shia LaBeouf's character in Disturbia--a film directed by McCormick's friend D.J. Caruso (hmm, maybe my comparions to that film make even more sense now...).
You also get trailers for other releases, and--for reasons I can't explain--a completely unrelated episode ("The Criminal Life", running 6:26) of the web-based series The Bannen Way, a slick, style-over-substance, Burn Notice-esque crime show that appeared on crackle.com.
Director Nelson McCormick is forgiven a little bit for Prom Night with this remake, even if it resorts to standard thriller conventions and has been neutered for the tween horror crowd. Whereas the original mixed humor with horror, this Stepfather ditches most of the camp in favor of straight-up suspense. While the result isn't anything drastically different from films like Disturbia, I was entertained enough to pass the time. And if nothing else, this is one good looking cast, which is the most important thing in any movie, right? So just sit back and enjoy the view! For those addicted to the genre, this may warrant a replay; the majority of you are best advised to Rent It for a mindless (and minor) thrill-seeking night at home.