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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Stepfather (2009) (Blu-ray)
The Stepfather (2009) (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures // Unrated // February 9, 2010 // Region A
List Price: $38.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 2, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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...and yeah, that pretty much sums up how I feel too. This remake of The Stepfather is written and directed by the same guys behind the retread of Prom Night a couple years back, and I could probably stop the review right there. Take Terry O'Quinn's cacklingly awesome cult classic from 1987, neuter every last thing that was great about the flick until it starts to look like some Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?-grade Lifetime Original Movie, and you're somewhere in the ballpark.

David Harris
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(Dylan Walsh) -- or, at least, that's the name he's going by these days -- is hellbent on finding the perfect family, and he's not so much the type to settle for second-best. His M.O. is to worm his way into a broken home, saddle up as stepfather, and cut his losses (literally!) once things stop fitting into that Ozzie and Harriet postcard he has swimming around in his head. Flash forward to Portland as The Harding Family marches next in line on the hit parade. The younger tykes love the guy. Mom (Sela Ward) is smitten. Heck, even her sapphic sister and neighbors are won over. The only one who's leery is Michael (Penn Badgley) -- a troubled teenager that shows, um, no signs of being troubled other than people talking about it offhandedly a few times -- who's back for the summer after a stint at not-quite-military school. David puts on a happy face, but the cracks quickly start to show as he manhandles one of the kids for cranking up his TV too loudly and creepily stares at Mikey and his Maxim-cover-girlfriend (Amber Heard). Everyone who gets too close to the truth is aufed in the most inoffensively PG-13 ways possible, and when Michael won't let his suspicions go, it gets to be time for David to cut and run again...

There's all sorts of chatter in the extras about how The Stepfather is a psychological thriller. If you're suffered through enough of these sorts of flicks, you know that anytime a director or producer whips out the psychological card, the decoder ring spits out "slow and boring" afterwards. The original Stepfather was pretty damned suspenseful, and its stabs at violence were brutal and intense. The remake, meanwhile, flails around aimlessly on both counts. Even in this unrated director's cut, the movie's all but bloodless. The body count is incredibly low -- David's only diving into his third on-screen attack as the counter ticks past the 80 minutes mark -- and it's all incredibly tame stuff like a crystal vase to the head, pinched-nose suffocation, and a drowning in a swimming pool. The original kept the stack of bodies
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pretty low too, but it made every kill count. This, though...? It's nothing you couldn't get away with during family hours on basic cable, and the actual murders seem tacked on as an afterthought.

Some of my favorite thrillers really do have a psychological bent -- they're just effective enough that the talent doesn't need to keep dropping the P-word in the extras -- but a lot of that's owed to a compelling cast, richly-drawn characters, and sharp direction. The Stepfather is a swing-and-a-miss on all three of those counts. Dylan Walsh doesn't exude any real sense of menace, not really selling the kind of deranged longing for a '50s-style nuclear family that Terry O'Quinn had in the original. Penn Badgley is too flat to make for much of a lead, and...well, it's pretty clear why Amber Heard is on the bill, spending something like 85% of her scenes either in a skimpy bikini or in her panties. Sela Ward's the only one of 'em with any real presence, and she's criminally underutilized. The Stepfather never manages to hammer out anything in the same voting district as tension or suspense. The setups are all standard issue, leaning on stock scares like a cat leaping into the frame, the audible-gasp! reflection in the mirror, and the sudden hand-on-the-shoulder bit. Hell, The Stepfather ends with the bad guy tumbling off the roof, only...he doesn't. This is a movie whose climax kicks off with a frantic search for a cell phone charger. Who cares? All of the subtext and dark satire from the original have been chucked out the driver's side window too. Plodding, artless, twentysomething minutes longer than it ought to be, and aggressively unoriginal, this is an overeager seventeen-year-old's first draft of a thriller. It's not the worst movie I've ever seen, and it didn't make me cringe and cower the way Prom Night did a couple years back, but that's about the closest thing to praise I can muster. Skip It.

Well, at least it looks nice enough. There really aren't any gripes to rattle off about The Stepfather's presentation in high-def: black levels are generally deep and inky, contrast is rock solid, the palette is somewhat cold and understated but rendered well (especially those eye-popping blues), and fine detail is consistently impressive throughout. Film grain remains unintrusive but doesn't show any signs of being digitally smeared away either; it all looks slick and convincingly filmic. (I do kind of wonder if Sela Ward was digitally sweetened, though...her skin looks unnaturally smooth in a lot of shots, but that shouldn't be chalked up as a flaw with the presentation or anything.) The only hiccup that leapt out at me is some nasty posturization during a fade-out a little over a half-hour into the flick, but it lasts just a second or two, and I kinda doubt that's a dealbreaker for anyone slogging through this review. This is pretty much what you'd expect for a studio flick that finished making the rounds in theaters just a couple months back, and I mean that in a good way.

The Stepfather's AVC encode spills over into the second layer of this BD-50 disc, and the image is letterboxed to preserve its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1.

The six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track is awfully timid for a thriller. There are a couple of megaton stings punctuating the jump scares, sure, but other than that...? Not much. The Stepfather never latches onto the multichannel setup to ratchet up the tension, instead reserving them for really light atmosphere: a buzzing light in the basement, chirping crickets, a ringing doorbell, and the pitter of raindrops on Kelly's car. Sometimes the surrounds will briefly kick in during the action, like a shower curtain being ripped off the rings, but it doesn't amount to much. Bass response is robust when called for -- the thud of an old biddy tumbling down the stairs and some cracks of thunder -- but all of that's pretty sparse too. There are a couple of moments when the film's dialogue seems to be dialed a touch too low in the mix, but a couple of might've-been-menacing lines in the climax sound really far off. Even the forgettably bland rock soundtrack limps around lifelessly. The Stepfather is perfectly listenable on Blu-ray, but I'll admit to being surprised by just how subdued the whole thing is.

The Stepfather also piles on DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks in French and Portuguese. The Spanish-speaking crowd is stuck with a Dolby Digital 5.1 dub; guess Brazil and Portugal are more on the audiophile end of things. Subtitles are served up in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

The Stepfather sports one of Sony's
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movieIQ features, which highlights which actors are in the current scene, rattles off a list of songs featured in the movie, and lobs out little snippets of trivia. I'm guessing it'll be something along those lines on this disc, at least; I got an "unable to download update" error message when I gave it a shot, and the same goes for the BD Live icon on the menu. I'm sure this'll all be cleaned up by its street date. As for the rest of it...
  • Audio Commentary: Director Nelson McCormick is joined by actors Penn Badgley and Dylan Walsh for The Stepfather's commentary track, and it's...okay, I guess. Sure, it's a laid-back and consistently chatty track, and they definitely seem to be having a good time in front of the mic. It's just that I listened to the whole thing with pen and paper in hand, and I really didn't hear all that many highlights worth scribbling down. Among those few standout comments are Badgley having to hurriedly get in matinee idol shape in eight days flat, visual effects work as subtle as wiping away a soul patch, P.A. baby oil footprints, and mulling over what a talking Stepfather action figure would belt out, exactly. Other than that, it's pretty routine, running through soul-crushingly low temperatures, how they all got ensnared on the flick, and marveling at how psychological and slickly photographed it all is. This isn't a terrible commentary track or anything, but it's not engaging enough to scream out for a spin.

  • Open House: Making the Film (20 min.; HD): The Stepfather's making-of featurette is meatier than most, devoting quite a bit of time delving into the characters and performances rather than trotting out the usual trailer-plus-talking-heads formula from most EPKs. There's also some chatter about why the unwitting-hero-du-jour underwent gender reassignment surgery, shaping David's descent through sound, tacking another story onto the house in Pasadena they shot around, and how much more relevant the story is nowadays than the original was all the way back in 1987.

  • Visualizing the Stunts (12 min.; HD): The title
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    pretty much says it all, but this featurette digs into The Stepfather's more realistic approach to stuntwork, how the stunts impacted set and production design, and the previsualization the stunt crew hammered out before any 35mm cameras started rolling. "Visualizing the Stunts" dishes out a good bit of that camcorder-lensed previs footage, peeks at stunt choreography on the set, and some other behind-the-scenes shots while it's at it.

  • Gag Reel (5 min.; SD): I'm usually not so much a fan of gag reels, but I dug this one. There are the usual blown lines and fumbling around with props, sure, but it all just seems a couple notches further up the funny ladder than most. Some accidental face-drawing, Dylan Walsh breaking out the acoustic guitar to serenade his stepson-to-be, riffing at the grill...yeah, it's by far my favorite of the extras on this Blu-ray disc.

  • Promotional Stuff (5 min.; HD): The Stepfather's theatrical trailer and a gaggle of TV spots round out the extras. There are also high-def plugs for a few other Sony releases elsewhere on the disc if you feel up to counting those too.
Unlike pretty much every other day-and-date release on Blu-ray from the past couple of years, there's no digital copy or anything this time around.

The Final Word
This lazy, lifeless retread of The Stepfather veers sharply away from everything that made the original with Terry O'Quinn such a cult classic. C'mon, this is nothing more than a glossier take on a Lifetime Original Movie. Skip It.
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