The best scene of “The Stepfather” is the opening sequence, which takes place in a suburban home at Christmastime. A man, currently assuming the identity of Grady Edwards (Dylan Walsh), stands in front of the bathroom mirror and changes his appearance, dying his hair and trimming off his beard. He then goes downstairs and, calmly as can be, pours himself a cup of coffee and fixes up some peanut butter toast. He gathers his suitcases, and just as he gets ready to leave the house, we finally see the bodies of a woman and three young children lying amidst strewn Christmas decorations. We then cut to a scene in which a team of investigators discuss the specifics of the case; Edwards, who has no picture ID and pays for everything in cash, marries divorced or widowed women who already have children and then disappears once they’re found dead. Because he has no record, tracking him down would be next to impossible.
We quickly see the film’s biggest flaw once these scenes end and the story proper begins: Because we’ve already seen that Walsh is playing a deceitful and murderous character, there’s absolutely nothing he can say or do that we won’t already be expecting. We know he’ll charm another husbandless mother into marrying him. And when she and her children disappoint him–and inevitably, they will–we know he’ll fly off the handle. Dull, tension-free, and devoid of shocks (save for a few throwaway pop-out scares), “The Stepfather” is a movie whose structure seemed to have been inspired by a high school essay, rigidly taught as having to have an introductory paragraph, a concluding paragraph, and three body paragraphs that are each assigned a supporting position. You begin watching this movie and right off the bat can predict what will happen, when it will happen, and who it will happen to.
Based on the 1987 film directed by Joseph Reuben (unseen by me), “The Stepfather” goes through the motions yet lacks the conviction needed in order to work. The title character alone is a bundle of tired psychological clichés, an orderly, methodical man who wants the perfect family but has unreasonably high standards. It sort of makes you wonder, then, why he would intrude on the lives of the Hardings, where the teenage son, Michael (Penn Badgley), has spent the last year in military school for behavioral problems following his parents’ divorce. To be his stepfather would require a lot of compromise, understanding, and above all, patience. Edwards, who now goes by the name David Harris, proves time and time again that he possesses none of those qualities. “Family is the most important thing,” he says early on. “Without family, you have nothing.” Given this simplistic and inflexible standpoint, it’s implausible that he would even pretend to invest in bringing the Hardings back together.
But because he’s a psychopath, I guess he’s supposed to follow faulty logic. In all honesty, the most disturbing character in this movie is not the Stepfather, but his new wife, Susan (Sela Ward), a woman so blindsided by her own need for happiness that she fails to notice little things about him pretty much everyone else notices. Why does he suddenly quit his job as a realtor when asked to fill out social security forms and other government papers? Why does he call his dead daughter Michelle one minute and Lisa the next? Why do sketches on the America’s Most Wanted website bear a resemblance to him? How could he know the details of a neighbor’s death when he was never told about them? And why does he have padlocked cabinets down in the basement? Growing increasingly suspicious of his stepfather, Michael takes it upon himself to do what his mother isn’t willing to do: Get to the bottom of things.
The final twenty minutes could have been engaging had they not been so formulaic. Every thrill is so unflatteringly predictable, it’s as if the filmmakers included them only out of obligation to keep with tradition. Would it surprise you to learn that it takes place during a rainstorm? In the middle of the night? I half expected a sudden power outage (the old cutting-the-phone-line gimmick has officially died–everyone uses a cell phone these days).
A lot of this probably could have been overlooked if there was some level of mystery woven throughout the plot. Unfortunately, we had the Stepfather character figured out before we even entered the theater. So with nothing to surprise us, what else is there? The problem with “The Stepfather” is not that it’s gory, vulgar, or in poor taste–it’s just so bereft of originality that it’s flat-out boring. The only stimulation I got from watching this movie was the constant back-and-forth glancing at the clock on my iPod. The director is Nelson McCormick and the writer is J.S. Cardone, both of whom were responsible for the disaster that was the 2008 remake of “Prom Night.” It wouldn’t be worth noting that “The Stepfather” is a better film. That would be like comparing ninety-day-old cheese to thirty-day-old cheese. They both stink; it’s only a matter of degree.
– Chris Pandolfi