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Dustin Putman

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The Stepfather  (2009)
1 Star
Directed by Nelson McCormick.
Cast: Dylan Walsh, Penn Badgley, Sela Ward, Amber Heard, Jon Tenney, Braeden Lemasters, Skyler Samuels, Sherry Stringfield, Paige Turco, Nancy Linehan Charles, Marcuis Harris, Deirdre Lovejoy, Blue Deckert, Jason Wiles, Jessalyn Gilsig.
2009 – 101 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images, mature thematic material and brief sensuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 16, 2009.
2008's in-name-only "Prom Night" remake may have been a meager PG-13 slasher film with a middle school-aged target demographic, but there is no denying that director Nelson McCormick and screenwriter J.S. Cardone brought some sleek style and welcome moodiness to an otherwise by-the-numbers project. The opening scene, for example—looming aerial shots of a waterside town at dusk, scored to Ben Taylor's haunting cover version of "Time of the Season"—remains fondly memorable. Alas, McCormick's and Cardone's latest team-up does not even have that much going for it. Based on the chilling 1987 thriller of the same name, "The Stepfather" more closely follows a lot of the same beats and plot points as that earlier film, only with less texture, skill and intelligence. Even taking into account the countless corners that have been cut in order to get it down to a PG-13 rating, this is a remarkably flaccid genre offering so lacking in spark that it probably won't please any audience. The only pleasure to be had from watching it is to so easily be able to pick it apart.

David Harris (Dylan Walsh) is a homicidal psychopath in search of the perfect family to call his own. When they disappoint him, he kills the whole lot of them and promptly moves and changes his identity. His latest bride-to-be is once-divorced mother Susan Harding (Sela Ward). When her eldest son, 16-year-old Michael (Penn Badgley), returns home for the summer after a stint in military school, he is at first wary of a strange man living in his house before gradually warming up to him. That all changes the more Michael gets to know David. Something seems a little off about his mom's new fiancé, and that's even before he discovers that one of the criminals profiled on "America's Most Wanted" bears a striking resemblance to David.

"The Stepfather" is studio-produced drivel that puts a negative label on horror movies and psychological chillers. The title, for one, doesn't make sense, since Susan's marriage to David never gets out of the initial planning stages. Who is he a stepfather to, then? Furthermore, the clichés that director Nelson McCormick imparts are so derivative as to practically be a mockery, from the badly mounted false scare involving a cat jumping out, to the convenient violent rainstorm that whips up just in time for the finale. The narrative course is painfully obvious, with Michael suspicious of David while everyone else either is blind to logic or quickly dispatched of in non-bloody ways. One person is suffocated, while another is drowned, and it deserves to be said that both victims put up little fuss and die after literally five seconds without oxygen. When a character does receive an actual wound—one unlucky individual is stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass—the cut artery produces only the most petite and darling little dollop of crimson. Ain't censorship grand?

Meanwhile, Michael's younger siblings, Sean (Braeden Lemasters) and Beth (Skyler Samuels), are so inconsequential that one wonders why they exist at all. At a loss for what to do with them and far too cowardly to involve them in any kind of genuine peril, scripter J.S. Cardone gets rid of Sean and Beth by carting them off to sleepovers every few minutes. Michael's girlfriend, childhood sweetheart Kelly (Amber Heard), is almost as sloppily used, with nearly every one of their scenes taking place in or around the backyard pool, Michael's rippling bare chest on display and Kelly eternally adorn in skimpy bikinis or revealing undergarments. Even in the one moment where Kelly attempts to cover up—she has a confrontation with an increasingly creepy David in the kitchen—her wardrobe is so flimsy that she literally has to hold onto her top lest it slide straight off her body.

One of the most intriguing elements of the original "The Stepfather" was the way the viewer was clued in right from the start that the title character was a maniac, and yet he could be so warm and charming that you found yourself almost rooting for him to work things out with his new wife and stepdaughter. The part was owned by an unforgettably creepy, at times unexpectedly disarming Terry O'Quinn, who went on to receive an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his sterling work. Taking over the role here is Dylan Walsh (2006's "The Lake House"), whose performance is a great deal more flavorless and one-note. He comes off as arrogant rather than sincere from the beginning, a standard-issue loon with an unhealthy obsession for living the American Dream. It is safe to predict that Walsh will not be receiving the awards notice or acclaim that O'Quinn rightfully earned.

As protagonist Michael, Penn Badgley (2006's "John Tucker Must Die") is also poorly cast, looking too old to be playing sixteen and too hard and humorless to be likable or believably vulnerable. Sela Ward (2006's "The Guardian") is comparatively better as mother Susan, the actress doing a respectable job of giving Susan a point-of-view and value system that at least gives the viewer an idea of where she's coming from. As Kelly, Amber Heard (2009's "The Informers") makes the most of a threadbare part, her stunning beauty objectified by the camera rather than relying on her to do anything but look good. One of the few things that is gotten right is the mature treatment of Susan's friends, Jackie (Paige Turco) and Leah (Sherry Stringfield), a romantic couple with a solid relationship whose homosexuality is never stereotyped, trivialized, or even commented on.

Anyone who has seen the trailers and television spots for "The Stepfather" will remember the shot where a buzzsaw dangerously swings inches above the face of a screaming Amber Heard. Curiously, that is nowhere to be found in the finished film, just one more example of a missed opportunity from the half-hearted filmmakers. In its place, the picture boils down to a third-act face-off of tedious, laughably anticlimactic proportions, followed by a tacked-on, pointless, and patently unsatisfying epilogue that will even have blind people rolling their eyes. Not scary or suspenseful but certainly asinine, the film is dumb as a box of hair and about as inspired as a corpse. A list of reasons for its existence comes up empty.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman