It really takes a special few sets of hands to remake an R-rated ’80s slasher flick into a PG-13-rated commercial suckfest. Luckily, director Nelson McCormick and screenwriter J.S. Cardone (the same guys who brought us the 2008 remake of Prom Night) have gallantly stepped up to the task. Yet, I make no formal apologia for this remake because, unlike the original Prom NIght, 1987’s The Stepfather was something of a classic chiller. Was it suspenseful? You betcha, and the titular villain, played masterfully by Terry O’Quinn, was a sort of psychotic, homicidal version of Mike Brady, who was conducting a perpetual search for the flawless nuclear family. When these flaws inevitably began to show, this stepfather hastily disposed of that family and moved on to a new widow with children, and so the cycle continued. If I didn’t know better, I’d argue that the original film was a rather brilliant satire on the then-exploding trend of families led by thrice-married parents with children trailing behind away from each of their respective failed unions. Hell, a remake didn’t have to be a such a disaster and really could have run with the concept of disposable unions, which have only grown even more common, thanks in part to an internet that seemingly puts potential mates at a moment’s reach. Alas, this remake, due to an uninspired script and floundering lead actor, pretty much abandons the villain’s quasi-perfectionist lunacy in favor of sputtering through a largely impotent set of kills. While I suppose that a PG-13 rating necessarily means less bloodshed, a villain who only kills people through suffocation and drowning is, well, stupid.
With this remake of The Stepfather, the basic story has stayed the same, but the remake has made several odd little tweaks that just don’t work. The backstory of the villain is lazily explained aloud by inconsequential characters, and the villain himself, whose name has now changed to David Harris (how bland can you get?), spends a lot of time talking to himself and even begins to forget at times which identity he’s supposed to be assuming. None of this is done with any sort of nuance on the part of the screenwriters, so the concepts of uncertainty or potential suspense never even have a chance. In addition to the figurative castration of the villain, the suspicious daughter has been rewritten as a brooding and rebellious yet strapping young lad, Michael Harding (Penn Badgley), who comes home from military school to find that his mother, Susan (Sela Ward), has inexplicably become engaged to a mystery man, David Harris (Dylan Walsh). Now, if you remember the original film, you know that it was a daughter who took on the baddie, but the remake has changed this character’s sex because having a shirtless character is a censor-friendly way to increase a PG-13 flick’s nipple factor. (One wonders why McConaughey hasn’t done more of these sorts of movies in his younger days. He really could have fueled the horror-comedy scene, if you know what I mean.) Hilariously, the perpetually cold-nippled Michael ends up (perhaps unintentionally) communicating an Oedipal rivalry of sexual prowess with David, who, unlike the original film, never even fully becomes a stepfather but merely a live-in boyfriend. To further add to the sexual rivalry theme between Dylan and Michael, the vengeful former victim of the first movie has been written away and replaced by Michael’s biological father, Jay (Jon Tenney), who shows up briefly in the buildup to the film’s climax.
Thoughout the film, several auxillary characters appear and disappear without a trace of irony. Michael’s younger siblings, Beth (Skyler Samuels) and Sean (Braeden Lemasters), are conveniently shipped off to sleepover territory. Why even bother with these characters? They’re not placed in any real peril, never really get any reason or chance to develop, and definitely can’t be considered red herrings. Also, Mom’s lesbian sister, Leah (Sherry Stringfield), mostly sits around with her lover, Jackie Kerns (Paige Turco), while they both furrow their brows skeptically. And by “brow,” I’m not attempting to make any sort of sexual reference because, remember, this is a PG-13 flick. The only semi-sexual business going on here is limited to a bit of spit-swapping between Michael and his girlfriend, Kelly (Amber Heard), who gets a lot of screentime because she mostly prances about in a bikini.
With such a clichéd set of characters and a lazy script, there might still be a chance that a good cast could pull this remake out of the dumpster. However, the main players — Walsh (“Nip/Tuck”), Badgely (“Gossip Girl”), and Ward (“Sisters”) — are mainly television actors who don’t play to the big screen very effectively. Heard has much more movie experience and may very well give the best performance in this remake, but no one will notice due to her barely-covered curves. Well, that, and the fact that best part of the trailer, featuring Heard and a swinging buzzsaw, was left out of the film entirely. With that said, if you’ve seen the trailer to The Stepfather, you’ve seen a better story than the film itself tells. Skip it.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.