(2009)2.5Tracie CooperWhile the original version of The Stepfather may not be remembered with quite the same familiarity as its fellows in 1980s horror, the movie still holds a spot within the genre. Its suit-and-tie-wearing sociopath killed with a cold efficiency that was just as terrifying, albeit quieter, than his machete-wielding brethren. The remake, at times, is able to tap into the sense of unease elicited by killers that mix well with society -- but, for the most part, it's a bland, if passable, psychological thriller.
The Stepfather begins as Grady Edwards (also known as David Harris in the film, among other aliases, played by Dylan Walsh) calmly exits his suburban home, where his latest family, having failed to meet his expectations, lies dead, scattered about the Christmas decorations. The killer has his routine down to a science: find a harried single mother in a public place, utter a few witticisms, pretend to be a widower, imitate all the hallmarks of an ideal courtship, and quickly take over the role of father and husband. Eventually, he believes, he'll stumble across the right fit. When he meets Susan (Sela Ward), a recent divorcée, and two of her children in a grocery store, he has high hopes that they're the family he's been searching for. This is all made clear within the first 15 minutes of the film -- and those 15 minutes have potential.
The film, as well as Edwards' plans, however, starts to unravel when he meets Michael Harding (Penn Badgley), Susan's son, fresh from a stint at military school, and his girlfriend, Kelly (Amber Heard). It's not that either of the young actors does a particularly bad job with what they were told to do, but most of their interactions are limited to frolicking by the pool, posing prettily in swimsuits, making out, and alluding to the possibility that Michael will have to return to military school in the fall. Though there are some genuinely tense moments as Michael begins to realize there's something seriously amiss, it doesn't take away from the feeling that a teen romance was hastily tacked on to draw a larger audience. The script doesn't help matters -- it's hard to believe Michael would notice that there's something too practiced about his soon-to-be stepfather's schtick when the rest of the dialogue is just as plastic.
Ward and Walsh do manage to turn in two strong performances, both putting across a palpable, desperate desire for the perfect life, which manifests itself in denial for one, and murder for the other. There are several modern tweaks -- browser history, text messaging, and telltale ringtones, to name a few -- that bump the tension up a notch, but not enough to make The Stepfather much more than mildly entertaining.