Movie Review: The Stepfather
By Matthew Huntley
October 29, 2009
There's a scene in The Stepfather that's so well acted I began to think it might rise above most horror-thrillers. It takes place after the movie's young hero receives a text message from his divorced father, who tells him he's not showing up to say goodbye before leaving on a business trip. The camera holds on the young man's face as he begins to swell up with tears and hold back his anger. It is quite powerful.
Unfortunately, this scene is but a mere interlude in an otherwise formulaic genre picture. By the end, the movie recycles every trick in the book to get a rise out of us. It fails. These tricks don't work and haven't worked for a long time. Shall I list them off? For starters, there's the familiar "loud crescendo" moment when a frightened character turns around and discovers the thing lurking behind her was just the cat, which has an unusually robust meow on the soundtrack.
In another scene, one of the good guys thinks she's just killed the villain, but suddenly, a hand reaches out and grabs her on the shoulder. Now, given the laws of physics and this character's situation, how could she not hear the person (to whom the hand belongs) coming toward her? Wouldn't she hear footsteps, or at least heavy breathing? And why wouldn't the owner of the hand not say something first? I mean, who really just reaches out and grabs somebody on the shoulder? Then again, this movie also employs the old "villain-isn't-really-dead" routine, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised by its logic.
This is all a shame because there are other parts of The Stepfather that are actually okay. In the movie, Dylan Walsh plays a psychotic killer who assumes a new name and identity in his relentless pursuit for the perfect family. When they don't live up to his standards, he kills them, as we see during the creepy and gruesome opening credits.
Walsh's latest nom de plume is David and he sets his eyes on Susan Harding (Sela Ward) and her three kids. The youngest two submit to David becoming their new stepfather, but Michael (Penn Badgley), the eldest son who has just returned from reform school, is more reluctant. Michael grows increasingly suspicious of David after the old lady next door accuses him of being on "America's Most Wanted." He also finds it strange that David doesn't have a single picture in the house or any forms of I.D.
I liked the movie's upfront approach of letting us know David is a killer. It's no secret to us, so it can at least spare us the scenes when we're supposed to pretend David is normal. What's not easy to buy is that Susan would be so naïve about her future husband's past or so passive about him not having a driver's license, social security number, etc. She just writes it off and says she loves him, despite her sister's (Paige Turco) apprehension.
Naturally, The Stepfather boils down to a perfunctory conclusion when some characters are killed, others are knocked out and the heroes have nowhere to go but upstairs (this makes it a lot easier for people to fall through the attic floor or out the window). The problem is we've seen this all before, only better. This movie is slick and competently made, and I will say some of the performances are better than I expected (Walsh has a good time playing a psycho and creates a reasonably creepy guy), but I'm tired of these PG-13 horror-thrillers always asking us to play dumb, as if we haven't tolerated their clichés before. Does director Nelson McCormick think they'll surprise us this time? The movie sometimes delivers on a superficial level, but when that's all it has going for it, it's not worth seeing.