Who’s yo daddy?
I told myself I wouldn’t do it. As I sat down to watch the 2009 remake of 1987’s The Stepfather, I told myself that this review wouldn’t be one big comparison between the two. I told myself that this new movie should be allowed to stand or fall on its own merits, and not held up against the original. Then, as I saw the opening of the movie playing out in front of me with an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the original’s memorable shaving sequence, I knew there was no other way.
Michael (Penn Badgley, Gossip Girl) comes home to the suburbs after being away at military school. He’s reunited with his mom (Sela Ward, Sisters) and he gets to meet his new stepfather David (Dylan Walsh, Nip/Tuck). Familial awkwardness is heightened by some strange behavior on David’s part, followed by some eerie occurrences, such as a neighbor’s unexpected death. Michael and his bikini-clad girlfriend Kelly (Amber Heard, Pineapple Express) investigate, and they discover the stepfather is not the squeaky-clean family man he appears to be.
You know it’s coming, I know it’s coming, so let’s just get it over with and play 1987 versus 2009.
• Blood splatter versus blank eyes
Ask horror fans about the 1987 movie, and chances are the first thing they’ll mention the opening scene, starting with our villain shaving—thus changing his appearance—then leading into a scene of memorable gore and carnage. When the remake was announced, the question on a lot of minds was “How could they ever top that opening?” Aiming for a PG-13 in the 2009 movie, the creators did away with the bloody innards, and instead gave us creepy shots of the victims’ faces, with their blank eyes staring right into the camera. Yes, that could be considered scary and suspenseful, but it doesn’t really establish the tone the same way as the over-the-top opening of the original.
• Shower versus bikini
Ask horror fans what the second thing is that comes to mind upon mention of the 1987 movie, and they’ll put on their “still mentally trapped in adolescence” hat and recall the shower scene. Yeah, yeah, I know. Gratuitous nudity was a staple of 80’s horror, and we all know it. The 2009 version, though, raises the question of what is and isn’t “gratuitous.” Amber Heard spends almost the entire movie in a bikini, including numerous scenes in which a bikini isn’t called for. I, um, appreciate sexy bikini girls as much as the next guy, but there are movies with the word “bikini” in the title that don’t have this much bikini footage. I’m going to go way out on a limb here and assume this was done to draw in horny male viewers. The same was true, of course, of the original’s shower scene, but that was 30 seconds at most, not a third of the movie.
• Michael versus Stephanie
The biggest difference the filmmakers made with their remake is changing the protagonist. In 1987, Stephanie, the daughter, was younger, didn’t drive, and was more or less alone in her struggles. Michael is older, college-bound, and is more aggressive in his pursuit of the truth. This makes some sense, in that it sets up an oedipal type of thing, with son and stepfather competing for the title of “man of the house.” The both have troubled pasts, and much time is spent in both films with them fighting their inner demons. Michael is driven, though, to find out what’s up with his new family member. Stephanie did some of the same, but she was more vulnerable. We got the sense that she was trapped in the house with that man, with nowhere to go. While Michael is all about fighting back, Stephanie is more about just trying to survive. Perhaps some audience members will want to cheer on Michael’s righteous fury, but he doesn’t have the break-your-heart feel that Stephanie had.
• Small supporting cast versus large supporting cast
In 1987, the peripheral characters outside the main cast were what? A psychologist, a teen boy for the daughter to crush on, and a subplot with a cop and a reporter. Each of these characters related to the main plot in some way, and where never a distraction. The 2009 version adds a nosy neighbor, a pair of co-workers, the ex-husband/biological father, and two younger siblings. If you’ve ever seen a movie before, you can guess that some of these folks are here as future murder victims, but others merely distract from the family/stepfamily dynamic that the story is supposed to be about. Having the ex-husband hanging around stirring up trouble just illustrates why a character like this wasn’t needed in the original. The co-workers who are suspicious about the stepfather have their own little subplot about going to Hawaii. Why? Why couldn’t they have been one character? Sure, they’re played by two cool actresses—Sherri Stringfield of E.R. and Paige “April O’Neil” Turco—but two is still superfluous. Speaking of superfluous, why are the two younger kids even in this movie? It’s established early on the Michael has a younger brother and sister, but they add nothing to the story. They’re barely seen interacting with the other family members, and they just plain disappear in the latter half of the story. So why are they there, taking up screen time, to begin with?
• Clueless mom versus smart mom
Am I putting the 1987 film on a pedestal? Hardly. It wasn’t without its flaws, and the biggest of those was the mom’s cluelessness. She spent the whole movie doting over her new husband, blindly unaware to the growing freakiness happening in her own home. Sela Ward is an improvement, simply because she’s no dummy. I like how she takes her new hubby to task about how he interacts with the kids, and about his old-timey family values. Ward has a great moment in which in her character defends herself, saying that her new guy makes her happy, despite his oddities, and that’s what important to her. She does good work throughout the movie, and I wouldn’t have minded if she was our protagonist instead of her son.
• Evil stepdad versus evil stepdad
Taking the difficulty of a kid adjusting to a new stepparent and turning it into ghoulish thrills might be in bad taste for a lot of people, but “taste” has never been what the horror genre excels at. The breaking down of the traditional family is a potent topic for pretty much anyone, and running it through the metaphor machine by turning it into slasher horror will certainly hit a little too close to home for some. For others, though, the difficult emotions it stirs combined with the usual “Look out behind you!” can provide a powerful release. In 1987, Terry O’Quinn (Lost) played the stepfather role close the chest. He was a quiet guy, only showing any outward emotion when alone in his basement. He didn’t long for the perfect “family life,” he thought he was truly living it. Walsh’s 2009 take on the character is similar, except that he’s more outward about his desire for that perfect life, making no secret about it. Instead of believing he’s living that life, he believes it’s a goal worth achieving. Making the character more openly emotional forces some of the suspense. This is best illustrated in an early scene when the stepfather lashes out at the youngest child for making too much noise. It’s a shocking, brutal moment, and while it might get a jump out of the audience, it frustrates me that it doesn’t raise more red flags. Seems to me that everyone should think this guy is psycho after that. I wanted that scene, and others like it, to be more downplayed. But, no, this is the remake, so everything’s got to be bigger, more elaborate. That’s Walsh’s take on the character, and while he does the creepy serial killer thing as well as anyone, but he plays it bigger and broader than others, and I wonder if that hurts not just his performance, but the overall film.
This is a damn good-looking movie. Much credit goes to director of photography Patrick Cady and production designer Steven Jordan for making this cheese look so nicely polished. These gorgeous visuals transfer excellently onto DVD, with bright, vivid colors and deep, rich blacks. The sound booms throughout all the speakers in a great Dolby 5.1 track.
The DVD also comes with a generous helping on bonus features, starting with a commentary by Walsh, Badgley, and director Nelson McCormick (Prom Night (2008)). This is followed by two featurettes, one on the overall making of the movie, and another focusing just on the stunt work. These all get way too self-congratulatory—at one point, they compare this movie to Jaws and Fatal Attraction—but there’s also a lot of good information on hand too, such as how the entire three-story house was built in its entirety inside an indoor soundstage. From there, the extras include a gag reel, trailers and TV spots, and an episode of something called The Bannen Way, which really, really wants to impress you with its tough guy dialogue and its stylish, flashy editing.
Why remake The Stepfather? Because, after more than 20 years, fans are still talking about it. It’s a nostalgia thing, and that makes it easily marketable. Cult following plus name recognition plus a memorable line or two re-quoted on the trailer equals ticket sales. But, if you’re a filmmaker who loves the original, why not do your own film, one that can serve as a pastiche or homage? I feel bad about saying this because so many people worked so hard making this thing, but this movie exists only as a cash grab, a way to use the name of the original film to rake in the cash. Just watch the 1987 one again. Or Dexter.