NOVEMBER 2, 2009
NOTE - Download BC's commentary for the film HERE!
A couple weeks ago, I was asked if I would like to interview Amber Heard for The Stepfather. I asked if I could see the movie first, and they said no. Now, I don’t like talking to actors much anyway (far more interested in the talent on the other side of the camera), but even less so when I haven’t even seen the movie that they want me to talk about. But me being a wiseass, I decided to make a mockery out of the entire thing; basing my questions on what I learned from the trailer, and also putting her on the same level by asking about the original film (which I knew she hadn’t seen). You can read the interview here, and then come back for my review, which, like the interview, I can only hope is more entertaining than the film.
Since I was somewhat entertained by Prom Night, I was hoping that the same team (including director Nelson McCormick) would be able to deliver a decent remake of the original 1987 The Stepfather, even though (unlike Prom) it was a direct remake, and (again, unlike Prom) the original is a great movie that didn’t need a remake anyway. Well, unsurprisingly, they completely botched this one, and with less than two months left of the year, I doubt that there will be enough bad movies to knock it out of my bottom 10 of 2009 list.
The biggest problem is that the concept as a whole simply makes no sense in a modern world. In the 80s, one could conceivably simply shave his beard and move a few states over without anyone catching on or recognizing him. But nowadays? Facebook, traffic monitors, the fact that everything is electronic... it’s impossible to live as off the grid as this guy does. No photos of him exist, he pays for everything in cash (which is apparently how he is also paid for his various jobs), and despite America’s Most Wanted profiles* and a briefly seen task force hell-bent on finding him, he manages to elude capture. But that doesn’t work in the modern age. For example, our hero (the way too old to be playing 17 Penn Badgley - who also appeared in Drive Thru; dude’s got a lot to answer for) meets the titular character for the first time at a big welcome home barbecue. No one took any photos the entire time? And then the Stepfather puts in giant man-sized storage units all over the basement. Hardware stores don’t get suspicious of a guy who buys what must be a metric ton of storage cabinets and padlocks and pays cash? And despite the fact that it’s her home, the would-be wife (Sela Ward) never thinks anything of this? A better writer would have embraced this, and treated the film as a de facto sequel, with the Stepfather losing his ability to do what he does in an increasingly surveillance-heavy world.
But J.S. Cardone is not a good writer, as he has proven over and over in the past (you can thank him for The Covenant and The Forsaken). Not only is his version logic-free, but it’s also over-populated, which not only deflates the suspense but also adds yet again to the stupidity of the whole thing. There are now three kids instead of just the one (plus an ever-present girlfriend, played by Amber Heard’s bathing suit), and yet Badgley is the only one who ever suspects the guy of anything. In fact, roughly half of the movie is devoted to him telling Heard that he thinks the guy is trouble, but she refuses to even humor him, let alone believe (or simply pay attention and realize that a guy with no job who is constantly watching them and getting caught in white lies might be worthy of suspicion). Ward also has a sister character who snoops around, a plot device that exists solely to give the movie a kill scene.
See, whereas Prom Night managed to make up for the lack of traditional slasher gore by having a fairly high body count, Stepfather is completely hampered by the PG-13 rating that it was given prior to having a script or director in place. So the opening scene, a copy of the chilling one from the original, has not one single drop of blood, which not only deflates its effectiveness but also reminds everyone in the audience that they are watching an inferior film right from the start. And by putting in so many useless fodder characters (the aunt, the kids’ biological father, a nosy neighbor), all Cardone and McCormick are doing is letting us know that they are trying to make up for the fact that at no time during the entire film do you believe that any of the family will come into any danger whatsoever, which was not an issue with the creepy, compact original. Those other people exist solely to provide the film with a few death scenes, because they sure as hell won’t be occurring within the family unit.
Speaking of botching elements from the original, they also bring back “Who am I here?” A nice gesture, sure, but there’s a big problem - this version doesn’t bother to set up that Walsh has a new family already in place. Again, this is what made the original work so well - they establish that he wastes no time in finding a new family, and is already working on another before the previous one has been “dismissed”. But here, he kills a family and then disappears for a while, so it’s no wonder that the cops are on his tail (then again, Cardone drops the police element almost as soon as it is introduced, so I guess it doesn’t matter).
They even botch their few new ideas. Changing the sex of the protagonist has no real thematic payoff; the two share a shot of tequila (“male bonding”) but otherwise the film doesn’t benefit from having a male lead instead of a female. If anything it just brings up more missed opportunities; you get the idea that the kid didn’t like his real dad either, so they could have toyed with having Badgley actually really like Walsh since he was trying to be the perfect dad that the kid never had. Instead the kid just hates them both, making him a really fucking annoying hero on top of all of the movie’s other problems. Hell, why not go all out and have an Oedipal jealousy going on (Badgley looks old enough to be the still gorgeous Ward’s boytoy lover - he certainly looks nothing like her son anyway)? But no, he seems to be a guy just so they can say he’s been away at military school and give him a hot girlfriend, one who almost qualifies as a legitimate source of suspense, as there is a tiny fraction of a sliver of a chance that she might get killed.
But not by a buzz saw. The trailer was capped off by what looked like a pretty sweet scene of Heard and Badgley lying on the floor, as Walsh dangled a running buzz saw like a pendulum over them from a hole in the ceiling above them. I waited the whole movie for this scene, and when it came I discovered that the MPAA, the studio, or a really stupid director or editor cut the scene down to nothing. The saw falls near Heard’s head, and that’s it. Walsh doesn’t even really factor into the sequence. Then the movie ends about 90 seconds later; Badgley simply knocks Walsh out of a window and they both fall. A month later, Badgley wakes up from a coma and learns Walsh somehow managed to escape before the cops arrived, despite taking just as big of a fall and having a giant shard of glass thrust into his neck. OK, movie.
Another new element that they botch is the fact that there are three kids. The two youngest ones disappear entirely from the film around the halfway point (they don’t even show up at the hospital at the end - who is watching them? Their aunt, father, and neighbor are all dead), and I began to wonder why they were even put in the film in the first place. Hell, Walsh’s “the family must stay together” credo would actually make more sense if Badgley was the only kid of the family to begin with. Worse, beyond the scene in the trailer where he yells at the younger boy for playing video games, they never even really share any scenes with Walsh anyway.
I could go on and on, but I think the point is clear - the movie is clearly the result of a studio having the rights to a title and putting together a remake for no reason other than the fact that they could. Cardone’s script is laughably terrible, and there isn’t a single element of the film that I would consider to be inspired (even Walsh’s casting is a bit of a letdown; they originally had Chris Meloni, which would at least be somewhat interesting). And McCormick stacks it with wall-to-wall pop songs that aren’t even any good (and I LIKE pop songs!), something Sony must agree with as despite the presence of at least a dozen such songs (and a Charlie Clouser score), there is no soundtrack album. When the best part of a film is an unbilled cameo by Jessalyn Gilsig (another holdover from Prom Night), you know it’s a stinker.
Though I do like the irony of seeing this movie for the sole purpose of having a review for HMAD, when it’s been out for over two weeks and thus writing a review now is equally as pointless as the film itself. I wish all of my reviews could have that sort of thematic tie to the source material.
What say you?
*The film’s most idiotic plot hole has to be that America’s Most Wanted aspect. Badgley looks at the profile on the AMW website over and over, and despite being convinced that his new stepfather is this killer, doesn’t bother to call the goddamn tip-line and say “Hey I think this guy is engaged to my mom, can you come check him out?” Along with some other elements, I swear Cardone’s approach to this movie was to introduce plot holes on purpose.