The Stepfather Review
1987's chilling psychological horror is afforded a post-millennial facelift, with Nelson McCormick's rendering of the latest exploits of our über-obsessive family man adopting some subtle changes in this slightly underwhelming but technically accomplished remake.
This new incarnation of The Stepfather arrives 22 years after the effective original, so there are some inevitable upgrades to the plot and characterisation. For those of you who haven’t seen the original Terry O’Quinn-fronted template, the drama chronicles the perpetual quest of an obsessive idealist (and expert of disguise) to construct the archetypal ‘American Dream’ family, using the vehicle of a vulnerable single mother with errant offspring to drive him towards this goal. The problem is, the lofty goal of the American Dream is as destructive as it is inspiring, and our ultimately psychopathic pseudo-patriarch erupts like an Icelandic volcano when he perceives his dark secrets seeping into the consciousness of his newly adopted nuclear families.
2009 sees our eponymous Stepfather forge himself a new identity and a fresh family of victims with which to progress his constant cycle of violence. The assembled cast deliver a consistent enough shift using an acceptable if unexciting script, and the young actors Penn Badgley (perhaps best known for his appearance in the Gossip Girl series) and Amber Heard (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and the more recent Zombieland) at least match the pedigree of their elder colleagues with a convincing portrayal of Michael – a formerly ‘off the rails’ teenager who has returned from a disciplinary shift in Military School, and his pretty, loyal girlfriend Kelly. What disappoints here is that there is a clear focus on filming copious scenes featuring Penn Badgley’s pectoral muscles, and equal volumes centring on the considerably well-toned and shapely body of Amber Heard. Whilst this isn’t a problem per se, it seems to operate as a replacement for what could have been more substantial development of what are often fairly one-dimensional characters.
Sela Ward plays the vulnerable matriarch role acceptably enough, and Jon Tenney is suitably angry as suspicious ex-husband and father, Jay. It’s perhaps the portrayal of the psychotic and repressed stepfather that presents most difficulty for this refreshed picture. Dylan Walsh (Nip/Tuck) is certainly an intimidating presence, and there’s no doubting his ability, yet his unerring seriousness, even at an early stage in proceedings, seems to have something approaching a neutralising effect on the eventual, violent climax. Terry O’Quinn carved out a genuinely troubled and disturbing profile in the demented original, and the impact of the climax was largely due to his convincing transformation from a jovial and happy-go-lucky middle-American suburbanite male, into, via a sequence of events and gradually appearing cracks, an angry, crestfallen, and lethal madman. Whilst Dylan Walsh’s role shouldn’t have to be a carbon copy of O’Quinn’s masterful performance to be a success, it goes without question that his ever-serious representation of David lessens the ultimate impact. Rewind to 1987, remember O’Quinn’s terrifyingly explosive outbursts in his basement workshop, or the defining and shocking moment near the close of the picture where he experiences an extreme identity crisis, and the modern equivalents seem pale and insipid by comparison.
Perhaps the other factor numbing what should be a discomforting pressure cooker climax to this movie, despite a modicum of tension being cranked up, is the curious absence of substantial shock n’ gore. Full credit to McCormick for his considerable restraint in the blood and guts department in a modern environment where expectations are high, but the touch is too light to drive home a fittingly bloody conclusion following the substantial build-up. During the supplied commentary, there’s a suggestion that McCormick was shooting the picture with the American PG-13 rating in mind, and this may explain the deficit of realistic violence, but the outcome is one that damages the film’s overall success. Indeed, there is some criticism on this point, since the trailer depicts an extended scene of peril with a circular saw, which is briefer in the movie itself. I have no idea why the lower rating was positioned to have greater priority than the violent impact of the film, but I can only think that the marketers and executives have pre-selected a target demographic for the movie, which, for me, questions the integrity of the entire piece.
For all that, it’s an accomplished delivery, and with some creative and often stunning filming, there are plenty of moments to enjoy. An opening scene following traffic from an aerial perspective is pleasingly done, and another aerial section where the camera looks down upon Michael and Kelly in the swimming pool, spinning around serenely in perfect circular motion on their inflatable beds as they chat, is an expertly executed moment of serenity and calm. Yet despite the technical expertise on offer, and the enjoyable, effective filming ideas, the lack of genuine, cranked-up tension and thin development of key characters means that my recommendation, by quite some margin, is still to pick up the slightly less polished but considerably superior original.
The release is region 2 encoded, and is presented in 2:40.1 aspect ratio. The transfer is excellent. Not only are colours rich and strong, and darks presented with appropriate solidity, but the definition and clarity is first class. Take the moment where ‘David’ breaks a vase over an unsuspecting victim; the shattering of the glass, whilst moving at great speed, is captured and represented in stunningly clear detail.
Menus are easy to navigate, and the trailers are placed inside their own section of the menu system so that you don’t have to sit through them when inserting the disc.
Full marks go to Sony for including an impressive array of language and subtitling options. In terms of subtitles, you have English Hard of Hearing, plus French, Italian, Arabic, Dutch, and Hindi. There is also an ‘Audio Descriptive Service’, which provides a running commentary of what is occurring onscreen for the benefit of the blind, to compliment the dialogue. Some of the special features also have subtitles, and some languages receive subtitles for the commentary too.
As the transfer, the cinematography, and the overall presentation of the feature all share the same high quality technical values, audio is no different. The 5.1 soundtrack is crystal clear, and the voices are well balanced in the sound mix, with no difficulty being experienced hearing the dialogue. Sounds are represented clearly without distortion, and the modern, often rock-oriented soundtrack is delivered cleanly.
French and Italian viewers will be pleased to know that the film can be played in their languages. The dubbing here is good quality and matches the movements of the characters’ lips to a fair degree. I have to admit to a preference to subtitles when watching foreign language films, but I realise that this is not everyone’s view, and once again I must give credit to Sony for deciding to include options for viewers here.
Sony's release features a handful of decent extras. First up is 'Open House: Making the Film', a 20 minute featurette which presents interviews with various key members of the team, including Director Nelson McCormick, and the lead actors. Of particular interest is the construction of the family home for the film, which is actually a three storey custom built set. Everyone shares much love between one another; there are no psychopathic killers within the film crew.
'Visualising the Stunts' does exactly what it says on the tin. Whilst The Stepfather is not drenched in a carnival of clever stunts, the stunts we do experience are performed well, and perhaps the best element of this featurette is where the storyboard designs for the stunts are displayed on screen alongside the actual stunts themselves, which is a really effective touch. It's also worth knowing that the actors completed some of the stunts themselves.
A 'Gag Reel' runs through some mildly amusing bloopers, where the cast fluff their lines, break things, and struggle with unwilling doors!
A handful of trailers are also included, such as Zombieland (which also features Amber Heard), and disaster movie 2012. It's quite refreshing to be able to control the trailers you wish to watch, but this is surely not preferable for the film company's marketing drive?
Commentary with Director Nelson McCormick, and actors Penn Badgley (Michael), and Dylan Walsh (David) is included, and works surprisingly well despite some of the assembled being connected to the discussion in a remote sound booth miles away! The atmosphere is relaxed and the discussion engaging, with some sharp humour maintaining your attention. There are some intriguing little nuggets of information to be gleaned from the chat, such as Nelson McCormick being told to up the flesh count, but the discussion can also be a little pedestrian at times.
The Stepfather is a respectful and technically strong remake of the effective 80's shocker, but the unbearably taught atmosphere of repression that pervades the original is not fully replicated here, and as such the delivered impact doesn't achieve the same intensity. That said, there is still plenty to enjoy in this understated movie, and with a good transfer of a well-filmed production, a generous plethora of subtitle and language options, and some decent extras, there are still elements that will lend this latest remake some appeal.