The label "family film" doesn't quite stick to "The Stepfather (2009)," helmer Nelson McCormick's virtually bloodless remake of the 1987 horror-thriller that spawned a mini-franchise, although it does deal in issues both domestic and psychotic. But the film's target aud will likely care less about social subtexts than about why the movie's villain comes off as a homicidal Ned Flanders. Sony/Screen Gems release may slay on opening weekend, but will succumb to "Saw VI" on Oct. 23 after the slasher crowd realizes this stepdad is a far too civilized animal.
McCormick's "Stepfather" boasts a decent script by J.S. Cardone, but it seems to have been made in a bubble, as if nothing had transpired in the world of slasher/horror since the late Donald Westlake ("The Grifters") wrote the much-respected original. In that film, a memorable Terry O'Quinn played a serial killer pathologically attached to the American Dream: Looking for an instant perfect family, O'Quinn's Jerry was always disappointed, and moved on to his next brood after killing the last.
The setup in the new version is identical: David (Dylan Walsh) is seen cutting his hair, changing his eye color with contacts and then departing his Salt Lake City subdivision with a wife and three stepkids slaughtered in the dining room. (News reports describe the horror of the crime scene, but gore is almost completely absent.)
The viewer's questions immediately commence: If David's motivation is disappointment -- in his family, in the whole suburban dog-and-pony show -- why would he pack up and leave, as if he'd just performed a contract killing? If you're going to make a psychological thriller, give us some psychology.
Although intelligently shot by Patrick Cady and well edited by Eric L. Beason, the film continues to raise irksome questions of motive: Susan Harding (Sela Ward), recently divorced from Jay (a solid Jon Tenney), is apparently desperate enough to be picked up in a supermarket by David, whose charms are elusive if not absent. She's presented as savvy; he destroys that notion. Regardless, Susan takes him out and brings him home, and six months later, her once-troubled son, Michael (Penn Badgley, "Gossip Girl"), returns from military school to find this very suspicious character sleeping with his mother, blathering on about the importance of family and looming in the doorway every time someone turns around.
The cast is uniformly good, even if the edges of their characters don't quite interlock. Badgley, like a taller, better-looking Elijah Wood, is thoroughly convincing as a son who would normally be territorial under the circumstances, but who's trying to atone for a dubious youth. As his girlfriend, Kelly, Amber Heard, is utterly natural, though kept (as usual) in a state of semi-undress. Paige Turco has a nice bit as a suspicious friend who makes the mistake of crossing David's path.
It's Walsh who's the wild card here, playing David as a nerdy psychopath, and not one who's thought things out particularly well: He tells lazy lies, and as soon as his cover starts to get blown, he kills someone -- again, not with much guile, considering how many impromptu families he's presumably put together and taken apart. For all its easy dialogue, Cardone's script doesn't really give us an inkling of whether David's career as a killer goes back much beyond Salt Lake City. And it's hard to get absorbed in a story with so many unresolved issues.