The Stepfather -- Film Review

In "The Stepfather," you know who the killer is, his MO and who his intended victims are. So you wait for his innocent prey to catch on -- or not.

This doesn't have to be a static or idiotic situation, but alas it is in this remake of Joseph Ruben's uneven but memorable 1987 thriller. The hints that something is really, really wrong with the new stepfather drop like anvils, but no one notices except the family's troubled son. Do dumb fictional families deserve their fictional fate?

This remake, penned by veteran screenwriter J.S. Cardone and directed by Nelson McCormick ("Prom Night"), was "inspired" by the clever screenplay written by the late crime novelist Donald E. Westlake. You wish everyone had watched the original a little more closely. Its central idea doesn't carry over.

That idea is of a man -- OK, so he's a wacko but you really shouldn't notice this, at least not at first -- deeply committed to family values. He treasures the idea of the good father, obedient kids and loving wife just like he sees on television. Of course, that was truer 22 years ago, when dysfunctional families weren't all the rage.

The point is that he keeps trying to create such a family instantly by marrying a widow or divorcee with kids. But when that family doesn't work out to his satisfaction, he kills everyone, moves to another state with a new identity, and the cycle begins again.

But that idea gets lost here. Played by Dylan Walsh, the stepfather is just a psycho who kills people, people not even related to the family if his identity might get blown. He is a rudderless drifter without a motive behind the mayhem.

Walsh's character, calling himself David Harris about a year after his last family slaughter, has reeled in Sela Ward's Susan and her younger kids. But the older son (Penn Badgley), who returns home from a military academy for "screw-ups," gets a bad vibe from his mom's fiancee.

Little wonder. Unlike Terry O'Quinn in the original, Walsh is a creep from the get-go. He fidgets whenever anybody wants to know about his background, disappears for hours into a locked basement to tinker with who knows what and has more physical ticks than Norman Bates.

And in today's world of computers, databases and security checks, who is going to buy that he can exist without any identification by simply paying for everything with cash? That he's a dead ringer for a guy on "American's Most Wanted" doesn't even phase his fiancee.

The filmmakers struggle to inject suspense but rely too heavily on such gimmicks as last-minute changes in plans and dying cell phone batteries. Everything comes to a head on a stormy night -- they really don't miss any cliches, do they? -- which descends into a family brawl from the basement to the attic, then to the roof and a fall to the backyard.

Ward is required to turn off her natural intelligence and wit, so this is a thankless performance. Badgley plays his screw-up with too level a head for everyone to dismiss his concerns. Amber Heard provides the eye candy as the son's often scantily clad girlfriend.

Tech credits are proficient.

Opens: Friday, Oct. 16 (Screen Gems)
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