Father knows best…HOW TO MURDER!!!: “The Stepfather”

April 16, 2010

The 2009 remake of The Stepfather fumbles the opening—an update of the earlier film’s very effective scene—in such a fundamental way, that you pretty much have to abandon all hope of it recovering. This is no “well maybe it’ll get better” moment, but instead a “aw dammit…this is gonna be a long hour and a half.” And it is. The movie puts you in a rather difficult position. I mean, when the characters are this rock-stupid, you kinda want the serial killer to take them all out. But he’s sort of a douche, so really, who are you rooting for here?

But let’s begin at the aforementioned beginning. We see Dylan Walsh calmly washing up, shaving his beard,  and making himself breakfast while Christmas carols play in the background. Then, slowly, the scene reveals his slaughtered family. Unfortunately, rather than show this in a cold, dispassionate style to mirror Walsh’s attitude, it shoots them from CRAAAAZY angles. Really? You need that little hint to tell us that slaughtering your family is bad juju? Do you think I’m that stupid, movie? Apparently so, because in the next scene we see the homicide squad room where the detectives run through possible suspects. Estranged father? Maybe. Stepfather? Funny thing about that, one cop opines, there are no DMV files or birth records of the stepfather. And it looks like he might have done this before. What!!!! No, seriously. One cop actually says, “he may have done this before.” Wow. Don’t you think you might want to lead with that little detail, Serpico?

So, Dylan shows up at a grocery store where he meets Susan Harding (Sela Ward) and her generic brood.  He engages in some banter that’s truly creepy (he throws off the line, “My wife and daughter were killed in a car accident,” with a disarming casualness as if telling her he’s a CPA). Then he laments that he doesn’t know where the peanut butter is. Well, Susan is obviously batshit crazy because she reacts to this not by pelting him with a frozen leg of lamb and running for her life, but by inviting him to pizza night with her kids. Are single mothers this desperate?

Apparently so, because we flash-forward six months and Dylan—oh, he goes by David now—has moved in with Susan and the two of them are engaged. Wow. That was some pizza night. Susan, for her part tells David, “You made my life worth living again.” (Because living in a McMansion, having a good job, and three loving kids was an endless purgatory, I guess.) Enter Susan’s eldest son Michael, just back from military school, because…well, he’s supposedly a bad seed, though the worst thing about him is his taste in music. Anyway, he doesn’t like David much at all. Even after David tries to build bridges. Okay, granted Michael goes about it in the same creepy way he does everything else (just a tip: there are better ways to ask for a private chat than telling the teenaged boy who’s wearing nothing but a bathing suit to “meet me in the basement in four minutes,” )

And it goes that way, with everyone loving David, except for Michael and Susan’s ex, and Susan’s sister. Oh, and the neighborhood cat lady, who appears to be the only person who watches America’s Most Wanted. So, David has to off them all in a series of not-terribly-suspenseful murder scenes. One even apes the first killing in Alien (and lemme tell you, if you’re gonna steal from Alien, you really should have an alien in the movie.) Michael doesn’t get killed, though, and spends the movie trying to convince his leggy girlfriend Kelly (Amber Heard) that his soon-to-be stepdad is a psychopath.

Actually, the movie seems to spend a good 70% of its run time pool side with Kelly in a bikini and Michael shirtless. And the remaining 30% finds some excuse to put Kelly in short-shorts. I’m pretty sure I could count on one hand the minutes this movie didn’t show Amber Heard’s naked legs.  Of course, it’s a PG-13 movie, so that’s as far as they go with Amber. The whole thing reminds me of those creepy, Calvin Klein ads from the late ‘90s. You know, the ones with the child-porn vibe?

Anyway, everything goes sideways when Michael kills Susan’s ex in the basement. While his cab is waiting out front (yeah, that’s some good serial killing there). Naturally, with this much physical evidence stuck in the house it’s only a matter of time before people get wise to the game and Michael must kill them all and make his escape. And really, wasn’t that a foregone conclusion? I can’t help but think of what a service this movie could have done if David had simply skipped the charade and just blown everyone away in the grocery store.

Ah, but then we wouldn’t have had the killer’s MO: building the perfect family, and killing them when they didn’t measure up. The original Stepfather, released at the tail end of the Reagan decade expertly played upon the increasingly-fragile facade of Eisenhower-era “family values” that was being foisted upon us by the conservative Christian movement and pop-culture (think the happy families of The Cosby Show and Family Ties). There is a lot of evidence that the anxiety produced by the gulf between what we wanted to believe family life was supposed to be and the reality of rising divorce rates and skyrocketing dual-working parent households produced all kinds of weird-ass offshoots (see the hysteria over abducted children and Satanic daycare centers). The Stepfather mined this perfectly.

But it’s the wrong age for a Stepfather remake. The idea of making a perfect nuclear-family seems more suspect than not. Hell, our past couple Presidents have come from single-parent homes. And our current hysterical anxieties are trending away from the loss of the traditional family unit and toward whether or not we’re becoming a socialist country (we’re probably not).

Likewise, in the age of the Internet and a mostly electronic economy, it’s just not so easy to disappear and create a new identity anymore. The movie never shows David stealing birth records or any other kind of breeder-document to create a new persona. As a matter of fact, his web of lies begins disintegrating when his new job asks him to fill out a W-2 form.  Apparently up until that point he just got by by always paying in cash. Wait, what? He stays off the grid by not having credit cards? How do you live without at least a bank card? Even if you don’t buy anything with it? Hell, I can’t even download porn off the internet read the New York Times online without giving up my mother’s maiden name.

How insipid is The Stepfather remake? Consider this exchange between Susan’s sister and another friend:

“She doesn’t know anything about him, and he quit his job the day the asked him to give his personal history. Doesn’t that strike you as strange?”

“Oh, but he always picks up the check.”

Right. These people had it coming.

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