You know those movies where the teenage girl thinks her new stepmother is evil, but we don’t know for sure until the end because so many of the stepmother’s actions could be interpreted either way? Like maybe the girl is overreacting, and maybe the stepmom is just kind of odd? It works with the genders switched, too, of course, and it can be any new family member, not just a stepparent. Anyway, you know the type of movie I mean?
Well, “The Stepfather” is not one of those movies. “The Stepfather” reveals in the very first scene that the thing he’s going to be suspected of — killing his previous wife and stepchildren — is true. He really did it. His subsequent behavior is likewise sketchy, and he does something 20 minutes into the film that would establish his evilness even if you missed that first scene. The movie offers no ambiguity. The guy is BAD.
So, um, not to raise an awkward point, but why are we watching this, then? Since there’s no question he’s a murderer, all we’re doing is waiting for his new family to figure it out. The only potential suspense would be in whether he’ll strike again before they do, but that’s not enough to hold our interest for 100 minutes. The film’s very first scene is its own spoiler.
Dylan Walsh, from TV’s “Nip/Tuck,” plays the maniac in question, calling himself David Harris this time around. The way he has successfully evaded law enforcement, who suspect him in the murders of his previous family in Utah, is by changing his name, always paying in cash, never getting any kind of picture ID, and never allowing his photograph to be taken. Seriously. The best the cops can do is put out an artist’s rendering of his face, because apparently no one in his now deceased family ever took a snapshot of him. Not even at the wedding.
He’s in Oregon now, engaged to Susan Harding (Sela Ward), the divorced mother of two young children — it doesn’t matter what their names are; they play no significant role — and a teenager, Michael (Penn Badgley, from TV’s “Gossip Girl”), home for the summer after a year at military school. Michael is skeptical about his mom getting engaged after knowing David for only six months. Susan’s sister, Jackie (Paige Turco), is also concerned. Even Susan’s argumentative ex-husband, Jay (Jon Tenney), asks, “How much do you really know about him?” Basically, everyone except Susan thinks there’s something fishy about this guy. Which there is. We’ve known since the first scene. GET ON WITH IT.
For having done this sort of thing before, David sure isn’t very good at it. His cover story is that his wife and daughter were killed by a drunk driver a year ago, but he calls his fictitious daughter two different names in one conversation — a pretty basic mistake. He’s reckless and hot-tempered when threatened. How has he evaded capture for so long? Oh, right. No one’s ever taken his photograph, so there’s no way to spread the word for people to be on the lookout for him.
Michael becomes increasingly suspicious of David, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, Kelly (Amber Heard), who thinks he’s just paranoid. Since it’s summertime, heartthrob-y Penn Badgley and Amber Heard are permitted to wear bathing suits for much of the film, and Heard, when not wearing a bikini, is often just in her underwear. Everyone knows that movies like this are made for the sole purpose of titillating easily-titillated teenagers, but seldom are the calculations this obvious.
Dylan Walsh is menacing in a hammy, non-threatening way — you don’t want to actually terrify the teen audience, of course, nor do you want to gross them out, which is why all the violence is downplayed or depicted non-graphically. (It’s a remake of a 1987 R-rated bloodbath; now it’s PG-13, and a tame PG-13 at that.) The screenplay, by J.S. Cardone, is riddled with implausible situations, including many instances of Creepy Stepdad appearing suddenly in doorways and mirrors, and zero instances of genuine suspense or style.
The director is Nelson McCormick, who worked with Cardone on last year’s “Prom Night” remake. That film also revealed the killer’s identity right up front, sucked all the suspense out of things, and depicted law enforcement as comically unable to locate mass murderers who walk freely among us. “Prom Night” made a $57 million return on a $20 million investment, though, so why mess with a profitable formula? Why be creative when no one’s asking you to?
Note: Contrary to regular industry practice, this film was not screened for critics before opening.
D (1 hr., 41 min.; )