“The Stepfather” is a tidy little thriller, cannily directed from a cleverly-constructed script and featuring a remarkable lead performance. Of course that’s the 1987 original made by Joseph Ruben from Donald Westlake’s screenplay, which gave the pre-“Lost” Terry O’Quinn the role of a lifetime as the psychotic who married into broken families and then slaughtered them when they failed to meet his “Father Knows Best” standards of perfection. This remake, as so often happens, is just a pale and unnecessary copy of a still vivid original.
One can imagine how Ruben’s picture might have been reimagined for the new century. An African-American refashioning that referenced “The Cosby Show,” for instance, could have been a hoot. By as it is, writer J.S. Cardone has instead been content to change the suspicious daughter of the older movie (played by Jill Schoelen) into a troubled stepson named Michael (played by Penn Badgley of “Gossip Girl”), setting up the sort of conflict between a hard dad and a rebellious young man that seems stale, especially since Badgley is such an inexpressive stiff (one scene requires him to muster up a tear, and it seems to take him forever to manage it). And while moon-faced Dylan Walsh emotes frantically in the title role (the character’s name is the appropriately bland David Harris), he doesn’t come close to O’Quinn’s inspired lunacy.
Of course, Cardone has made other alterations, too. Some are simply unnecessary—like the introduction of a lesbian sister (Paige Turco) for the bride-to-be (Sela Ward, looking a bit like Isabella Rossellini but hampered by the character’s neediness and stupidity); she’s apparently the replacement for the brother of the stepfather’s former wife in Ruben’s film, but not a happy one, and her confrontation with her potential brother-in-law has not of the effect of the two men’s meeting in the earlier film.
And others are predictable but depressing. Amber Heard, as Kelly, Michael’s girlfriend, has a much larger role than the boyfriend did in Ruben’s picture, and many of her scenes with Badgley has her in the skimpiest of outfits as they frolic in swimming pool or (more usually) bed. A chaste kiss sent O’Quinn’s character into a fit in the earlier film; now everything has to be ramped up, and Heard, slinking around in her panties, is turned into a mere sex object. Then there’s the inevitable over-long, overwrought finale, which, with its electric saws, crowbars and crumbling attic floors, is no less frantic and absurd than those found in innumerable other would-be thrillers of recent vintage, from “Lakeview Terrace” to “Obsessed.” And, of course, there are all sorts of plot ramifications involving cell-phones, like the scene where one’s battery goes low just when it’s most needed. (What a bore.)
And neither Cardone nor director Nelson McCormick has much luck in building up tension and gnawing sense of menace that Westlake and Ruben brought to the plot. Everything here seems strictly pro forma—entirely too many of the “gotcha” moments consist of Walsh suddenly looming over someone from out of frame, always accompanied of course by a thunderclap provided by composer Charlie Clouser, and even worse the first of them involves a screeching cat jumping onto a person (cue Clouser again). A real thriller has you on the edge of your seat; watching this one, you’re more liable to sit back and snooze.
An adequate but uninspired physical production completes the mix, with Patrick Cady’s workmanlike cinematography making little out of locations that supposedly represent Portland but could be anytown.
But at least you don’t have to settle for a botched remake. The 1987 “Stepfather” is still available. Grab a copy, put in on your big-screen plasma TV, and see how it should be done.