One look at the credits of the writer and director on Sony's new remake of The Stepfather (1987) is all you need to know: Director Nelson McCormick and screenwriter J.S. Cardone last collaborated on a little remake called Prom Night, and that's the film I'd point to as the true low point in this Horror Remake Renaissance we're clearly (and eternally) mired within. But here's the good news: If you did that small amount of research, and you walked into The Stepfather expecting something as unwatchable as Prom Night ... you'd be in for a slightly pleasant surprise. No, that's not to say that the new Stepfather is any sort of radically transcendent or stunning little thriller, but it's just good enough to be ... there. Not great, but occasionally good enough; not terrible, but certainly nothing to get excited about. "Generic" would be a good way to cover it.
The original version came from director Joseph Ruben and screenwriter Donald Westlake, and while it was a pretty basic concept (a methodical serial killer moves from family to family), the concept was cool enough to appease horror fans, and the title role was played (and played well) by the great character actor Terry O'Quinn (whom you probably know best from TV's Lost). This time around we have another great performer as the schizophrenic stepfather ... and I shudder to think of how disposable the new version would have been without the excellent Dylan Walsh on board. (Indeed, The Stepfather may be more appealing to die-hard Nip/Tuck fans than it will be to horror geeks.) Even as the obvious twists and basic scares pile up, Walsh keeps The Stepfather entirely watchable ... if never all that scintillating.
Virtually a photocopy of the original, only with a few cell phone and browser cache plot points wedged in for modernism, The Stepfather seems to be "about" a wide-eyed All-American do-gooder "daddy" type who is desperately on the hunt for his perfect family. Unfortunately, this theme came across a lot more clearly in the original version, whereas the remake seems oddly over-focused on a subplot involving the psycho's new stepson and his mega-hot girlfriend. An inordinate amount of the flick's 107-minute running time centers on a frankly inert plot-line involving young lovers, vague threats of military school, and conversations about college applications. On the flip-side, one of the supporting characters is played by the stunning Amber Heard, who spends (literally) the entire film in bikinis and/or underwear.
If the flick spends a little too much time with all the hand-wringy family strike, and it does, that's probably because director McCormick has directed more television than Billy Wilder has directed movies. Although surprisingly well-shot and occasionally well-cut (particularly in Act III), the domestic issues start to logjam. As such, the tension waxes and wanes randomly. But whenever The Stepfather threatens to get too dry or talky, Walsh delivers an icy line or arches an eyebrow in a clever way ... just another example of how a great actor can elevate some fairly basic material. The actor's two-faced demeanor is more compelling than the small handful of perfunctory kill scenes, all of which you'll see from six miles away.
It doesn't hurt that the supporting cast includes a very strong Sela Ward (looking here like Tina Fey's big sister), newcomer Penn Badgley (as the untrusting son Michael), and the previously mentioned Amber Heard, who is used here as little more than curvaceous window dressing -- but she's also turning out to be a surprisingly fine actress. Unfortunately this overqualified cast is left to meander through a cut & paste B-movie potboiler that offers (very) little in the way of surprises. Perhaps it's the PG-13 rating, the TV veteran director, or the clear intent to never be all that SCARY ... but this rendition of The Stepfather feels a lot like a made-for-TV movie. And I don't mean one of those swanky HBO movies. More like a Tuesday night CBS thriller that you watch because you like the actors and you don't feel like taxing your brain a whole lot on a Tuesday night.
Odds are The Stepfather will look a lot better from the comfort of your own couch than it will inside of a multiplex. It's basic, obvious, and (yes) generic thriller filler through and through, but that doesn't mean it's a total loss.