Judging by the special features on the DVD release, the remake of the 1987 film “The Stepfather” appears to have its roots in the television station Bravo’s 2004 compilation of their choice for “100 Scariest Movie Moments.” It was on that list that producer Greg Mooradian first saw reference to “The Stepfather,” and was intrigued because, unlike most of the other movies mentioned, he had never heard of it before. Within five years of being tipped off to its existence, he had guided the remake through production and onto theatre screens.
“The Stepfather” ’09 was distributed through Screen Gems, the same company that had distributed the Prom Night remake the year before, and the creative team behind Prom Night ’08, writer J.S. Cardone and director Nelson McCormick, were reunited to bring “The Stepfather” back to the screen.
While the only similarity Cardone’s Prom Night script shared with the original film was the idea of a killer murdering people on prom night, he stuck much more closely to the original Brian Garfield, Carolyn Lefcourt, and Donald E. Westlake story for “The Stepfather,” while also adding in some more details from the true crime case of John List, which had been the initial inspiration for Garfield/Lefcourt/Westlake’s story.
The title role in the remake is played by Dylan Walsh, who’s probably best known from his role on the television show Nip/Tuck, which is where he first worked with director McCormick.
The first time we see Walsh’s character, he’s bearded and going by the name Grady Edwards. We watch as he showers, shaves, dyes his hair, removes his colored contact lenses, then gets dressed and goes downstairs to eat a light breakfast, hanging up a phone that has been left off the hook. It’s Christmas time, Christmas music is playing on the radio… but the Edwards family Christmas tree has toppled over, and scattered around the downstairs rooms are the corpses of a woman and her children. A family “The Stepfather” gave up on and murdered.
In the original film, “The Stepfather” passed by a bloody nightmare of a crime scene on his way out of the house, but here, given the remake’s PG-13 rating, the corpses look rather goofy. Despite the sink containing a bloody hammer, knives, and meat tenderizer, the bodies are in such good condition that a couple of them look like their souls simply escaped on their own.
“Grady Edwards” exits, leaving the Christmas music playing in the house, much like John List left religious music playing all through his house when he left the corpses of his wife, mother, and three children behind.
The Edwards murders were committed in Salt Lake City, Utah, and six months later some Salt Lake City police detectives gather together to deliver some upfront exposition to the audience. The stepfather Grady Edwards is their prime suspect, but Grady Edwards was a fake identity and they have no clue as to who he really is. They do believe he has killed at least one family before, three years ago back in New Jersey, where he killed his wife and three stepchildren with gunshots to the head. (John List was from New Jersey, and killed his wife and three children with gunshots to the head.)
The stepfather planned the murders ahead of time, doing things like cancelling newspaper delivery so newspapers piling up on the lawn wouldn’t get the neighbors suspicious too soon. (John List took similar precautions.) He leaves no trace as he goes around, working his ways into the families of divorced or widowed women and then eventually killing everybody, because he always pays for everything in cash. Now he could be anywhere.
He is actually in Portland, Oregon, going by the name David Harris. Around the same time that the Salt Lake PD are throwing their hands up over the Grady Edwards case, David Harris is making a great impression on a recently divorced woman named Susan Harding, who he chances across while she’s out grocery shopping with her two young children, Sean and Beth.
Six months after their meeting, David and Susan have gotten engaged, and Susan’s oldest son Michael returns from a year of military school, where he was sent for lying to his mother, having a bad temper, and hanging out with a bad crowd, to meet his future stepfather for the first time.
The time jumps in this film are kind of confusing, because with the two six month jumps, it should be Christmas again by the time Michael is coming home, but it’s actually summer, and he makes the comment that it’s strange that the relationship between his mother and David has progressed so quickly, they’ve only known each other since “after Christmas”. I guess we aren’t supposed to add the SLPD’s comment that it’s been six months to the “Six Months Later” card that pops up after the grocery store scene, and it’s only been one period of six months.
David puts on the act of being a kind, caring family man, and while Susan is drawn to his apparent perfection, Michael finds it nauseating and quickly starts noticing strange things about his stepfather-to-be. Like the padlocked cabinets in his locked basement work shop, or the way he talks to himself sometimes.
As Terry O’Quinn’s version of “The Stepfather” did in ’87, David also gets confused over the name of his daughter – but this time it’s worse, because he doesn’t call his stepdaughter the name of a daughter from a previous relationship, instead he mixes up the name of the daughter that’s part of the fake backstory he tells. A daughter he says he lost in an accident involving a drunk driver.
Another moment from the original that was reworked here is when Beth mentions a woman who killed her children during supper one night and when the family ponders why someone would do something like that, David suggests that maybe her children disappointed her. In the original, the stepfather was reacting to a newspaper article on his own deeds when he put forth the disappointment theory, but it has the same effect on the lead stepchild in both films – it heightens the suspicion they feel.
A lot of the screenplay is made up of variations on situations from the first film. Terry O’Quinn’s Jerry Blake got his stepdaughter back into the school she was expelled from to keep her from going off to boarding school, David Harris gets Michael into swim team practice so he can stay home, go to the local high school, and work on getting a swimming scholarship.
Both movies feature a scene in which the stepchild listens to music in their bedroom to cover up the sound of the stepfather having sex with their mother.
Both stepfathers also express being uncomfortable about the displays of affection the teenagers have with their boyfriend/girlfriend. Michael’s girlfriend Kelly is played by Amber Heard, and it’s kind of crazy how blantantly objectified Heard is throughout the movie. Although Kelly acts as Michael’s confidante and sounding board as he grows increasingly suspicious of David, what she’s really in the film to do is provide eye candy for the audience. Almost every scene she’s in is set at the family pool with her in a bikini, and when she talks to Michael over the phone she’s lounging in her bedroom in her underwear. Sure, Penn Badgley, who plays Michael, is shirtless in those pool scenes, but the camera doesn’t focus on him the way it does on Heard. A scene even starts on a shot of her bikini bottomed butt for no reason at all except to scream “Look at her butt!”
And of course, the remakers couldn’t leave out the most famous line from the original, where the stepfather starts to lose his grip on his identity and has to take a moment to think, “Who am I here?”
Michael isn’t the only one who starts to sense that there’s something off about David. Sean is put off by him when he gets too rough trying to show him some discipline. News of this also angers Susan’s ex, Jay. David quits his job working as a real estate agent for Susan’s sister Jackie when she asks him to provide some background information. An elderly neighbor lady believes David matches the sketch of a killer that was shown on America’s Most Wanted. (Being featured on America’s Most Wanted was how John List was caught after eighteen years on the run.)
To keep his cover from being blown, David starts killing people. The elderly neighbor gets tossed down a flight of stairs. Jay gets brutally suffocated… and tragically, an unaware Michael is only feet away while his father is being murdered. He and David even exchange a few words while Jay is dying.
The concept being updated to modern times means that David has to spend a lot of time monitoring cell phones and e-mail to make sure revealing messages aren’t being exchanged. He spends so much time dealing with these things as the movie goes on, I started to find it comical. It’s part of our normal daily lives now, but to see “The Stepfather” sitting at the computer so often was funny to me.
As the world starts closing in on him, David starts cracking and having hallucinations, and it’s only a matter of time before he snaps and starts trying to kill off his new family.
Sean and Beth really have very little to do in the film, Beth especially – she barely even registers as a character. They’re brushed aside to keep the focus on Michael, and they’re not home when David goes on the rampage and tries to kill Michael, Susan, and Kelly… Who give him more trouble than previous families have.
While I have issues with “The Stepfather” ’09 – the way it occasionally (mainly in the opening) feels neutered by its PG-13 rating, the wasteful inclusion of more characters than it could handle, the structure that gives David so much net-surfing downtime, the objectification of Amber Heard – I do feel that McCormick and Cardone were able to make a reasonably decent update of the original film.
Sure, “The Stepfather” ’87 is better in all ways, from the tone, style, and storytelling to having Terry O’Quinn over Dylan Walsh, but there have been much more egregious remakes made, and this one stands as a good movie on its own merits.
Walsh may not measure up to O’Quinn, but if you don’t let memories of O’Quinn hang over you through the movie, Walsh does do well portraying the character in his own way. Sela Ward didn’t make much of an impression for me in the role of Susan, but Shelley Hack didn’t really stand out in that role in the original, either. I was surprised at how well Penn Badgley carried the film in the role of Michael.
As a childhood Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles super-fan, I was also glad to have Paige Turco back on my screen, this time playing Jackie. Turco has worked regularly since she was April O’Neil in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles parts 2 and 3, and yet in nothing I’ve watched in the twenty years since TMNT3, so to see her in this was a pleasant surprise.
Jackie is in a stable lesbian relationship that isn’t commented on at all. If it wasn’t for the way the camera slobbered over Amber Heard, you’d think this movie was progressive.
If you’re going to watch one Stepfather movie, the 1987 version is without question the one to watch. But if you decide to venture into the remake’s territory, it’s not going to be a painful experience.