Rental Review – The Stepfather

Though I am happier than ever that my mother has remained married to the same non-crazy man for all of my life after watching this film, the concept behind The Stepfather has a much greater impact on this feeling than the film itself, which doesn’t even live up to the other “horror” films of the same caliber (e.g. Disturbia. Yes, I realize that comparing these films may annoy many a film watcher. Let me just stop you right there. I know that both films are remakes and that one came before the other. But just look at them; if you only consider these two remakes then, in a nutshell, the movies are freakishly similar in look, story elements, and bikini-clad girls… This just doesn’t have the comedic power of Shia LeBeouf. Or tension. Now breathe and read the rest of the review when you are ready).
Following the murder of his family, David Harris is in the market for another family to get to know and kill. While perusing the selection at the grocery store, he comes across a family of the perfect quality with Susan and her two children. The next time we see them Susan and David are quickly heading towards the altar and/or a massacre, and Susan’s eldest son, Michael is returning home from military school. For the rest of the film he plays the skeptic and we are left to live through his paranoia of David in concern to his true identity and intentions.
The film starts out strong with a very haunting scene in which David is cleaning himself up after killing a family, making it clear who the bad guy is right away. I commend the film for challenging itself to find a new way to keep an audience intrigued when the mystery has already been revealed, but unfortunately it just doesn’t overcome the challenge. Instead we just get to sit there and live vicariously through the characters as they play catch-up. For the most part the characters in the film are not idiots (well, except maybe the mother. And definitely the daughter. She seemed way too touchy feeling with her soon to be step dad…). They are not just completely oblivious to what is going on and even start investigating and letting their opinions about David be known to Susan. The problem is we learn early on that if a character is too smart for their own good then they are going to die. I mean, why else would we be following random, somewhat unimportant characters around their home if they weren’t going to die in the next minute or so? With the number of skeptics dwindling, we are left with Michael’s paranoia to give us a sense of hope for this man’s comeuppance considering Sarah shields herself from all the obvious “wait-a-tick” signs and his girlfriend Kelly is too busy trying to make a swimsuit-clad girl dripping water all over the house (which you know has to be cold) look natural without a towel wrapped around her.
Though the characters on the whole can be frustrating, especially when considering how easily they are snuck up on, the character that is often the most frustrating is the killer himself. As the film progresses the question as to why he is integrating himself into families only to kill them down the road begins to nag at the audience, but the hope that maybe halfway through there will be a flashback or some revelation of some sort calms the nagging somewhat. But eventually the credits begin to roll and there is still no indicated motivation behind his actions. If a film is strong enough then it can get away with this lack of knowledge and can actually be eerier because the horror cannot be understood, but this is not one of these films in the slightest. Especially considering the fact that this story is slightly based on the real murderer John Emil List, a man who killed his family decades ago. Now that man is creepy, especially considering why he did what he did, but David doesn’t carry this same feeling with him. This is not to say that Dylan Walsh was horrible in the roll at all. He is believable in his family man routine with hints of what is really underneath peaking out occasionally, and has one of his best moments when he finally snaps, but I never really felt scared of him. Which obviously equals a failure for a scary movie.
In the end the early revelation of who the murderer is in The Stepfather is a hindrance because the challenge it presents to make things interesting for the viewer does not seem to be the concern of the film. Instead of a game of who-done-it and questions as to whether a character’s paranoia is warranted, we are left with a simple guessing game of how long it will take the killer to pop out and kill a member of the supporting cast, with an ending that is far from satisfactory enough to make some of the films weak points forgivable.

Final Grade: C

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