Micheal Harding has just returned home after a stint in military school. But when he gets there he finds that his mom Susan has just gotten engaged to David Harris, a man she’s known for only a few weeks. Micheal is understandably quite leery of this new guy who’s just waltzed into his family’s life. But the people around his mother really seem to like David. He’s handsome and charming and he seems genuinely taken with Susan and her small family of four. At first, anyway. But the longer Micheal stays the more he notices disturbing coincidences and behaviors from his mother’s new beau, including a striking similarity to a sketch he finds on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. When his neighbor suddenly dies and his father goes missing, Micheal’s suspicions are heightened further. While everyone else seems reluctant to see the signs, Micheal becomes even more determined to investigate this new stranger even further.
The Stepfather is a 2009 American thriller and is a remake of a 1987 film of the same name. The original Stepfather, which was more of a psychological horror than a thriller, starred Terry O’Quinn and has become a bit of a cult classic over the years. The film was modestly successful enough and managed to spawn two sequels before eventually fizzling out after the third, uninspiring “made for TV” outing. But of course as we all know, a good franchise never really dies, and the idea got picked up again two decades later, likely with the intention of giving it a modern update. But as anyone who is even remotely familiar with studio attempts at reboots, while some films manage to stand just fine on their own, other newly updated attempts at franchise rejuvenation tend to be a bit…. Well, shall we say lackluster, at best. Unfortunately for The Stepfather, it ends up on the far end of that spectrum, bypassing lackluster and heading straight into Duds-ville.
For a movie that’s labeled as a thriller, the movie is distinctly lacking in the thrills department. Part of the problem is that everything is so telegraphed and filled with clichés that you can easily see what’s going to happen well before it actually transpires. It’s just that dull and predictable. Another factor is the number of people The Father ultimately ends up having to deal with in the end. In the original climax he only has to contend with his teenage stepdaughter Stephanie and her mother (and, okay, the tiny family dog, but let’s be real, fluffy was never a viable threat.) But the reboot changes the situation around, adding in an additional third party and changing the stepdaughter into not only a stepson, but a stepson who just got back from military school. So not only is Michael as big as him, but he’s also buffed out from months of doing drills and countless push-ups. Now, no offense to Stephanie, cause she did a bang-up job as all good skinny white Final Girl’s do, but that’s a completely different situation and I’m sure she would have much preferred her odds if she’d had the added help or even a quarter of the military training Michael was privy to.
But yet another factor is, I think, the film’s lower rating. Now, I completely believe that it’s fully possible to make an entertaining thriller without resorting to too much gory violence (see the reboot of When A Stranger Calls from three years prior). But in this case, I think it was used as a detriment to the tension. For instance, both films share a very similar opening scene. You see the stepfather going about what looks like a rather mundane morning routine, all to the tune of Christmas carols. He washes, he shaves, he makes himself breakfast. Then, as the camera pans around the room you see the other members of the family and realize they’ve all been killed. The difference is, in the reboot you just see the family lying around lifeless. There’s no bruising, no blood, and really not even a sign of a struggle. But while the original opens in a similar fashion, you can tell right off the bat that something is horribly wrong. The father still starts off going through a morning routine, but in that version he’s cleaning off blood and changing his appearance, cutting off his beard and changing into a dapper looking suit. So you know something nefarious has happened, but you just don’t know what. And then it ramps up the tension further by showing happy family portraits, followed by blood on the walls before — BAM! — you can see he hasn’t just killed his family, but he’s slaughtered them in an absolute bloodbath. It’s a much more visceral experience that ends up leaving far more of an impact than the reboot managed to achieve, even with the added shock value of a dead family at Christmas time. It’s that level of unexpectedness that helps keep the audience on their toes and is, sadly, something that the reboot is easily capable of, but fails to replicate.
Another issue is just how the main character is handled. In both versions you have two men desperately trying to pretend to be something that they’re not, in this case loving family men. But of course they’re both ruthless killers, so they have to hide their true impulses behind a friendly charming face, a face that can literally shift at a moment’s notice into that of a monster if their idyllic world view becomes too compromised. In the original Stepfather, Terry O’Quinn nailed that dynamic. The Father in that film is mild mannered, friendly, charming, comes across as loving and outgoing, and seems genuinely interested in trying to build a bond with his new stepdaughter. You can see how he was able to so easily trick so many people for so long. But when he thinks he’s alone or feels threatened by outsiders, his personality instantly switches into the murderer that he is. Dylan Walsh, by comparison, always seems to have a certain level of tension hiding just below the surface. He comes across as just a little too nice and a little too earnest, and the whole thing feels so forced that you can’t help but wonder why only one person is picking up on all the red flags he seems to be throwing around him.
One thing that both films have in common (other than uttering the line “Who am I here?”, which was used as the tagline for the original film) is the undercurrent of narcissism and sexist misogyny present in both films. But even on that front, the reboot still ends up pulling it’s own punches. Both films (or really all the films, sequels included) have The Father displaying the sexist belief that in order for the family unit to be complete it must have a strong and present father figure. Which of course ends up being highly contradictory, because once his idyllic 1950’s image is shattered, usually of his own making, either by some kind of self-sabotage or someone finding out he’s not the upstanding dad he portrays himself as, the family becomes useless to him, and thus disposable. But the original makes the sexism far more apparent, and thus much creepier. In the original film, after spending weeks gaining his stepdaughter’s love and trust, The Father ends up shattering all his hard earned good will in seconds when he catches Stephanie kissing her boyfriend goodnight and he accuses the boy of trying to rape her (he wasn’t, in case you’re curious.) So not only has he shown that as far as he’s concerned she has no agency of her own, but when his wife points out that he himself has just destroyed all the progress they’d made to getting her to come around to their new blended family, instead of apologizing or trying again, he blames them for his rash actions, or not following him without question, and chooses that point to start planning their demise. His failures are never his fault, it’s always someone else who’s to blame. Always.
The rebooted Stepfather ends up being a massive disappointment. The movie could have gone in a lot of new interesting slasher directions or even ended up making some solid, modern statements like the importance of not rushing into relationships or putting your kids need above your own, and in some small ways it does lightly brush along those topics, but it doesn’t bother to delve any deeper than just a surface scan. Instead the film tries to appeal to the lowest common denominator and ends up being a Wonderbread-style retread. Which actually might be an insult to Wonderbread. At least it has some sweetness and crisp edges to it. Which is more than can be said for the blandness that is The Stepfather. The closest it comes to crispness is some decent acting and some nice cinematography. But the story itself is dull and predictable, and for a movie that bills itself as a thriller, that combination totally sucks. If you really want to see The Stepfather, stick to the original. Even at that movie’s cheesiest, it’s still better than this.
The new Stepfather and the original trilogy are available on a variety of streaming services.
Both the original and the reboot are also available on DVD and Bluray.