The original 1987 pulp thriller The Stepfather was, among other things, a wicked metaphor for the untenable promise of Reagan’s America, starring a brilliant Terry O’Quinn as a psychopath on an endless, elusive, bloody quest for the perfect family. The new remake, from the brain trust responsible for last year’s similarly neutered Prom Night, is about Amber Heard in a bikini, a killer who likes to sharpen pencils when he gets angry, and a tango around a PG-13 rating. Even by horror-remake standards, The Stepfather sets the bar for pointlessness, not just for extracting the social metaphor (and, incredibly, the one shock remembered by everyone who’s seen the ’87 version), but for arbitrarily changing plot points to far less compelling effect.
It’d be nearly impossible for any actor to measure up to the placid menace of O’Quinn’s deranged Ward Cleaver type, but Nip/Tuck’s Dylan Walsh isn’t even in the same area code. First seen leaving the bodies of his unfortunate family behind—the slaughter is curiously bloodless, thanks to the ratings system—Walsh gloms onto a new family in Portland, ingratiating himself to gullible divorcée Sela Ward and her two youngest kids. When Ward’s troubled son Penn Badgley (of Gossip Girl hunkdom) returns from military school to complete the family, he’s naturally suspicious of this mysterious usurper who intends to marry his mother. As he and his girlfriend Heard go sleuthing, Rear-Window-by-way-of-Disturbia-style, Walsh does whatever he can to cover his tracks and keep the family together.
One of the many irritating alterations in 2009’s The Stepfather is that Walsh sets himself up for eventual failure. He pays for everything in cash, doesn’t have identification of any kind, abruptly quits his real-estate job when human resources demands it, and keeps incriminating evidence—including a corpse—in padlocked storage spaces in the basement. What makes O’Quinn’s baddie interesting is that he genuinely wants to succeed at creating a perfect family in the mold of ’50s television; Walsh, by contrast, is just a dumb bully who can’t see more than one or two steps ahead. He’s doomed to generic slasher villainy, and the film thoughtlessly obliges.