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Amber Heard (left) and Penn Badgley star in Screen Gems' thriller THE STEPFATHER. (Chuck Zlotnick/© 2009 Screen Gems, Inc. All rights reserved.)
Amber Heard (left) and Penn Badgley star in Screen Gems' thriller THE STEPFATHER. (Chuck Zlotnick/© 2009 Screen Gems, Inc. All rights reserved.)

Beware the evil lurking in the suburbs Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

The Stepfather

  • Directed by Nelson McCormick
  • Screenplay by J.S. Cardone
  • Starring Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Penn Badgley and Amber Heard
  • Classification: 14A

If nothing else, The Stepfather is a step up for veteran TV director Nelson McCormick and screenwriter J.S. Cardone, whose previous big-screen collaboration, Prom Night (2008), won this year's "Chainsaw" award for worst horror movie from top horror fan mag Fangoria.

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More a suburban domestic thriller than horror chiller, The Stepfather is a remake of a pretty enjoyable 1987 film scripted by prolific crime novelist Donald E. Westlake and starring Terry O'Quinn (John Locke in TV's Lost) as a serial killer who preys on widows and divorcees with kids.

The character is driven by his search for the perfect family but naturally they never measure up to his unreasonable standards. So he slaughters them, changes his appearance and identity and moves on.

The updated version of The Stepfather actually doesn't stray much from the original, plot-wise that is. The use of mobile phones, text messaging and the website of America's Most Wanted are the main advancements here; the "classics" (kicking down the stairs, smashing a vase on the head, holding a face underwater, etc.) are employed for murders.

While the original version explored the killer's particular psychosis a little more deeply, the remake gives more screen time to Amber Heard ( Zombieland), who spends most of her time in a string bikini. Heard plays the girlfriend of Michael (Penn Badgley of TV's Gossip Girl), who arrives home from a year at military school to find his recently divorced mother (Sela Ward) is throwing him a welcome-home surprise pool party.

Michael's biggest surprise is that mom is engaged to David (Dylan Walsh of Nip/Tuck), whom we meet in the opening scene calmly surveying the lifeless bodies of his previous family as he prepares to skip town. And it's no surprise this movie heads down a generic 14A path.

Mom is smitten by the too-good-to-be-true David, who likes to speechify about family values. But Michael, the cat-lady neighbour, his real dad and, eventually, his mom's gay real estate-agent sister (TV veteran Paige Turco) suspects this soon-to-be-stepdad is hiding something like, oh, say, a head in the freezer or some such trophy.

The Stepfather would be a complete yawn were it not for the work of four main cast members, in particular Walsh, whose cool-as-a-cucumber performance is possibly worth catching if you're a die-hard Nip/Tuck fan. His character's rage and psychoses are conveyed through an arched eyebrow, a too-firm grip and a straight line of perfectly-sharpened pencils, instead of violent behaviour or blood lust. When he does dispense with his victims he does so silently and swiftly.

The TV background of the director and most of the cast members certainly contribute to The Stepfather's small-screen vibe. The movie is set up for a sequel but its thoroughly predictable ending has you expecting to hear an announcer say "stay tuned for scenes from next week's episode" rather than feeling a chill.

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