The Stepfather (2009)
“This fall Daddy’s home.”
Director: Nelson McCormick
Cast: Penn Badgley, Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward
Synopsis: Michael returns home from military school to find his mother happily in love and living with her new boyfriend. As the two men get to know each other, he becomes more and more suspicious of the man who is always there with a helpful hand.
David Harris (Dylan Walsh) is a man in search of the perfect family. Exactly why is anybody’s guess as we never learn much about his backstory other than the fact that the last ‘perfect’ family that failed to meet his expectations ended up dead in the kitchen and the front room. It’s quite an effective opening sequence as we see him shaving off his beard and replacing spectacles with contact lenses to alter his appearance. He ends up looking like an action figure version of George W. Bush, but I guess even that’s better than looking like the mad man who just massacred that nice family down the road. Harris makes himself some toast then nonchalantly strolls past the kitchen table over which a young child’s body is slumped. It’s a nice touch of understated horror, but sadly The Stepfather contains few such moments, opting instead for pretty much run-of-the-mill thriller touches.
Harris later has a meet-cute in a supermarket with single mother Susan Harding (Sela Ward), who is divorced from the father of her two sons and daughter. It has to be said that picking up women in supermarkets never looked so easy, and Harris certainly isn’t lacking in the cojones department when it comes to making the moves. Quick fade out to six months later and he’s got his feet under the Harding’s kitchen table and his slippers under Susan’s bed. Marriage is just around the corner, and Susan decides the time is right for troubled teenage son Michael (Penn Badgley) to return home from military school to see if he can get on with his new soon-to-be stepfather.
It has to be said that Penn Badgley looks way too pretty to convince as a reformed bad boy, and his anger issues manifest themselves in disappointingly juvenile ways, such as putting on his headphones when mom’s talking to him, but this doesn’t prevent his character from providing the element of friction necessary to slowly start causing Harris’s carefully constructed facade falling apart. Actually, the facade he had constructed is pretty flimsy when you think about it. His previous life is summed up in a story about how he lost his wife and daughter in a car accident about a year before. But the fact that he can’t remember whether his fictional deceased daughter’s name was Lisa or Michelle is enough to start alarm bells faintly ringing in Michael’s head. Susan’s sister Jackie (Paige Turco), an estate agent who gives Harris a job in her office, also grows suspicious when he persistently fails to provide her with his social security details. Exactly how David expected to create a new life without such documents is something of a mystery, as is why his prospective new wife isn’t just a little more curious about his mysterious past. But such trivialities are unimportant to movies like The Stepfather, which are more concerned with providing scares. In fact, The Stepfather is so preoccupied with scaring its audiences that at one point it even plumps for the easiest (and laziest) of shocks by having a squealing cat suddenly jump into shot from stage left. Sadly, we’re left as undisturbed as the elderly lady who is its owner, and who is about to become Harris’s first victim because she imprudently blabbed to Susan that he looked just like a serial killer featured on America’s Most Wanted.
Other victims quickly pile up as Harris’s clumsily constructed house of cards begins to fall apart. The identity of these victims will be no surprise to anyone who has watched more than a few of this type of movie. Harris has an unnerving habit of suddenly and silently popping up out of nowhere — out of thin air, it seems. Exactly where was he hiding when the Harding kid’s natural father Jay (Jon Tenney), was scoping the kitchen? In a cupboard? The washing machine? Walsh is actually quite reasonable in the role of Harris, he’s adept at letting the curtain of sanity flutter every now and then, giving us a brief glimpse of the madness it hides. He has a great line near the end of the movie, when things are unravelling at dizzying speed, and he turns to his wife in a perplexed rage and demands, after inadvertently revealing his previous identity, ‘Who am I here?’ It’s easily the best moment of the entire movie.
It’s worth mentioning Amber Heard who plays Kelly, Michael’s hot girlfriend (because bad boys get all the great-looking girls), if for no other reason than that she provides the kind of distraction that would easily prevent any hot-blooded youth from noticing his prospective father-in-law is a homicidal maniac. I kind of wonder what she thought of the role when she was offered it, or whether she campaigned hard to get it, because she spends almost all of her scenes in skimpy bikinis or underwear. In one scene she wears a tight top and hot pants and she looks overdressed, and she is purely there as a sounding board off of which Michael bounces his suspicions. It’s little surprise that her character is given a prominence in the trailers for The Stepfather that is out of proportion to the importance of her character. Because, let’s face it, the studio had to find some way of getting all those boyfriends to agree to tag along with their other halves instead of dragging them to the latest superhero movie.