Indifference is, perhaps, one of the most frustrating attitudes one can have towards a film. If you love a film, singing its praises is a natural by-product. Hating a film can often times be an even more cathartic experience than loving a film, as vitriol is always easily on tap. But not particularly caring one way or the other? That's oddly frustrating for me.
The Stepfather, the most recent collaboration between producer J.S. Cardone and director Nelson McCormick (the last being their remake of Prom Night, a project I feel safe calling the most annoying horror film of 2008, and even that's being diplomatic), is another entry to a new Hollywood tradition of finding vaguely recognizable films from the 1980s and remaking them on the cheap. Now, I'm not one to bemoan this business model; it's fine if the end result has enough originality to it that there is at least the illusion that the film is something more than a commodity to draw in a big opening weekend.
Fortunately The Stepfather does have enough airiness to it and enough interesting performers in it to convince even a hardened cynic that money wasn't the only motivation for all involved, that creatively the team behind it did want to deliver to new audiences a story of the reverse-black widow, of a man who lulls vulnerable single-mothers into thinking he wants to join their family, only to bite their heads off (figuratively, there's no actual cannibalism involved) when their back is turned.
Unfortunately, however, enough is the watchword here. Cardone and McCormick, reprising their respective Prom Night roles, deliver only enough to pass by without leaving too noticeable of a foul taste behind. Their film is actually not unlike its titular character: deceptive enough to let you think, even if only temporarily, it has noble intentions, but deceitful enough that you're ready to call the relationship quits before things get too ugly. It has enough tension and genre conventions to be called a horror movie, and it has enough meat on its bones that all its actors have something to chew on, but its not enough to be memorable as anything but a footnote for film geeks who will catch it on cable in two years time and think, "Hey, it's The Stepfather, that remake of that '80s movie starring Locke from "Lost"...it's not all bad" before changing the channel two minutes later.
Yet thinking something is "not all bad" is a backhanded compliment at best. There are no doubt a few things about The Stepfather from which legitimate enjoyment can be found. Dylan Walsh, best recognized as Dr. McNamara from the TV show "Nip/Tuck", gives a nice, slightly off-kilter performance as the wannabe dad who could explode at any moment. He carries the role with the same looming threat one gets when walking past a pit-bull terrier behind a chain-link fence. There's always a question of whether or not he's going to snap and if he does, is there proper protection around for mom (Sela Ward), son (Penn Badgley), and son's girlfriend (Amber Heard, who spends almost every single one of her scenes in either underwear or a skimpy bikini).
The script provides him with enough nosy ancillary characters to deal with at regular intervals to remind the audience that this is, indeed, supposed to be a horror movie. The biggest problem, however, is that there's no escalation to the tension other than textbook techniques along the lines of surprise mirror reveals, frightened cats, and cell phone drama (it's almost impressive how much time is spent dealing with text messages, out-of-reach chargers, and dropped cell phones), all of which lead up to a disappointing climax that actually takes place during, gasp, a thunderstorm. And if you expect anything remotely morbid from your horror films, look elsewhere, because there is nothing risky involved in a Cardone/McCormick PG-13 team up. The best shot of the trailer - a rotary saw dangling inches from Amber Heard's face - isn't even in the theatrical cut of the movie. In fact, the biggest reaction the movie got out of me was when a police officer referred to "all of the blood" in a 100% red-free scene.
Even though each and every attempt at horror is pulled straight from a playbook any film goer has known intimately since they were 13 years old (which is conveniently the target demographic for The Stepfather), there's still a measurable amount of "What if?" involved thanks to the subject matter. The idea that the newest member of the family is more than a simple interloper is an easy fear to tap into, and it's the only thing that keeps the movie interesting, but its also material that's been used over and over in TV shows and films for decades. Considering the distinct lack of bloodshed, nudity and other elements one would normally expect from a horror movie, this familiarity renders The Stepfather the most intense Lifetime Channel Original Movie that the Lifetime Channel never made.
And that's wonderful if you love movies tailor made for commercial breaks that allow one to get a refill of boxed wine. For the rest of us, The Stepfather just isn't enough.