Friday, October 16, 2009
Forgive us, Stepfather, for we have sinned
Movie Review - THE STEPFATHER (2009)
Directed by Nelson McCormick
Screenplay by J.S. Cardone
Based on a screenplay by Donald Westlake
I want to establish something very important at the outset; unlike some critics, I do not have an immediate knee-jerk reaction against the concept of movie remakes. I've spent a major part of my life directing and performing in live theater, where a case could be made that almost every production is a remake of sorts. When mounting Hamlet, there can be no sense of intimidation at undertaking a project that was accomplished with such brilliance by, say, Lawrence Olivier. It is the sheer universality of the material that invites other interpretations, and I say, hey, if you're willing to bring your best to the endeavor, let a thousand flowers bloom.
The original screenplay for The Stepfather was nothing if not universal. Who among us doesn't wish that somehow, even in a very slight or subtle way, we were able to sand down those little imperfections that exist in our families so as to make them more Norman Rockwell-ian, more...normal? If for no other reason than to just make Thanksgiving easier to endure? Donald Westlake (who sadly passed away on the final day of 2008) took that shared longing and burrowed down deep into its abyss, envisioning a paterfamilias in search of perfection, his twin puritanical and sociopathic natures meshing into a horrific whole. Changing appearance and identity the way others change seasonal wardrobes, his title character moves from family to family, settling in any one place only until his charges inevitably disappoint. And when they do...well, in the parlance of The Shining's Delbert Grady, he corrects them. Aided and abetted by a tightly-wound career-making performance from Terry O'Quinn in the title role, 1987's The Stepfather was one of the decade's most believable horror films, a harrowing testimony to the fact that not even seven years of a Reagan presidency could restore the domestic utopia of the 1950s...if it ever existed at all. Re-making the movie held a certain degree of wisdom; up until this last week, the original has never been available on dvd, and is largely forgotten by today's filmgoers.
Fine. So that's what the original achieved; what does the 2009 set out to do? In a word, less. Much, much less. Today's Stepfather plays like a Cliff's Notes version of its predecessor, hitting all the same notes but without feeling, without context, in a by-the-book exercise that handles like a training wheels model of the original. "OK, were you able to withstand that? Because now you're ready for the real thing!"
It's not even necessary to step into the cinema to understand this. Consider the poster; a red & white necktie being brandished as a garrote (designed for a re-booting of, say, Hitchcock's Frenzy?), and evocative of nothing within the finished film. It's a soft image, appropriate for the film's PG-13 rating - though I don't disparage it merely for that. Other movies have demonstrated that a more inclusive rating can still work your nerves over like so much bread dough, but it soon becomes obvious that here it signifies a movie that has been defanged, declawed and neutered; it could play on Lifetime tonight with nary a snippet removed.
Eventually this self-censorship becomes comical. A very early scene refers to victims displaying "multiple stab wounds," but when we've seen them earlier, they appear to be merely asleep. One character takes a sizable shard of mirror directly in the neck...and then simply does not bleed. I'm reminded of the old joke about the guy whose blood pressure was so low that, when he cut himself, he had to do fifty jumping jacks to start hemorrhaging. Victims die with only the most casual of struggles; can't be too believable, now, don't want to have to go back to the MPAA with cuts...
Ultimately, much of the film rests on star Dylan Walsh's shoulders, and while he is clearly given no help from either script or direction, he struggles to find a way to tackle this character. Should he play him as a beatific slice of white bread, his smiling demeanor masking the darkness underneath? Or should we see that mask slip now and then, with Nixonian transitions that demonstrate how quickly, how effortlessly the silicon chip inside of his head can switch? You sense him attempting both approaches at once, neither with any conviction. While I'm loathe to get inside another actor's head, this is often a trademark of someone who is indicating he considers the material beneath him. I can't say I blame Walsh; if that's what he's doing, he's exactly right.
The Stepfather tips its hand as to its desired audience in the casting of Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley as the troubled eldest teen son and Amber Heard (trying to make a meal out of Jesse Eisenberg in the cinema next door in Zombieland) as his it's-all-in-your-imagination girlfriend. They get an inordinate amount of screentime, and contractually obligated to spend as much of it wearing as few clothes as possible. (One more scene by a swimming pool and I was going to have to wash my own clothes to remove the smell of chlorine.) The film spends far too much time with pretty people, and ignores the ugliness that should be its focus.
Another element that made Stepfather 87 so compelling was that undercurrent of middle-age despair in single mothers, the fear that children and advancing age will consign them to a life of loneliness. Sure, my fiancee may be a psychopath, but at least he notices me. There is very little mention of this; Sela Ward plays her role as a funny, attractive provider for her three children (watch closely - yes, there is a younger daughter, who appears...what, three times?). She is scarcely the kind of woman who would be willing to oblige a total stranger to enter her life so completely, one who would take six months to find a job. That she is not dubious to Walsh's lies and inconsistencies beggars belief.
Now, anytime I offer my defense of remakes, someone is bound to say, "Yes, Senski, but stage productions are moments in time; movies last forever, and now we have a sub-standard version of The Stepfather to compete for affection with the original." True. But my hope - a foolish one, to be sure - is that those disappointed by 2009's Stepfather may want to seek out the original to see what made it worth re-doing, and since it has just been issued on dvd for the first time, they can. This is the silver lining I look to, because this new Stepfather is one big gray cloud.