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Feature


All American misfit Michael Harding (Penn Badgley) returns home on hiatus from military school to find his mother Susan (Sela Ward) ready to marry David Harris (Dylan Walsh), a total stranger that entered the family suddenly in a six month period. Michael immediately doesn’t trust David, first in a general sense, but soon his paranoia develops into obsession, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Kelly (Amber Heard). The paranoia, it turns out, is not unfounded, as ‘David’ is actually serial killer obsessed with creating the ‘perfect’ family.

Stepfather: Unrated, The
The original Stepfather is both an underappreciated and an over-praised thriller. The masses mostly missed the boat on it, while the critics went nuts for it. It’s good, better than its more slasher oriented sequels, but it’s far from a masterpiece. Mostly it’s worth seeing for Terry O’Quinn’s layered and chilling performance (I like to pretend he’s playing the same character on Lost). There’s definitely room for improvement, so a remake isn’t out of the question, but the aforementioned sequels didn’t leave a lot of room for new ideas, and the comparisons to films like Fatal Attraction (which itself has been basically remade a dozen times over), The Talented Mr. Ripley (filmed twice) or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle don’t help. Various television thrillers have also used the formula over the years (I think that every iteration of Law and Order has a Stepfather episode at this point), a fact that isn’t lost on this adaptation, which often feels like a made for TV movie. Specifically a made for CW movie. Hiring television director Nelson McCormick (who apparently takes breaks between television projects to remake ‘80s horror films), and a large cross-section of television actors doesn’t help.

The enduring problems of beautiful upper-class white people don’t make for an interesting take on the material. I wish I could appreciate the ‘classier’ more ‘adult’ treatment of the themes, especially after years of Platinum Dunes and Rob Zombie grit and grime horror remakes, but a big part of me thinks that a little exploitation would’ve done this particular project well. Attempts to make the situation realistic just make the whole thing seem more far-fetched. Perhaps a bit of stylized silliness, or grindhouse violence would’ve made the less believable pills easier to swallow. The runtime is a bit oppressive as well. A less involved and repetitive 80 minute flip through really would’ve worked just as well, especially considering the way the story here unfolds, which is first year screenplay class rules the whole way through. The subplot romantic drama between Michael and his girlfriend squeaks the plot to a standstill every time it rears its head, and would cut at least 20 minutes out of the final product.

Stepfather: Unrated, The
The characters are generally likable enough, if not a little generic, but so much of the suspense of the situation depends on the audience being torn between rooting for or against the various characters that ‘likable enough’ doesn’t cut it. The teenagers are mostly defined by how good they look in bathing suits, and though Dylan Walsh doesn’t drop the ball in any overt form, I can’t help but compare him to O’Quinn, who slam-dunked the role the first two times around. There’s some threat to Walsh’s performance, but the best parts are literally visually translated by McCormick, who manages to create a couple of interesting gothic images as the film progresses. These are mostly undermined by a few too many ‘creepy’ shots of David watching people, which really lose their punch.

Stepfather: Unrated, The

Video


The Stepfather director Nelson McCormick takes some pretty big steps to make his film look like it wasn’t made for television, which includes the wide 2.40:1 framing, and a lot of stylized lighting set ups (which unfortunately reminded me a lot of a television series). Contrast, sharp forefront details, and shallow focus are the name of the game, along with a lot of blue-whiteness. The whole film appears to have been lit entirely with fluorescent lights when not shooting in daylight, which creates an artificial sheen, which kind of sells the film’s themes, if not in a rather obvious manner. The outdoor scenes lead to particularly pale skin tones, while the dark interiors revel in particularly sharp blacks. There’s a lot of fine grain, but it’s almost all tiny and black, and there’s almost zero noise. The softness of the background details doesn’t lead to too a whole lot of sharp wide-angle details, but the detail levels are consistent based on focus, and rarely feature any inkling of edge-enhancement or dulled elements. The harsh exterior whites are especially impressively reproduced. The colours are cleanly represented for the most part, and McCormick aims for a more homogenized blue or green look, so there are plenty of poppy warm elements that cut sharply against the mass of the experience.

Audio


The Stepfather comes fitted with the usual Sony DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The film has a pretty effective front three channel mix that presses out the basic effects, music, and dialogue. The basic design doesn’t move too much into the rear channels excepting some general outdoor incidentals, and a few extraordinary wind effects. The last act features a relatively intense storm sequence that gives all 5.1 channels a decent workout, but on the whole this is a pretty understated mix. The soundtrack is consistently inundated with pop and rock music that doesn’t fit the scene. I’m assuming there was some kind of deal made with Sony’s musical branch, but the effect is very obnoxious, creating the feel of someone messing around with their iPod over the same audio frequency. This music is the most aggressive directional work, as it’s usually coming from some kind of on-screen source. The best example is the heavy metal the youngest kid listens to upstairs, which comes nicely and naturally though the rear channels.

Stepfather: Unrated, The

Extras


Extras begin with a commentary track featuring director Nelson McCormick and actors Penn Badgley (from New York) and Dylan Walsh, which can be watched with a MovieIQ option activated. The track is entertaining in terms of the comparisons between this film and the original, which McCormick clearly respects, but a lot of the discussion is devoted to stating the obvious concerning the on-screen action and plotting. McCormick takes pains to interview his actors a bit, and is a decent moderator, but the subject matter doesn’t bridge the gap, or make me want to like the film anymore. Too much ‘this is my favourite scene’, ‘you shot this so beautifully’ and ‘your acting here is amazing’.

‘Open House: Making the Film’ (20:10, HD) is a decent, yet fluffy EPK look behind the scenes. Subject matter includes talk of the original film (too bad they didn’t get the rights to footage), casting (including changing one of the key roles to a male), direction, on-set work, storytelling, set construction and location shooting, cinematography, and direction. ‘Visualizing the Stunts’ (11:30, HD) looks at the preparation behind the film’s various stunt moments, including a mix of storyboards, behind the scenes, and final footage. Things close out with a gag reel (4:50, SD), trailers, TV spots, and trailers for other Sony Blu-ray releases.

Stepfather: Unrated, The

Overall


The Stepfather has a bit of style, and some decent performances, but it falls short on pretty much every other account, and is one of the least thrilling thrillers I’ve seen in a while. Despite concerted efforts to make the film look cinematic it feels like a made for TV movie from the top down. This Blu-ray release looks and sounds fine, and features better than awful extras, but I really cannot recommend a purchase. Look for the semi-recent re-release of the original Stepfather on plan old DVD instead.


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