By Owen Gleiberman
October 14, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Chuck Zlotnick

The Stepfather


Back in 1987, when the embrace of neo-traditional family dynamics had become all the rage among baby boomers, The Stepfather was a nifty little Hitchcockian thriller — a slasher variation on Shadow of a Doubt — about a psycho who insinuated himself into the lives of divorced mothers, married them, and began to violently blow his top after he discovered that each new family he’d joined couldn?t live up to his ”perfect” dreams of wholesome domestic bliss. Terry O’Quinn’s performance as this Boy Scout master with a secret piece missing was itchy and twitchy, coldly funny and subtle. He set quite a standard, though Dylan Walsh (Nip/Tuck), in the new remake of The Stepfather, shows a few flashes of that same menacing satirical spirit.

Walsh has the aging-choirboy look of a suburban David Keith, and he gives the character a snappish smugness. If the original film was like Father Knows Best starring Ted Bundy, the new Stepfather emerges from the era of shows like 18 Kids and Counting, where the preening heartiness of the Duggar family is presented as a kind of G-rated emotional gold standard for the rest of us to live up to. After moving in with Susan (Sela Ward) and her two sons, Walsh’s stepfather uses his bogusly square, caring-dad veneer to oppress anyone who strays from the straight and narrow.

The trouble with the movie, apart from its rather monotonous dourness of tone, is that everyone in the family, especially the reformed-delinquent high school son (Penn Badgley), comes off as tougher, smarter, and quicker on the draw than the stepfather who’s supposed to be outfoxing them. As a result, although they’re the victims, the movie ends up making them look like saps. They’re enablers?not of an ominous fake father, but of too many hamhanded plot mechanics. C

See all of this week’s reviews

The Stepfather

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 101 minutes
Complete Coverage
  • The Stepfather