I hate to start a review with an admission of guilt, but I have to admit that I agreed to see a bargain showing of THE STEPFATHER to placate my bored daughter without any expectations that the film would be decent. So I didn't exactly have an open mind. Sadly, the film did NOTHING to change the mind I had almost made up in advance.
The 1987 original was, in its day, a creepy success. Terry O'Quinn (John Locke on LOST) was a calm, cool & collected psycho killer whose friendly demeanor could shut off in split second and become icy deadness. The basic story is similar in the two movies. The stepfather ingratiates himself into a family where the mother is feeling alone and in need of male companionship, and thus, may overlook a few strange moments in her new beau. There are kids already in place, and their new stepfather works hard to win them over...but they pick up on the fact that a lot of it is fake emotion. When the kids inevitably "disappoint" their new dad, bloody hell takes over and the family is killed, and "dad" moves on to another family.
In the original, the stepfather actually was always juggling two families. He already knew that one would inevitably disappoint him and he'd need another household to move to. When you think about it, this IS pretty creepy...he knows it's just a matter of time before he has to kill everyone, so why not have another family readily at hand. In the remake, the stepfather (Dylan Walsh, from NIP/TUCK) just goes from one to another...as though he thinks each family will be THE ONE.
The story is pretty predictable and familiar (and I bet if I looked back at 1987's film again, it would seem pretty tame...although I doubt the power of O'Quinn's performance will have diminished). New guy moves in and little details about him just don't seem right. Kids grow suspicious, but the newly married mother is oblivious or in denial. As the puzzle comes together, dad becomes more unhinged and all this leads to a final, bloody confrontation. A story as neatly laid out as this requires credible acting and a good pace and good editing sense to have a chance of giving us the creeps we need to feel. The new STEPFATHER doesn't measure up at all.
Walsh is an acceptable choice as the lead character. In NIP/TUCK, Walsh's character Sean is always the guy who on the surface seems like the nice, understanding, decent counterpart to his hedonistic partner, but often behaves just as stupidly. You could argue that he hasn't strayed all that far afield in THE STEPFATHER, but the role of the nice guy with a dark heart fits him. He doesn't do anything spectacular with the role, but he is acceptable. Sela Ward, always a solid if unspectacular actress, plays his new wife...and she's solid but unspectacular. Her dialogue, when she's defending her new man, is hardly of help to her. It's of the "Why can't everyone just be happy for me?" ilk.
So, two crucial characters are in place, and they are okay, particularly for an unambitious, low-budget genre film. But then we've got Penn Badgley and Amber Heard (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) as the "kids." Each actor is about 23, but supposedly of high school age. Neither looks remotely that young. Badgley is the troubled son who has just come back for the summer from military school. He's sullen and vaguely unhappy, but never convinces as a kid that was bad enough to be sent away. He's mostly petulant, and, frankly, a bad actor. Heard is his long-time girlfriend, and it is apparently her lifelong ambition to strut around in front of her marginally interested boyfriend in a skimpy bikini. I felt somewhat bad for her...she's supposed to be the "rock" that keeps her boyfriend steady and grounded, and she's constantly giving him advice...but it's always in her bikini. Heard is not up to the task, so she comes across as an airhead who is reading lines. And the bikini seems even more out of place, because even though the two are ALWAYS hanging around the backyard pool, the film is lit in such a way that it always feel vaguely overcast and cold outside...I was always thinking she would be covered in goosebumps. It's these two characters who are supposed to finally put two-and-two together about the new man in their lives...but they seem so bland and vacuous that I never believed a single thing either of them said or did on screen. And if you dislike these characters, it's really tough to give a darn about what happens to them.
Also, the movie is PG-13, and this doesn't help. Walsh commits several violent acts, but we always cut away tastefully before we see much of anything, and while I don't need to wallow in gratuitous violence, not seeing ANYTHING really happen never really allows us to fear this guy. For goodness sake, he kills a little old lady from across the street, and we don't feel a thing.
There are occasional amusing elements, such as watching Walsh come up with excuses not to provide a social security number to his new employer...but when the climactic confrontations come, they are bland and unexciting. The movie spends a lot of time leading up to the final you-know-what hitting the fan, but when it does, all we can do is shrug "so what."
There was no really good reason to remake THE STEPFATHER. But having decided to, the filmmakers put very little effort into it. It's as though they decided that marketing should do all the work for them...they didn't actually need to make a good film. And they at least succeeded in that.