Movie Title: The Stepfather (2009)
Nelson McCormick’s The Stepfather stars Dylan Walsh as “David Harris” and Sela Ward as “Susan Harding” in this psycho step-dad thriller. Penn Badgley is Michael Harding, Susan’s previously delinquent son, who returns from boarding school to find his mother engaged to a “dream guy” who appears too good to be true.
Ex-husband “Jay” and Susan are recently divorced. This has put a strain on every member of the family, which includes a younger son “Sean Harding” (Braeden Lemasters) and “Beth Harding” (Skyler Samuels). And now here mom is getting married again. How is her oldest going to handle this? Is she moving too fast? Her sister “Jackie” (Paige Turco) and a rather large network of neighbors and friends are at her side, and they love Harris.
But as seen from the trailer (which shares WAY too much of the movie), Harris is a real bad guy, a psychotic killer who can have toast and coffee as the rotten bodies of his former family lie around the house. America’s Most Wanted is hot on his trail, so he must cover his tracks—all the while seeking to fulfill his undying need to follow the advice of Dr. James Dobson and “Focus on the Family.”
Focus on the family Harris does a bit too much. Harris is a family man…or at least, a man looking for a family. The Stepfather is loosely based on the true story of John E. List (September 17, 1925 – March 21, 2008), a pious Lutheran man and WWII vet-turned-accountant who slaughtered his family in 1971 to keep them from falling into “the sin of poverty,” in List’s words.
Nip/Tuck’s Dylan Walsh doesn’t handle well the roll of the non-religious David Harris, but to no fault of his own. The movie is another thing that doesn’t handle itself well. All performers fall victim to a poorly written story that robs the viewers of a worthy viewing experience. There are so many flaws that it’s hard to know where to start…
Do people still propose toasts at parties? They do, but not even close to as often as it happens in the movies. Do people kiss kids on the head to show affection? I guess so…occasionally. Do families talk like they do here to communicate? A case can be made either way, but no, not really, not if you're an adult.
Do shrieking cats jump out in view to scare us? No, they sure as hell don’t, except in clichéd, wannabe horror films. So you can see why they couldn’t help but throw that bit in here. Michael and his girlfriend Kelly look nearly too old to play their parts. This “crazy cat lady” is way too clean and organized. And Harris’ state of mind? For that we have to go back to the drawing board...
You would think that with the budget of a major release picture, you’d hire a criminal psychologist or at least someone who specializes in the finer points of creating sociopathic behavior to help map out how a psycho killer operates and thinks, but it looks like they skipped that step. Harris can’t remember the names of his allegedly deceased kids, and he tells stupid lies that come back to haunt him. And this guy gets scared to show I.D. I thought only minors slipping into clubs where alcohol is served had that problem.
The unfolding of the story does not come together well. The hangnail pacing doesn’t help. The writing doesn’t cover much ground, and what is covered isn’t engaging enough to be memorable. The misplaced and mismatched music selections and anti-climactic romance cutaways between Michael and Kelly result in a runny presentation that lacks both focus and credibility.
Just follow Susan and her kids and their friends as they slowly piece together that an obviously shady and awkwardly evasive David Harris isn't who he says he is. A room full of idiots, like cattle, slowly trotting towards finding out the truth...when you get there, it's like a joke with an underpowered punch-line.
What does the film have going for it? It has one thing—it’s about a madman, and there is an innate fascination in us all with the crazies, especially predatory psychopaths. Like 2009’s Obsessed, that attribute all by itself creates appeal. You keep watching, if only to see how twisted it will get. But really, you shouldn't.
The bizarre and unbelievable storyline, the bad camerawork, and the obstructed screenplay become more and more distracting the longer you watch. Just be satisfied with the trailer. When you see this on TV some boring afternoon, you’ll thank me someday.
Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Director: Nelson McCormick
Summary: A teenager becomes suspicious that his mother’s boyfriend is a psychopathic killer.
Starring: Dylan Walsh “David Harris,” Sela Ward “Susan Harding,” Penn Badgley “Michael Harding,” Amber Heard “Kelly Porter,” Sherry Stringfield “Leah,” Paige Turco “Jackie Kerns,” Jon Tenney “Jay,” Nancy Linehan Charles “Mrs. Cutter,” Marcuis Harris “Detective Shay,” Braeden Lemasters “Sean Harding,” Deirdre Lovejoy “Detective Tylar,” Skyler Samuels “Beth Harding”
Genre: Thriller / Horror