Joseph Ruben (1987)
Nelson McCormick (2009)
Terry O'Quinn - Henry Morrison/Jerry Blake/Bill Hodgkins
Jill Schoelen - Stephanie Maine
Shelley Hack - Susan Blake
Stephen Shellen - Jim Ogilvie
Charles Lanyer - Dr. Bondurant
Dylan Walsh - David Harris/Grady Edwards/Chris Ames
Penn Badgley - Michael Harding
Sela Ward - Susan Harding
Amber Heard - Kelly Porter
Paige Turco - Jackie Kerns
Jon Tenney - Jay Harding
Sherry Stringfield - Leah
Genre - Thrillers/Psychological/Horror/Cult/Remake
Running Time - 89 Minutes (1987)/102 Minutes (2009)
Since Father's Day took place during this weekend, I figured I would at least doing something appropriate for the blog even if I don't celebrate the day. Growing up without a father is one of the struggles I had to deal with in my life and every third Sunday in June has always been another day rather than that day. Still, I'm happy for those who do celebrate it and cherish it because you guys have something special that I won't be able to have until I have my own children to celebrate it with. That's not to say that there couldn't have been chances if my mom had married any of her boyfriends [some were better than others]. But if they were anything like Terry O'Quinn or even Dylan Walsh in both versions of THE STEPFATHER, then I'm glad I'm skipping Father's Day.
1987's THE STEPFATHER is a cult horror-thriller that was loosely based on true events of one John List, a man from New Jersey who murdered his wife, mother, and three children one day before running off and assuming another identity before marrying another woman before being arrested for his crimes. The film was barely seen on its release, only making a little over $2 million, but was a huge staple amongst horror fans on home video and cable. It also catapulted the career of Terry O'Quinn, who is probably more famous now for his Emmy-winning turn as John Locke on Lost. O'Quinn would later star in the 1989 sequel, THE STEPFATHER II, but decline to appear in the 1992's THE STEPFATHER III - all declining in quality as the series went on.
After being somewhat forgotten for so many years, Screen Gems decided to capitalize on the remake trend and recreate THE STEPFATHER for a teen audience. The remake, starring Dylan Walsh and Gossip Girl star Penn Badgley, was released in 2009 as PG-13 [rather than the original's R rating]. It didn't set the box office on fire, but did make its budget back, making the remake somewhat of a success. Still, with the original film finally released on Region 1 DVD and Blu-Ray for the first time to coincide with the remake's release, a bigger audience was now able to judge which version of the story was better.
After watching both versions this week, it was really interesting to see how both movies differed, while staying somewhat similar, to appeal to their respective demographics. Both films have their positives and their negatives [one version in particular]. In this edition of Original vs. Remake, let's see which STEPFATHER is worth marrying and which one deserves to be stood up at the altar.
Both films share similar plotlines. Henry Morrison (Terry O'Quinn)/Grady Edwards (Dylan Walsh) change their appearances and identities after they murder their respective families and leave the scene of the crime. Under different aliases [Henry is now Jerry Blake/Grady is now David Harris], both men come across single mothers (Shelley Hack/Sela Ward) who are looking for father figures for their children. Six months are the meeting, the men are either married (1987) or engaged (2009) to these women, upsetting their children (Jilly Schoelen/Penn Badgley). The Stepfathers attempt to woo the children like they did their mothers, focusing on creating the archetypical perfect family.
Unfortunately, people outside the family circle interfere with this plan for perfection, making the children suspicious of this new man in their lives. Realizing that nothing they do will make others see things their way, these Stepfathers feel that their new families don't measure up. And when they don't measure up, bad things begin to happen.
THE STEPFATHER has always been one of those thrillers that gives me a nostalgic feeling. And I'm not the only one who feels this way, as the film has gained a massive cult following due to its subtlety and restraint, which was unique compared to other horror films [mainly slashers] that were out at the time. While it's not a perfect film and is a bit dated due to its cheesy 80s score, THE STEPFATHER is still worth a great watch even after 24 years.
The narrative of THE STEPFATHER is fairly strong and told well through action and dialogue. Unlike other thrillers/horror films of the time, the film is never about how the characters will die. Instead, it's about the situations that lead into the characters' deaths. In a lot of ways, THE STEPFATHER is really the character study of the title character, as well as the child who refuses to accept him due to seeing right through his facade. That, in itself, makes this film stand out from the rest of its peers.
The character of Jerry Blake [or whatever alias he uses] is more complex than one would expect from a genre film like this. Right from the first minutes of the film, we learn a ton of information about the man. Usually when one murders his entire family, they would probably run from the scene of the crime right away and hide from authorities. But Jerry doesn't do that. Instead, he already has a shaving kit neatly set up in the bathroom, where he takes the time to wash his face of the blood that's on it before cutting his hair short, shaving his messy beard, showering, and putting on a nice suit. It's as if the man is cleaning himself up for an important meeting or job interview, rather than escaping from a crime scene. It's not until he walks downstairs, whistling "Camptown Races", that we see exactly who this man is - a monster who brutally murdered his family in cold blood. It's such a striking opening sequence that it lingers for the rest of the film, making us realize that he'll probably do this to his next family. The fact that he had everything set up before the violent act and how calm he is after the act just displays a pattern that this man has been following for a while now. He's a total psychopath, which makes him quite interesting to watch.
This is evident when we actually watch Jerry interact with his new family: Stephanie and Susan. He treats them with love and care. He charms the pants off of his wife, hosts parties for his neighbors who seem to befriend him, and even has the respect of his co-workers. He even tries to buy the affections of his stepdaughter with a puppy and getting her back into school after she's been expelled for fighting with another classmate. The man constantly mentions this idea of family values and that family traditions, such as eating together at the dinner table and going on trips together, are the most important things in the world. It's when these values and traditions aren't met to his standards that Jerry starts to lash out, breaking down memorably in his basement as his stepdaughter watches from the shadows. The man is in constant battle with himself, with all the personalities he has assumed for years most likely, trying to convince himself that the perfect family can exist. It's when that conviction ends that things get bloody, resulting in Jerry looking for a new family as he plans to murder his current one. While the film doesn't outright say it, a couple of things are implied here. One, Jerry was obviously mistreated in some way as a child. He does bring up once that his father wasn't the most caring and loving man as he grew up. Like Stephanie, Jerry also has father issues that he struggles to deal with, trying to become the father his own wasn't. His intentions are good, but his execution is heavily flawed and deadly. Also, this whole idea of traditional family values seems to be a social commentary on how some conservative Americans still view family life. According to them, a family needs to have a mom, dad, 2.5 children, a house with a white picket fence, and possibly a dog of some kind. This was a big deal back in the 80s, and even today, some Americans still see a family this way. The reality is that no family is perfect. There are a lot of single parents out there. There are a lot of married couples who don't even have children. The divorce rate is the highest that it has ever been. Families, even those who manage to keep a solid foundation, are still dysfunctional on some level. The fact that Jerry is looking for perfection is truly a lost cause because he'll never be satisfied. That's what makes him scary, because this pattern will continue until he can't continue it anymore.
What's so great about the character development here is that Jerry, while viewed fairly as a psychopath, also creates a level of sympathy from the audience. I think it really clicks, well for me anyway, during that small scene where Jerry watches one of the families he sold a house to. He sadly watches how well the husband and wife greet each other and express their affections while holding the hands of their young daughter. It's the stereotypical perfect family that Jerry has been longing for, yet it's out of his reach even though it's right nearby. We all strive for perfection in some way, but most of us realize there's no such thing really. The fact that Jerry, even though I'm sure knows that he'll never find that perfect family, still tries to make it happen is pretty sad and we feel somewhat bad for him. It doesn't erase his crimes, but the fact that he's three-dimensional makes a part of us wish that he actually achieves his dream one day.
As for Stephanie, she already realizes that a perfect family doesn't exist. She has her own father issues, stemming from her father's death - something she still has trouble accepting and dealing with. She acts out in school as a way to deal with her anger. And she refuses Jerry as a replacement for her father because she doesn't want him replaced, plus it doesn't help that Jerry tries too hard to please her. When she learns that a man in a neighboring town murdered his family just around the same time Jerry came into the picture, she tries to gain info on what this murderer looked like. While she's a smart, pro-active girl, Jerry is more pro-active, always a step ahead of her due to experience.
Ironically, the only man in the film who could be considered a father figure would be her psychiatrist, Dr. Bondurant. He treats Stephanie like an equal, gives her advice any time of the day, and never pushes Stephanie to accept Jerry as her father. When Jerry murders Dr. Bondurant after the doctor lies about who he is to get a chance to talk to a distant Jerry [odd that both male figures in the film use aliases to get what they want], Stephanie is devastated and relies on Jerry because there's no one else really. Things go well until she realizes that Jerry sees her as a child he has to control rather than an equal [like Dr. Bondurant], ruining their relationship for good. Stephanie is a normal teenager who wants to live her life on her terms, wanting her father back while rebelling against her new one. It's a real character going through a real situation - one we all can understand at some point.
I do wish we could have learned more about Susan. She loves being married to Jerry, willing to deal with his odd behavior at times. She tries to push Stephanie into accepting Jerry, yet understanding why Stephanie doesn't want to. A character like this should have more depth than what's presented in the film. Even though Jerry tries to, Susan is really the one keeping this family together by being the mediator. This character has a story that needed to be told, but it wasn't because this film is really about Jerry and Stephanie. I do think it would have brought out more tension if she was developed though and had more scenes with her and Jerry interacting as a married couple.
I also have to mention the brother-in-law angle with Jim Ogilvie. I understand why the character is in the film. I mean, after all the families Jerry has murdered, you have to believe that someone related to any of those victims would want to find out the truth and search for this man. I'm convinced by the addition of this character because it's supposed to add tension and suspense to the film. You really can't have a thriller without a character like this. My issue here is that this arc doesn't go anywhere at all. Jim figures out where Jerry has been hiding, eventually finds him, and just ends up getting killed without some sort of satisfying resolution. What's the point of building this guy up if his story is cut [no pun intended] short without any sort of major confrontation at the end? Interesting concept but flawed execution.
THE STEPFATHER does have great moments in its story. The chilling opening sequence really sets the tone of the film, with this man murdering his family without much of a guilty conscience. Jerry's breakdown in the basement is a classic moment that reveals a lot of character, while furthering the tension between him and Stephanie. Plus we have memorable dialogue, like during the scene between Jerry and Dr. Bondurant where Jerry says, "Well, I don’t think this one is right for you. I think you’d be more comfortable somewhere else. This house is for a family. You know, the family. Home sweet home. All that crap!”, and the classic "Who am I here?" moment where Jerry actually forgets who he is supposed to be playing due to his frustration and stress.
The film, while brutal and violent at times, is never all that graphic in terms of gore. We do see a lot of blood, like in the opening scene, and especially during the end [which is cliche but ends the film in a decently satisfactory sort of way] with the use of knives, guns, and even a phone. There's also a scene where someone gets their head bashed in by a 2x4 repeatedly, which made me laugh since the "wood" bended like rubber at one point. We also get nudity, from both Terry O'Quinn [front and back] and Jill Schoelen [front and back] - controversial over Schoelen's scene due to the fact that the character was only 16 [Schoelen was really 23 years old at the time]. But it's never extreme like a lot of R rated horror films today.
The direction by Joseph Ruben is very competent. Since the script is pretty solid [which Ruben co-wrote as well], Ruben doesn't use style or flash because he doesn't have to. Ruben lets the actors and the narrative do the work for him, just taking his time and focusing on the characters' relationship with each other to build tension and suspense, only using the violent moments where they're necessary and move the film forward. The flow of the film is very natural and the mood is well done as well. Patrick Moraz's synth 80s score can be cheesy at times [especially during happy moments involving the Stephanie character], but it was the sign of the times and you can't help that. Ruben would later go on to direct more thrillers like THE STEPFATHER, such as SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY and THE GOOD SON. But I believe this film is one of his strongest works.
The acting is definitely the highlight of the film. Jill Schoelen is cute and mousey as Stephanie. She really gives the character that down-to-earth feel, creating a realistic teenager going through things no teenage girl should go through. I thought she was very natural in the role. Shelley Hack as Susan was okay at best. She's not all that memorable really, but then again, the script doesn't give her much to work with really. It's fine for what she's given. Stephen Shellen was good as Jim. I was convinced that he wanted revenge on Jerry. Charles Lanyer was good as Dr. Bondurant. He wasn't given much either, but he came off as one of the more likeable members of the cast.
The star, however, is without a doubt Terry O'Quinn as Jerry. O'Quinn usually plays supporting roles in many of the TV shows and films he acts in, but he's a revelation in the leading role as a man who is on a psychotic break due to his obsession for the perfect family. Everything he conveys, like his happiness, sadness, frustration, anger, wanting something that could never exist is just so convincing, creating one of the few complex characters in the world of horror. He's the sole reason to watch THE STEPFATHER. He should have gotten nominated for a major award. He's that good.
I have three words for THE STEPFATHER remake:
WHAT THE FUCK!?
Am I the only one who questions why this remake even exists, besides money? It's hard not to compare the remake to the original since they're both very similar in terms of narrative structure, but the remake is bland, tame, and just completely pointless. It's like a Lifetime TV movie, just without Tori Spelling, Lindsay Wagner, or Valerie Bertinelli starring in it.
The story is pretty much the same as the original, with a few adjustments. For one, the stepdaughter character is now a potential stepson. I guess it's an interesting take on the story. After all, Michael [even thought sent to military school] sees himself as the man of the house. This creates easy conflict with the David character since he obviously believes he is in charge of the household even though he's only engaged to Michael's mom for just a short time. It's the clash of the alpha males, fighting for what's right for the future of the family. If THE STEPFATHER remake wasn't so generic and dull, this subplot would be pretty awesome. But it's not because that concept isn't played around much except for what we see on the surface. Also, it does take away from the original's "creepy stepfather" vibe between Jerry and Stephanie - one of the reasons why that relationship works in that film's favor. There's an attempt to do something like that when David comments on Michael's relationship with Kelly, wondering if they're moving too fast [even though I believe they were both like 17-18 years old]. Why he would comment on a college bound guy's sex life is a bit odd for any father figure. But hey, I can't fault the writers for wanting to make the remake somewhat different to its source. That's what a remake should do. I just wish it was executed stronger.
I also have an issue with the fact that David is not exactly married into this family quite yet. The film is called THE STEPFATHER, isn't it? I guess THE FIANCE wasn't all that appealing to the studio. At least it creates a stronger mother character because of it. David seems to throw down the law as he sees fit, as long as it continues his pattern to be part of a perfect family. When David pretty much goes off on the youngest son, Susan actually puts David in his place about it. When he talks about his old-fashioned values about a family, Susan tells him to lighten up and let the kids do what they want. She even defends her relationship when David acts odd, because she loves him. It would have helped if Susan and David's relationship was set up better instead of skipping the entire six months of their dating life. But it's nice to see that the mother wasn't a clueless pushover like the one from the original. I guess the remake did something right there.
Speaking of Susan, her and her two youngest children are pretty pointless in this film. I understand why Susan is needed obviously, but were these two kids really needed to pad time? The son didn't do anything but play video games. The daughter had a few lines of dialogue but nothing really stuck with me. Why couldn't it just been Michael as Susan's only son? I doubt it would have changed the film all that much except make it shorter [which would have been a plus]. I guess the writers felt that a single mother of three children would be more than willing to accept this nutjob in her life than a single mother of one. It didn't hurt the original film, did it? So why add characters that don't need to be there?
In fact, they weren't the only characters who did nothing for me. The Sherry Stringfield character, Leah, did nothing of note. I guess she was supposed to be Susan's best friend but she added nothing to the film. And while I do enjoy Amber Heard in a bikini for 70 percent of any film she's in [one of the few positives about this remake], her character was nothing but the token girlfriend who refused to believe anything her boyfriend told her until it was too late. It wouldn't have been hard to give the Kelly character some depth or even something memorable to do besides lay around in the sun looking fine. Other than her looks, nothing about Kelly was worth my time.
The only characters that are somewhat developed are David, Michael, and Susan's sister Jackie. Even then, they're all underdeveloped compared to the original characters. David doesn't seem as obsessed with the whole "perfect family" concept as much as Jerry in the original. David does have his moments, like the video game moment, and does come across as somewhat creepy at times. But compared to Jerry, David is one-dimensional to the core. Instead of killing families because they've disappointed him, he kills them and others because they're suspicious of him. For David, it seems more about maintaining this pattern of serial killing that he's held on to for so long rather than achieving a specific goal. David likes to watch people. He likes to stalk people. He likes to push old ladies down stairs after they've seen him on America's Most Wanted and murder others by drowning them or poisoning him [like his previous family during the beginning, showing how tame this remake really is compared to the more violent original]. He's more of a slasher villain than Jerry was, as these supporting characters are just there to add a body count rather than deepen the story. It's also ironic that the smarter characters end up dying. Only in horror films.
Michael's deal, like I said, stems from the fact that this man is trying to take over being man of the house. The man is also trying to step into the role of his father, which doesn't work since Michael seems to have issues against authority figures to begin with. His relationship with his real father is sour. He's been in military school, even though the film never explains the reason for that. He has a girlfriend who he enjoys making out with, but the film never deepens their relationship to other than a physical level. There aren't enough scenes with Michael and his mom to establish their relationship. At least he's a character of action, as he's willing to snoop to see who David really is.
As for Jackie, she's probably the most logical character in the film. She admires David, offers him a job in a real estate company, and then constantly asks him to fill out forms so she can gather his personal info. Of course, David constantly avoids doing so, making Jackie suspicious to the point where she starts warning Susan about him. She's one of the few characters who seems real in this film, as she behaves like any other person would. Too bad she wasn't in the film more, but I appreciated that someone in the script actually had enough brains to take action and figure things out logically. Of course, this put her in danger, but at least the script had someone logical.
The worst part of the narrative is that it's just a watered down version of the original film. It's just too flat and nothing in the film is truly effective or all that memorable. It's as if the narrative just goes through the motions, giving us a thriller that could be seen anytime on Lifetime. Rough character development [didn't really care about any of the characters here], PG-13 violence, predictable jump scares, bland plot twists - it was just sub par stuff. And the ending is just over-the-top and so ridiculous that I just shook my head at it all [let's just say it's leads a sequel I'm sure no one will want to see]. It was just a pedestrian, lame thriller that belonged on TV rather than any sort of movie theater. This is disappointing because there was a ton of potential to really craft an effective thriller for a modern audience. Instead, it's just paint-by-numbers with no creativity whatsoever.
Unlike the original THE STEPFATHER, the gore is non-existent. I think the only blood we see is when David shaves his face and cuts himself at the beginning of the film. People do die, but it's done in a bloodless way. It's not like the original was a gorefest, but the tameness of this film was just frustrating.
The direction by Nelson McCormick was alright. The film barely had tension or suspense, which could have helped things. But it has a good pace, the editing is well done, and the film looks polished. Plus he loved lingering on Amber Heard's hot body, which I can't ever complain about [for you ladies and gay men out there, he also lingers on Penn Badgley's body as well]. The direction could have been more stylish to make up for the boring narrative, but it was a much better job than McCormick's work on his PROM NIGHT debacle. I just wish it wasn't so predictable.
The acting is probably the best part of this remake. Dylan Walsh, best known for Nip/Tuck. does what he can as David. He's supposed to be menacing, but the script never allows him to reach that potential. Still, he kept me watching and did well with the material given to him. Penn Badgley is decent as Michael, but it's not like he had a very demanding role here. Sela Ward was just there for me, even though she's a total MILF. Amber Heard is just in the film to fill in a bikini and give boners to the straight male audience [not that I had any problem with that]. Paige Turco and Jon Tenney do well in their respective roles, fleshing out their short roles through their acting since the script certainly didn't do it. Cool cast that was totally wasted by a terrible script for a pointless remake.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE WONDERING WHO AM I HERE
- Jerry Blake [as Henry Morrison] murdered his family before leaving. Looks like somebody couldn't answer that survey asked to 100 people.
- Susan threw autumn leaves on Stephanie. Lucky she was in a good mood because, otherwise, she'd be experiencing fall...down the stairs.
- Stephanie has daddy issues stemming from her father's death. I heard Hugh Hefner is looking for a new daughter. Oh, he wants a girlfriend? Eh, same difference.
- Jerry is all for lost causes. Anyone who watched him for 6 seasons would already know that.
- Jerry beat up Dr. Bondurant with a 2x4. Hacksaw Jim Duggan would be proud. HOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
- David killed his family on Christmas. It must have been Garbage Day...
- David threw the old neighbor lady down the stairs to kill her. Too bad she didn't have that Life Alert System because it's obvious that she's fallen and won't be getting up.
- David killed Michael's dad, Jay, once he got suspicious. I guess death was part of the divorce settlement with ex-wife, Teri Hatcher.
- David drowned Jackie after she got suspicious. I guess the Ninja Turtles were too busy doing the Ninja Rap to save her in time.
- David doesn't change his appearance all that much once he kills a family and moves to another one. For someone who is an expert at Nip/Tuck, I really expected more.
THE FINAL HOWL
It's obvious which version of THE STEPFATHER to watch is. The original is a cult classic due to Terry O'Quinn's magnetic performance. The remake is only worth watching to see Amber Heard in a bikini. If the remake had tried to do something majorly different with its source material, I think it would have been perceived better. But compared to the 1987 original, the remake is just bland, tame, and all-around lame. Rent/buy the original. Skip the remake, even though I've seen worse remakes and worse films in general. I'll let the 1987 film bully the 2009 remake into the WTF? Vault where it can deal with its daddy issues. Maybe it'll help if it will...
THE STEPFATHER (1987)
3.5 Howls Outta 4
THE STEPFATHER (2009)
1 Howl Outta 4
THE STEPFATHER (1987)
THE STEPFATHER (1987) Trailer
THE STEPFATHER (2009) Trailer