It turns out that something good can arise from the seemingly pointless remake of yet another 80’s horror flick. In the case of The Stepfather (2009), that would be the first-time DVD release of the original 1987 classic. However, I would argue that a present-day viewing of the original exposes more flaws than you’d remember and that the remake is actually pretty darned enjoyable.
Any comparison of the two versions must begin with “The Stepfather” himself, and here, there really is no comparison to the great Terry O’Quinn (Lost). He oozes creepiness. It’s hard to imagine that new wife Shelley Hack doesn’t become suspicious a little earlier. I guess she’s too busy living in her Betty Crocker fantasy, answering the door while mixing a cake, to notice anything odd about him. In comparison, Dylan Walsh (Nip/Tuck) is not creepy enough. It’s easy to imagine why his new wife Sela Ward fell into his trap so quickly. Perhaps for their times, O’Quinn in the mid-80’s and Walsh in the late 90’s, each is the perfect man for the single woman with a troubled child? And while O’Quinn is more overtly sinister, perhaps Walsh’s charm makes him even scarier when he eventually snaps?
Both films begin the same way, which presents the major challenge for either version: since we know from the start that O’Quinn/Walsh is a bad guy, there is really no mystery for the rest of the story. Instead, the movies must rely on generating and building the suspense of the situation. For that strategy to be successful, it first requires us to care about the characters. I mean, do we want them to survive or would we prefer “The Stepfather” to hurry up and slaughter them? In this regard, the remake actually does a better job.
In either version, it’s hard to sympathize with the clueless wife, although there is more effort to develop the character and explain her motivations in the remake. By default, the protagonist then becomes the stepchild. In 1987, this is the daughter wanting to go to boarding school; in 2009, this is the son wanting to come home from boarding school. In 1987, we get Jill Schoelen, a poor girl’s Jamie Lee Curtis and in 2009, we get Penn Badgley, a CW hottie, both mid-20’s-playing-teenagers. Badgley has an attitude, but seems smarter. And we never really need an explanation of why he’s trouble. On the other hand, Shoelen seems to dislike “The Stepfather” based only on instinct, and we never really buy that she’s trouble. Both show ample skin, Badgley in the pool (he’s a swimmer) and Shoelen in the shower (she likes to bathe).
To decide whether or not I think a remake is justified, one of the questions I ask myself is, “Have things really changed enough in the last 20-30+ years to make the story seem fresh?” With When a Stranger Calls, for example, cell phones were only a twinkle in the eye when the original was released in 1979; however, they had the potential to change the dynamics of the story 27 years later. With The Stepfather, 22 years later, the plot devices we have to infuse new blood are the internet and America’s Most Wanted. Poor late-Boomer Jill Schoelen has to not only read an actual newspaper article, but then send a handwritten letter to its author and wait for a reply by snail mail. Which, by the way, provides the opportunity for O’Quinn to intercept the incriminating photo of himself. A twist! Suspense! Short-attention-span-Millenial Penn Badgley has it much faster and easier, although it’s the neighbor who becomes Walsh’s first victim as a result of being nosy. A twist? Gore!
Another sign of the times is that in the late-80’s, it seems that identification was not required to begin a new job. A decade later, though, those pesky HR requirements are enough to drive a man insane! This example demonstrates how the remake attempts to fill in the holes in the plot to make the story more believable. While the original fails in this respect, it compensates by providing a glimpse of how “The Stepfather” goes about setting up a new life even as he goes about ending his current one. If you could toss both versions into a giant blender and mix them together, all your questions about the story might be answered.
The remake also does a good job of using additional characters (little brother, ex-husband, girlfriends) to expand the story while simultaneously raising the body count. While they’re around, they provide new opportunities to understand the motivations of mother and child. As far as the motivations of “The Stepfather”, the original does a better job of hinting about the childhood that created the monster. I don’t know whether these things can be credited to the actors or the writers, but while the original favors the villain, the remake favors his victims.
Nothing dates a “classic” horror film faster than its soundtrack, and the score of the original provides another solid reason for remaking The Stepfather. While today’s movies rely too heavily on commercial pop songs, I almost prefer them to the synthesizer-heavy 80’s instrumental scores. I suppose the music is as much a reflection of the era as the movie itself, but 22 years from now when they remake The Stepfather, at least the songs the kids are listening to onscreen may be experienced as part of the decade from their perspective, rather than a distraction about how silly we ourselves were at the time.
So how does each do when they get down to business? The Stepfather (2009) has its fair share of jolts; however, they rely more on clever camera work and false scares. The Stepfather (1987) has fewer jolts; however, they are better earned. And the climax of the original is more effective than that of the remake. Neither is particularly gory.
It may seem here that I’ve favored the remake, but while it may be better in technical areas, there’s still a more favorable gut reaction to the charm of the original. Either one is basically a beefed-up TV movie, but I guess when it comes down to it, the movie is called The Stepfather and the enigmatic John Locke (O’Quinn) simply plays him better than the neurotic Sean McNamera (Walsh). I enjoyed the remake much more than I anticipated, but I don’t think I’d watch it more than a couple of times. On the other hand, I’d watch the original again and again just to see an example of a character who remains among the scariest of the classic screen monsters.