A good scary movie exploits our basic anxieties. Thus the runaway brilliance of The Happening, M. Night Shyamalan's timeless taleof killer trees.
As an emancipated orphan since the age of three, I don't know muchabout what you all call "parents," let alone this whole step-parentthing everyone's so into these days. But I imagine the idea of somenew semi-parent moving in to boss you around and hog up the TV withfootball games can be a scary one.
On the bright side, having a second parent doubles the chances one of them is going to stash booze aroundthe house, and who are they going to complain to if you steal it? Thespouse they were hiding it from in the first place? They would have tobe pretty damn drunk to do that.
Now where was I? Oh yeah: the important thing is you're right to hateand fear anyone not biologically related to you, a wholly naturalinstinct that just might end up saving lives in The Stepfather.
Sela Ward is living every single mom's dream: she's unknowingly becomeengaged to a serial killer. The rest of her family has warmed tosoon-to-be stepfather Dylan Walsh, but when eldest son Penn Badgleyreturns from military school, he's got his doubts.
After Walsh has trouble keeping his background straight, and anelderly neighbor turns up dead, Badgley has more than doubts. But withno hard evidence that his new dad isn't who he says he is, it's a raceagainst time to expose him before he kills Badgley's whole family.
The previews on The Stepfather set off my ridiculous-dar($39.95, The Sharper Image) pretty hard. I was basically expecting agoogly-eyed, hoo-ah! slasher flick, once again proving the entireadvertising industry is nothing more than a complicated scam to get usto buy things.
Imagine my surprise, then, when director Nelson McCormick took themovie down a quiet, almost leisurely path. Walsh is established as akiller right off the bat, maximizing the initial tension as he movesin on a new family. The details of Badgley's discoveries are handledwith a steady competence that never feels forced or unbelievable.
Except exposing Walsh's secret takes a long, long time. It takes solong I had to shave twice mid-movie, and I shave so infrequently I'vecarried the same bottle of shaving cream through three homes in twodifferent states. While we know what Walsh is up to from the start,the characters get locked in a loop of "Is he or isn't he?" that dragson until you want to strip off the gloves and start slapping people.(What, you don't wear gloves to the theater? When I'm eating spilledpopcorn, I know I don't want to touch that floor.)
In the meantime, at least we get to see a lot of Badgley's girlfriendAmber Heard, who quite wisely is kept in a bikini or her underwear forabout 90 percent of her screen time. Nothing amps up a thriller like23-year-olds pretending to be high schoolers as they lounge around apool for hours on end.
I'd be cool with that if either of their characters had anything worthlistening to, but as written by J.S. Cardone, they're pretty much justplaceholders. Walsh is given the most personality of the bunch, andthumbs-up on that: your normal serial killer is so brilliant he makesNewton look like Corky and so perfect he makes Perfectobot look likeClumsytron. Walsh makes mistakes, gets worried, acts human.
That makes him creepier than movie psychopaths usually are. Cut 10-15minutes and brush up the dialogue, and The Stepfather couldhave been something special. As is, it's just skilled enough to staywatchable.