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Movie Review

The Stepfather

‘Stepfather’ out to scare teen girls

Amber Heard and Penn Badgley Amber Heard and Penn Badgley. (Chuck Zlotnick/Screen Gems)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 17, 2009

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Once upon a time, in a far-off land called 1987, there was a B-movie thriller called “The Stepfather,’’ and it was very good: smart and witty and scary as hell. That was 22 years ago, though, and in 2009 there are millions of teenage girls willing to spend their parents’ money to be scared silly - and not by a movie that’s, like, you know, old. Thus this week’s unnecessary remake. As such things go, it’s not bad: slick and proficient, “The Stepfather’’ 2.0 gets the adrenaline pumping, but the original has the brains.

How can you tell the remake’s aiming for the “Gossip Girl’’ crowd? For one thing, one of that show’s dreamboats, Penn Badgley, stars as Michael Harding, a troubled teen who comes back from military school to discover that mom (Sela Ward) has married a man she hardly knows. The PG-13 rating also promises a far less bloody time than the R-rated original. (To appease the target audience’s dates, Amber Heard wears as little as humanly possible as Michael’s girlfriend. Who knew there were so many backyard swimming pools in Portland, Ore.?)

Dylan Walsh plays the title character, David Harris, a squeaky-clean square who only wants a perfect family and is so disappointed when he has to serially murder his latest step-clan and start all over again. Where the first movie’s Terry O’Quinn (now Locke on “Lost’’) had a mad, merry gleam in his eye, this stepfather is all grim business. Walsh deftly plays up the character’s generic cheerfulness, though; David has adopted so many identities over the years that by now he has none of his own.

Under Nelson McCormick’s smooth direction, “The Stepfather’’ works up a decent number of eeks but this is still lazy, almost Pavlovian moviemaking, with a dud new ending and a musical score that pre-announces every scare. Another tip-off to the film’s target demo: almost all the suspense is cellphone-related, from dead men’s handsets that ring inconveniently to batteries that fall out - OMG! - at the worst possible times.

“The Stepfather’’ is probably the first movie to use the Google search field’s automatic-fill capability as a plot device to generate chills. Browser-terror - spooky stuff! The moral, I guess, is Clear Your History. Better to honor history and rent the original.

THE STEPFATHER Directed by: Nelson McCormick

Written by: J.S. Cardone, based on a screenplay by Donald E. Westlake

Starring: Dylan Walsh, Penn Badgley, Sela Ward, Amber Heard

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 101 minutes

Rated: PG (intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, mature thematic material and brief sensuality)

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