Instead of the fare listed in the Los Angeles Times TV schedule — Honeymoon from Hell a.k.a. The Legend of Alice Flagg (actually about a couple that spend their honeymoon in a resort that turns out to be haunted by the ghost of, you guessed it, Alice Flagg) and The Inherited, a.k.a. Stranger in the House — Lifetime last night showed two movies that differed from their usual fare mainly in actually having had theatrical releases, including one film that not only got released in theatres but was a major hit and changed the career trajectory of its star (more on that later). First up was a 2009 production called The Stepfather — though if Lifetime had produced the film itself (or one of their usual contract production companies had) it probably would have been called The Perfect Stepfather) — which begins with a grisly scene in which Grady Edwards (Dylan Walsh) is shown leaving his home after having murdered his wife and her (not his!) three kids in a particularly gruesome fashion with an assortment of knives he carefully maintains for this purpose. Then he shaves off his facial hair so he won’t be recognized when he leaves the house. Then there’s a typical Lifetime title, “Six Months Later” — the opening scene took place at Christmastime (and writers Carolyn Lefcourt, Brian Garfield and J. S. Cardone, adapting a previous screenplay for a 1987 version by a mystery writer with at least a semi-major reputation, Donald Westlake, and director Nelson McCormick nicely use a sweet choral version of “Silent Night” as ironic underscoring for the chilling traveling shot showing us Grady’s handiwork) so it’s June when the story resumes — Grady is calling himself “David Harris” and chatting up a woman in a Home Depot-type store.
She is Susan Harding (Sela Ward), recently divorced from Jay Harding (John Tenney) and with two sons, teenager Michael (the genuinely hot Penn Badgley, whom we get to see a lot of with his shirt off, revealing a hairless chest and really nice pecs — one way you can tell this wasn’t originally produced for Lifetime is that it shows an attractive, sexy man and doesn’t make him a villain!) and pre-pubescent Sean (Braeden McMasters). Susan is immediately attracted to David and taken in by his sad story of being a widower whose wife and daughter were killed in a car accident by a drunk driver. Within the space of two commercial breaks David has moved in with Susan and is laying down the law to her kids, including nearly strangling Sean — Sean’s real father Jay sees this and threatens to kill David if he ever lays hands on one of his kids again. Michael is actually the film’s protagonist; he had recently returned from military school, where he’d been sent as punishment (presumably for DUI, since there’s a lot of dialogue about how he needs to regain his driver’s license), and has restarted his relationship with his high-school girlfriend Kelly Porter (Amber Heard), but he’s also immediately suspicious of David and starts using the Internet to investigate him. It also turns out that the crime David committed in his “Grady Edwards” identity gets profiled on America’s Most Wanted and the episode is seen by Mrs. Cutter (Nancy Linehan Charles), a local eccentric who keeps several cats in the Portland, Oregon suburb in which this takes place. Mrs. Cutter is inspired to look “Grady Edwards” up online and figures out that he and David Harris are the same person, but before she can do anything about it — either tell Susan about her suspicions or notify the police — David kills her. In a scene the writers and director McCormick obviously intended as frightening but is just too silly to be scary, David lures Michael’s and Sean’s real father Jay into his basement and kills him just as Michael is considering going into the basement himself but decides not to — and David decides to allay Michael’s suspicions by using Jay’s cell phone to send Michael texts saying he’s all right and has just gone out of town for a while.
Meanwhile David has also aroused the suspicions of Jackie Kearns (Paige Turco), a local realtor (or should that be RealtorTM?) who at Susan’s urging gave David a job as a salesperson, only David quit immediately once Jackie started asking him for legally required ID. Of course, being a crook in a Lifetime movie David also has an intense aversion to being photographed — when Michael grabs a secret shot of him David sneaks into Michael’s room while Michael is showering and deletes it from Michael’s phone. David drowns Jackie in a swimming pool — one wonders how he thinks he’s going to explain away the sheer body count of people around him and when the police (who don’t seem to exist in this movie, not even as borderline incompetents hassling the good guys and blaming them for the bad guys’ crimes the way they’re portrayed in most Lifetime movies) are going to catch on. It ends in a bloody (in both senses) climax in which, on a rain-soaked and stormy night (this is the Pacific Northwest, after all), David announces to Susan that she hasn’t met his standards for a family connection and therefore he intends to kill her. Michael, whose obsession with nailing David has caused a hiccup in his relationship with Kelly, is able to persuade Kelly to drive him to Susan’s place and he and David confront each other. Susan stabs David with a shard of glass from a mirror David shattered during his murderous rampage. David and Michael grapple in the house’s attic, full of rotten floorboards that choose this moment to give way, and the film ends with both Michael and David falling off the roof of the house and it briefly looking like both hero and villain are a-goner.
Only Michael is shown recovering in a hospital — he got a coma but didn’t die — while David also survived and escaped; the final scene shows him in yet another big-box home-goods store, chatting up another divorcée with kids and this time calling himself “Chris Ames.” I don’t like crime stories in which the villain gets away — as Raymond Chandler once said, the villain has to be punished in some way, not out of morality but because not giving him his comeuppance “leaves a feeling of irritation” in the audience — but aside from that The Stepfather is a surprisingly good thriller, pitched at the thin edge of risibility and occasionally going over. It’s got its weaknesses — McCormick way overdirects the ending (perhaps to suggest lightning, he seems to have lit the entire final climax with strobe lights) and the music by Charlie Clouser is overwrought and screechy, adding sinister undertones to scenes that don’t have any and going really overboard on scenes that do. Nonetheless, it’s a reasonably credible story, there aren’t any head-snapping reversals (I was dreading that Michael would turn out to be the real killer, especially given Lifetime’s penchant for casting genuinely hot guys only as villains, but fortunately the writing committee forebore from that one) and the acting, especially by the two men, is believable and surprisingly understated for a formula crime movie. Ironically, when I downloaded information about this movie from imdb.com, among other things I got a user review that ended with an injunction for viewers to “Save your money, turn on Lifetime and watch the man hating gold you’re already paying for.” Little did that snarky reviewer, who signed him/herself “mustluvtacos” (indicating they have better taste in food than they do in movies), realize that Lifetime was precisely where this movie would end up!