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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
1998 was a funny time for Horror movies.
There was a relatively new crop of movie makers who were riding the coat tails of Wes Craven's wildly popular SCREAM. Horror was hip again, right at the precise moment when U.S. book publishers declared it dead. Oddly enough, everyone wanted to make modern updates of old 1950s and sixties style Horror. THE FACULTY, for example, was a take off of THE THING, THE PUPPET MASTERS, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.
In fact, much film time was wasted as the teeny bopper characters explained to each other that what was happening to them was just like what happened in this, that, or the other 50s or 60s books and movies. They accused this writer or that writer of being a rip-off of the other writer ad nauseam.
DISTURBING BEHAVIOR breaks away from all that and, in doing so, makes itself a far better movie. While THE FACULTY was fun, it was also forgettable. The ending was so awful it choked what could have been an otherwise kick-ass movie.
DISTURBING BEHAVIOR only has one false note, which I'll get to in a moment.
Clearly, the movie is a riff, rip-off, or homage to THE STEPFORD WIVES, depending on your point of view.
The movie begins with the unexpected murder of an innocent, rapidly followed by an even more unexpected murder of another innocent, and all witnessed by a kid who won't tell. Why? Because he knows his home town, and he knows that no one will listen or even worse, care.
In the town of Cradle Bay, Washington, Steve (James Marsden: THE X-MEN) and his family have arrived, his parent's escaping the stress of their oldest child's suicide. Steve is a hunky kind of guy but like all new kids in town, must eat his first lunch alone while the rest of the school looks on and decides where he will best fit in terms of their caste system. We know that Steve will be among the most popular, but before that he gets recruited by the two outcast stoner dudes, Gavin (Nick Stahl) and U.V. (Chad E. Donella).
The two self-dubbed losers of the high school point out the various factions, from the hot rodders to the computer geeks (the only ones of all the cliques who will actually be successful in their careers) to the skateboard thrashers to the Goths and finally winding up at the highest level, the Blue Ribbons.
As in any school, Blue Ribbons are the kids who are popular because adults say so. They are the ones who get away with things that would get their classmates tried in court as adults. These are the kids that have no concept of responsibility to anyone. They are the least likely to create anyything, lead a company, the most likely to get in a drunk driving accident and kill someone, the most likely to commit date rape and get away with it. The most likely to become con artists, evangelists, or politicians. They are the top of the food chain, but what is so creepy about that, is the way they got there.
They are popular yes, but nearly all of them come from parents who were the lowest members on the high school totem pole when THEY were kids. So what gives? Popular parents beget popular children - how in the hell did kids from all the awkward backward parents become so success minded and beautiful and popular?
The movie really takes its time letting you in on the secret. All we see is that anyone who is the worst enemy of the "Blue Ribbons" one day, will inexplicably be their best friend the next. In fact, the recent convert will violently renounce his or her past life of the day before and even dress like the other "Blue Ribbons". They will become a model student, dedicated to excellence and achievement, and periodic bouts of out-of-control violent behavior. When these things happen, Merry Mishaps ensue.
What I really enjoyed about DISTURBING BEHAVIOR is how the tale draws you in. You'll be gripping your chair or pounding your legs as one weird thing after the next happens and the film makers tease you with the possible reasons.
Small surprise that the director, David Nutter, was responsible for some of the best episodes of THE X-FILES that were ever made. Kudos too must also go to writer Scott Rosenberg. Especially when you see the DVD version of this movie. Usually when I see the cut scenes from a film, I can easily understand why the fat was cut. But in this case, nearly every scene would have only enriched the movie, bringing greater depth to characters that would have, in turn, brought greater depth to the movie.
A great surprise in this film is Katie Holmes' (THE GIFT) role of Rachel Wagner. She's a rich girl who doesn't fit in with all the popular middle class kids, and as such, is off step from everyone. Most and best surprising is that, outside of her insipid role in TVs dull Dawson's Creek, Katie Homes can actually act! Who the hell knew?
Sadly, DISTURBING BEHAVIOR was trimmed to make it an adolescent fright flick, instead of what could have easily been a movie for all ages and a true classic for years to come. Out of all the many cut scenes I watched on the DVD, I could only agree with the cutting of two of them. Also, the original ending was no where near as good as the ending folks saw with the final cut that appeared in theaters. The original went for self satire instead of the hard punch. I'm glad that the creators of this flick changed to the hard punch. It makes DISTURBING BEHAVIOR rise above the crappy endings of so many of its peers into an almost classic.
As for that one misstep I spoke of earlier? Without giving too much away, let me just say that when you introduce one unbelievable thing, the audience will suspend their disbelief for you. When you introduce other unconnected unbelievable things you break that suspension of disbelief.
The reason science fiction movies like THE MATRIX can get away with it, is that it tells the hero, and so the audience, that nothing you think is real, IS real. Then it sets about constructing its own internal logic that can be wholly at odds with the world we know. Whether its THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR or DARK CITY or DONNIE DARKO the suspension of disbelief is vast because we're introduced to a whole other world, or world within our own that we never knew existed.
If your story isn't about that though, if your story orbits around one single amazing Magilla, then any other fantastic thing has to be a direct outgrowth of that. For example, "I've invented this fantastic thing that turns matter into energy in this pod, transmits it through the air or electric cables, and perfectly reassembles it in this other pod. Oh noes! There was an computer error during transfer and my genetic make-up has been fused with a housefly!"
What audiences will not be onboard with is a movie like that which is saved at the end because the inventor also turned his shower into a time machine, just in case he needed to go back and undo the damage he did.
Yeah, audiences call bullshit on that.
That's an extreme example I'm using for illustrative purposes that won't spoil DISTURBING BEHAVIOR. For me the movie had a lesser version that had me thinking, 'Wait a minute! What?'. Other folks may not even notice.
It's not enough to ruin this movie though, not like that awful ending in THE FACULTY. With the inclusion of 5 cut scenes (again, that you'll see on the home video extras. Come on Director's Cut!), DISTURBING BEHAVIOR would have 5 Shriek Girls instead of three. Don't let that stop you from watching it though. DISTURBING BEHAVIOR is an unquestionably high powered jolt of energy that will stay with you long after the end.