Screenplay : Scott Rosenberg
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : James Marsden (Steve Clark), Nick Stahl (Gavin Strick), Katie Holmes (Rachel Wagner), Bruce Greenwood (Dr. Caldicott), William Sadler (Dorian Newberry), Steve Railsback (Officer Cox)
"Disturbing Behavior" comes off the screen like a movie made to sell soundtracks. While most horror/sci-fi movies punctuate huge moments and scary sequences with thundering orchestral sounds, this movie clumsily slams its moments home with alternative rock songs and harsh guitar chords (the most amusing being when a conspiracy has been uncovered, and the song on the soundtrack is blaring "Paranoia, paranoia, everybody's coming to get me ..."
This is not to mention the fact that--like far too many recent movies--"Disturbing Behavior" has that slick, music video polish where everything is heavy with thick color tones, broken beams of light, and extra sharp photography. It isn't hard to see that all this surface gloss is meant to obscure the no-brainer of a plot that barely stretches to fill an hour and twenty minutes, even though it doesn't have the weight or consistency to fill a decent episode of "The X-Files."
That it sometimes resembles "The X-Files" in tone and content should come as no surprise. The director, David Nutter, cut his teeth on TV shows like "The X-Files," as well as "ER" and more dubious entries like "Sleepwalkers" and "M.A.N.T.I.S." Technically, "Disturbing Behavior" is well put together, but only in as much as a rock video is well put together. It's visually pleasing and it does a decent job of generating atmospheric tension, but all for naught. The screenplay by Scott Rosenberg ("Beautiful Girls," "Con Air") is simply not up to par.
The movie stars James Marsden as Steve Clark, a good-looking teen who has recently moved with his family from big city Chicago to the small, idyllic waterfront town of Cradle Bay, Washington. Once there, he begins to suspect that something isn't quite right with his school chums. Like all high schools, his is segregated into the various social classes, and one group, known as the Blue Ribbons, are so perfect they're weird.
The Blue Ribbons are a bunch of preppy, clean-cut, letter jacket-wearing goody-goodies who play sports, sponsor bake sales, and help each other study. On the outside, they look like every principal's dream of perfect adolescents; but for some reason, when the Blue Ribbons get sexually excited, they have an odd disposition toward going into snarling rages. (The fact that nobody in town seems to care when one of these teens beats two others teens to bloody pulps in the middle of a supermarket is only the beginning of the script's problems).
The conspiracy behind the Blue Ribbons is unearthed by Gavin Strick (Nick Stahl), a lanky, long-haired dopehead who is actually one of the most believable kids this movie has to offer. Speaking like someone doing a bad impression of Keanu Reeves, Gavin is at first annoying, but later his idiosyncrasies start to grow on you. His theory is that the Blue Ribbons are being brainwashed, possibly by the school's creepy-nice counselor, Dr. Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood). Gavin tries to enlist support from Steve and from another friend, Rachel (Katie Holmes of "Dawson's Creek"), who shows her teenage defiance by piercing her nose and navel and wearing too much eye make-up.
"Disturbing Behavior" has several moderately effective scenes, but the problem is that they don't really make much sense. For instance, in one sequence, Steve and Rachel sneak into a mental hospital where Dr. Caldicott used to work. On its own terms, the scene is plenty creep-inducing in a comic book kind of way, with the dilapidated conditions of the hospital and the various cartoonish patients who lurk in every other dark corner, just waiting to jump out. However, there is no explanation as to how Steve and Rachel actually got into the hospital; plus, they walk around halls that should be locked up, and they never seem to get noticed even though there are guards and security cameras.
Much worse than that is the movie's so-called climax. Not only is it boring, predictable, and melodramatic, but it involves Steve doing something that is utterly inexplicable unless you consider the plot mechanics. Steve has a perfect chance to escape and there is no reason why he shouldn't, except he has to turn back and get involved in the action again in order for the plot to explain the ending. It's a terrible written and awfully executed sequence that should have been rewritten on the spot.
And then there's the subplot about Steve's older brother who has recently died. Although this helps explain why the family moved from Illinois to Cradle Bay, the movie insists on randomly inserting quickly-edited flashes of the brother (played by Ethan Embry in a role that rates somewhere below "brief cameo") for shock effect, even though these sequences have no apparent plot or thematic value. And let's not forget the town's police chief (Steve Railsback), who obviously knows what's going on because he lets the Blue Ribbons literally get away with the murder. However, Rosenberg's script never bothers to explain exactly how he's involved in the conspiracy or why.
"Disturbing Behavior" would most likely have never been made without the successes of the "Scream" movies and "I Know What You Did Last Summer." Everything about it stinks of inferiority and coat-tail riding, which is unfortunate because the young actors involved are talented, although often miscast (Marsden looks too much like a model to be seriously taken as a typical American teen, especially one who would hang out with potheads).
It also wastes a potentially interesting sci-fi story in the vein of "The Stepford Wives" (1975), of which it is obviously a variation with misunderstood teens inserted for oppressed women. The notion of normal teenagers being brainwashed into being "perfect" has all kinds of thematic possibilities involving conformity and societal explanations of what constitutes "perfection." Unfortunately, "Disturbing Behavior" is too bland to be an entertaining thriller, and it completely avoids delving any deeper than its own shallow surface.
©1998 James Kendrick