James Marsden - Steve Clark
Katie Holmes - Rachel Wagner
Nick Stahl - Gavin Strick
Bruce Greenwood - Dr. Edgar Caldicott
William Sadler - Dorian Newberry
Steve Railsback - Officer Cox
Chad Donella - U.V.
Katharine Isabelle - Lindsay Clark
Ethan Embry - Allen Clark
Genre - Sci-Fi/Horror/Thriller/Mystery
Running Time - 84 Minutes
PLOT (from IMDB)
The new kid (James Marsden) in Cradle Bay, Washington stumbles across something sinister about the town’s method of transforming its unruly teens into upstanding citizens.
DISTURBING BEHAVIOR is a film I hadn’t watched since its theatrical release back in 1998 - a time where the horror genre had finally gained popularity both critically and commercially with mainstream audiences for better or for worse. Even though I’ve watched and prefer THE FACULTY, which was released months after DISTURBING BEHAVIOR and share a similar theme about conforming due to some outside force, I had always wanted to revisit this film to see how well it holds up today. While still an entertaining little movie, watching it this time with a critical adult eye makes me realize how flawed this film is. It’s a teenage version of THE STEPFORD WIVES without the commentary or the justification for its existence, with the studio and producers involved only wanting to cater to the SCREAM and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER market at the time.
The real problem with DISTURBING BEHAVIOR is the storytelling itself. Or to be more specific, the hack job done to the narrative due to studio interference months prior to its release. Because of the last minute editing, the film comes off as a project that was rushed into development, based on a first or second draft of a screenplay that needed more fine tuning to be a feature-length movie. There are a lot of gaps in terms of narrative, with characters and situations popping up without any sort of explanation as if the producers were in a hurry to tell a story in the least amount of time possible. This is frustrating because there’s obviously a good film here that is trying to say something to the teenage audience at the time by remaking a 70’s satire for a new generation. But in essence, it feels like a series of random events that connect together rather than a fully fleshed out story that deserves our attention.
I’ve never seen the much praised fan-edit or the television presentations of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR - both adding in most, or all, of the deleted scenes to beef up the film and give it much needed depth. But the theatrical version is totally lacking any sort of heart and soul that was probably intended prior to test screenings and this idea to capitalize on the SCREAM craze that brought many back to the genre. This theatrical version is the only one readily available for most of the movie audience, probably not leaving much of an impression unless you’re nostalgic for this era. For a movie focused on unveiling a mystery rather than providing character depth and story motivations to make us care more, the end result leaves us with more questions than answers. Why is this town so accepting of having scientists add implants to their children just so they can be considered good, perfect standards of the community? Where did Dr. Caldicott even think of this idea? Why was his daughter a test subject and why didn’t it work on her? How come only certain teenagers chosen for this project? How come a man is willing to let everyone think he’s mentally handicapped for a bit of piece and quiet? Why are Steve and Rachel considered outsiders, even though both look like they stepped out of a modeling audition and could easily be the most popular and coveted teens in school? Why am I asking so many questions for a film that’s only 84 minutes???
It doesn’t help that the main characters aren’t all that interesting really. Steve seems like a nice guy with a caring sister and parents, who are dealing with their own crap not to see how much Steve is struggling with his older brother’s suicide. But other than that, I don’t know much about him. Rachel is a sassy goth (?) who starts tough and just becomes a damsel-in-distress when she realizes that Steve will save her. Gavin, probably the most interesting character, is the only one who realizes what’s going on and tries to warn everyone about it, which falls on deaf ears. But his character undergoes a transformation midway through the film, disappearing until the very end. Dr. Edgar Caldicott is your typical mad scientist whose hobby is playing God. There seems to be a backstory with him, but the film doesn’t bother telling it. U.V. is the random albino stoner dude, I guess? And Dorian is the janitor who is pretending to be slow so people could leave him alone, even though he figures out what’s going on and how to stop it. All the players are here, but they’re not given any character development that makes us care about them really. I hear the other versions of this film are a lot better because the missing scenes answer a lot of questions about these characters and the situation in general. It’s too bad the studio couldn’t leave well enough alone.
The narrative does have some things going for it. I do like the cafeteria scene where Gavin explains the different groups in school. I think almost every high school setting has certain sections dedicated to the preppies, to the troublemakers, to the geeks, and etc. And there’s a great moment where Gavin, who realizes he’s next to be “lobotomized” freaks out because he realizes his life will be over against his will, even contemplating murder-suicide at one point which Steve saves him from. I also like the unintentionally hilarious moments the film provides. Like, for example, the opening of the film where a guy rips a girl’s head off while she performs oral sex on him because it’s consider “naughty”. This dude also kills a cop, with another cop gladly willing to cover it up. What a great town! There’s also the funny, yet creepy, moment where a teenage girl gets rejected by Steve, only for her to malfunction and slam her own head into a mirror repeatedly, before acting as if nothing happened and moves on with her life. And what about that scene where one of the programmed kids destroys a grocery store by tossing another teen around, with no one really reacting to it as if it’s a big deal? And how about Rachel trying to force her catchphrase, “Razor”, on us for much of the film? What the hell does that even mean? Is she a fan of Razor Ramon? Does she have an urge to shave? Let’s cut that business out, shall we?
And while the film lacks any depth, at least it checks off things that teenagers deal with - such as conformity, hovering and controlling parents, teenage suicide, and lost friendships over time. It would have been nice if the studio allowed the film to flesh these things out, but I guess we have HEATHERS for that, don’t we?
A lot of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR was created by much of the same crew who worked on television’s X-Files, including director David Nutter who directed many episodes of that television show. In some ways, the film feels like an episode of X-Files or other sci-fi shows of the time, just with a bigger budget. The look of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR has a TV movie feel, which kind of adds to the charm of the film since it doesn’t look as polished as its contemporaries. There’s this mysterious and bleak atmosphere and mood throughout the film, which I really enjoyed as it made this town of Cradle Bay [with its fog and gloomy, cloudy look] feel more eerie than what this movie probably deserved. And there are some moments of genuine tension, especially in the final act, that work better than one would think. Unfortunately, it was probably out of Nutter’s hands to hack this film to the version that’s commonly out there, destroying anything Nutter probably wanted to present in terms of characters, the mystery, and just the overall vibe of the town the film is set in. The film is much shorter and moves at the quick pace because of it, but things happen so quickly that we don’t have time to digest the thrill of following these characters solve and survive the mystery that surrounds them. I feel bad for Nutter that his project was taken away from him during post-production just so it could be badly edited into an I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER clone of sorts. At least the music by X-Files composer Mark Snow is pretty subtle and nice.
The acting is more than okay. In one of his early roles, James Marsden does well enough as Steve. The guy photographs really well and his portrayal of the good guy character works. I wish Marsden had more to work with, especially when it came to Steve’s brother’s suicide that should have been more of a focus. But he works with what he’s given. Katie Holmes, who at the time became a huge star due to Dawson’s Creek, is okay as Rachel. I never bought her as a great actress or anything, but she’s cute and can pull off sassy believably. Maybe if she had more to do, I could say more about her performance. Nick Stahl is probably the best of the younger cast as Gavin. The first half of the film works the best because Stahl is a big part of it, coming across as likable, sarcastic, and believably scared for his character’s future. I even thought he played creepy well once he’s transformed into a Blue Ribbon. I wish he was the lead actor and character honestly because he’s the only one that came across as real for me. Nice to see a young Katharine Isabelle as Steve’s sweet sister and Chad Donella as a stoner albino type. The 90s, everyone.
As for the older cast, I think William Sadler came out the best as janitor Dorian. Sadler makes any project he’s a part of better and he seems to be having fun playing such a bizarre character. He even gets to quote Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” at one point, so that’s a thing. Bruce Greenwood doesn’t get a lot to do as the film’s villain, Dr. Caldicott. He pops in and out and comes across as a weak villain, most likely due to the editing that probably took some of his character arc out for whatever reason. Greenwood is a good actor and deserved better. And what was up with Ethan Embry here? Was his role bigger in the Director’s Cut or did they just use cut footage from EMPIRE RECORDS or CAN’T HARDLY WAIT? I feel his character was super important for Steve’s arc, making Embry’s pop-in appearances just come across as jarring and weird.
THE FINAL HOWL
DISTURBING BEHAVIOR is a film that should have been more of a success than it was, bringing 1975’s THE STEPFORD WIVES and turning it into a teenage thriller for a new generation at the time. Unfortunately, the studio stepped in and butchered an almost two-hour film into one that only runs 84 minutes [including credits], ruining whatever message or satire director David Nutter had planned when he developed the project. The end result is a film that wants to be part of the SCREAM and I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER club, just without any of the depth and character development to reach the thrills and cleverness of either of those two films. You end up not caring about any of the characters or the mystery that’s unfolding because the film feels like a puzzle with missing pieces every five minutes that would have elevated the storytelling and narrative of the movie. And while the TV movie look that David Nutter infuses, as well as an eerie and bleak atmosphere, gives DISTURBING BEHAVIOR a bit of charm, the terrible editing job by the studio ruin any sort of momentum the film could have. Fortunately, the cast - especially by Nick Stahl and William Sadler - is quite good enough to keep you invested. And there are some bizarre moments and bits of dialogue throughout that you’ll end up being entertained by it all. I would really like to see the longer cut of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR because this theatrical version is a mess. It’s not boring or insulting enough to turn anyone off, but it’s a mess that could have been something interesting if outside forces didn’t stick their nose where it didn’t belong. Not worth conforming for, but worth a look if you’re feeling razor for late-90s teenage horror movies.