The Test of Time #6: Disturbing Behavior
Disturbing Behavior (1998)
Starring: James Marsden, Katie Holmes, Nick Stahl, Katherine Isabelle, Steve Railsback, William Sadler, Bruce Greenwood, Ethan Embry
Written by: Scott Rosenberg
Directed by: David Nutter
What Critics Said: Although critics typically praised Nick Stahl’s performance and subversive concept, the general consensus was poor. “Every time a laser beam begins shooting out of a character’s eye, Disturbing Behavior sinks a notch further away from hip satire into cheap horror,” wrote Stephen Holden of The New York Times, adding that by the end, it’s “a paint-by-numbers creep show that can’t muster enough energy to be the tiniest bit scary.”
What Audiences Said: Disturbing Behavior made a scant $17 million at the box office in 1998. It probably didn’t help that it opened the same weekend as Saving Private Ryan. Audiences today seem to remember the film best as one of the many post-Scream knockoffs, as a film where Katie Holmes wore a bare midriff, and for Harvey Danger’s hit single “Flagpole Sitta,” which dominated the film’s ubiquitous trailers and TV spots.
Ask anyone today about Disturbing Behavior and they’ll say they never saw it, or that they saw it so long ago they barely remember any details. They will also, without warning, start singing “Paranoia, paranoia, everybody’s coming to get me.” Rarely has a film been so closely associated with a hit single without anyone remembering the damned movie. Does Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” qualify? A lot of people seem eager to forget Where the Wild Things Are ever happened.
So for this week’s The Test of Time – which was supposed to be last week's, but I got sick and then I lost the DVD – we’re actually going to watch Disturbing Behavior and see if it’s anything more than a post-Scream teen horror riff. I have “Flagpole Sitta” playing on a constant loop. Put me in a hospital for nerves, because Harvey Danger’s already getting on them.
The plot of Disturbing Behavior is a simple subversion of high school caste systems and parental overreach. The teenagers of Cradle Bay are a rebellious, unruly lot, just like teenagers everywhere else, but the parents of Cradle Bay have found a way to make them calm down, pay attention in class and follow the rules. No, it’s not Ritalin. It’s a form of brainwashing. Okay, so it’s kind of like Ritalin, if Ritalin made you a homicidal maniac whenever your sex drive kicks in, which for teenagers is all the time. Very few critics reviewed Disturbing Behavior without comparing it to The Stepford Wives, and it’s hard to blame them.
Disturbing Behavior begins with the world’s longest and most boring credits sequence. I’d like to think that it’s all a cunning plan to get the audience into the impatient, frustrated heroes’ mindset, but it probably has more to do with the film’s 84 minute running time. It’s barely a feature film by modern standards, so they padded it out like nobody’s business.
They also appear to have chopped Disturbing Behavior to pieces. The film opens with a young rebel named Gavin (Terminator 3’s Nick Stahl) witnessing a gruesome murder. One of Cradle Bay’s “Blue Ribbon” BMOC’s is on a date with an attractive lass, at Make Out Point, but he can’t seal the deal. “Look, it’s no good,” he explains. “I need my fluids.” He also accuses her of self-mutilation when he sees her ankle tattoo, which you’d think would be a turn off, but turns out to be a successful form of negging. “Self-mutilate this, fluid boy,” she says, before going down on him. You’d think he’d be somewhat appreciative, but no, his eyes glow red and he snaps her neck in his lap. From the angle, it looks like this would probably have severed his wiener in the process, but Disturbing Behavior isn’t “that” kind of movie. It’s just a neck-snapping blowjob movie. The cops arrive and the jock kills one of them, but the town sheriff (The Stunt Man’s Steve Railsback) lets the kid go scot-free.
You’d think witnessing this kind of atrocity would send Gavin into hiding, or make him run away, or at least result in a pretty serious conversation with his friends, but instead he goes about his business like nothing happened. 26 minutes into the film he gets very excited about it all of a sudden. It looks for all the world like someone decided to open Disturbing Behavior with a killer blowjob scene, story be damned, and bumped the second act plot point to the beginning because the movie would be damned boring otherwise.
And damned boring it is, for a while. Steve Clark (Enchanted’s James Marsden) moves to Cradle Bay with his family after the suicide of Steve’s brother (Ethan Embry). His parents are so eager to move away that when a creepy guy tells them, from out of nowhere, “I’m sure you’re going to like it. You’ll never want to leave,” Dad happily exclaims “You hear that?!” Disturbing Behavior may have come out a year after scream, but irony is the last thing on this movie’s mind.
Steve comes to Cradle Bay High School, sees the rigid caste system in place, and gets to know Gavin, his drug dealing albino friend “U.V.” (Final Destination’s Chad E. Donella), and, 20 minutes into the film, as a total afterthought, their hot friend Rachel. Katie Holmes played Rachel, and it seemed like a big deal once. It was her first film after the breakout success of Dawson’s Creek, and although Disturbing Behavior seems keen to celebrate her character’s independence, it seems even more keen on turning her into a sex object. She first appears dancing to non-diegetic music in the back of a pick up truck, undulating her bare stomach. It later becomes clear that Rachel doesn’t wear a bra no matter how damned cold it is. She’s an object of lust for Steven and also a Blue Ribbon named “Chug,” who repeatedly tries to rape her. She has nothing to contribute to the plot, by the way. And this picture is one of the first screen caps that comes up on Googe Image Search. You’re all class, Disturbing Behavior.
Before long, Steven starts to notice the strange… er, “disturbing” behavior of the Blue Ribbon cult at school. They bully their peers by threatening to do their math homework. They induct former yokels into their fold, who then get clean cut and smash their extremely expensive sports cars to pieces in a fit of inexplicable symbolism. They get in violent fights at the grocery store and rip out nose rings, which looks painful for the victim but was perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Gavin and Steven eavesdrop on a PTA meeting, overseen by Dr. Edgar Caldicott (Star Trek’s Bruce Greenwood), they discover that Gavin has been volunteered for reprogramming by his parents.
The next day, Gavin arrives at school wearing a letterman’s jacket and – finally – talking like a normal human being. Gavin was the type of kid who overarticulated everything he said, like a rogue Shakespearean fool. “You know, the problem with America is mankind’s abject unwillingness to contribute to the delinquency of minors” is not an unusual line of dialogue. Finally convinced that Gavin’s paranoia paranoia everybody’s coming to get him was justified and begins investigating the mystery with Rachel.
After one of the hotter Blue Ribbons whips out her nipples and tries to kill him with a shard of a mirror – after she broke it with her own face – they abscond to a nearby mental institution that’s fully populated with overactors…. er, “inmates,” but doesn’t employ a single staff member. They discover that Dr. Caldicott’s daughter has been lobotomized and run away (from no one in particuar) with a hastily edited rendition of “Flagpole Sitta” playing in the background. It’s the worst use of an otherwise good song in a movie since the theme from “Shaft” played while Richard Roundtree just sort of walked around New York City. The song ends suddenly. So does the scene.
Steven tries to run away with his sister Lindsay (Ginger Snaps’ Katharine Isabelle), only to discover that his parents have signed him up for the program. After a brief rendition of the “You’re tearing me apart!” scene from Rebel Without a Cause, where Steven gets to yell about his parents not caring about his feelings, he and Rachel are kidnapped. They strap Steven into a chair and begin feeding him subliminal messages in a video, and instead of just putting a syringe in his eye they use a mechanical device to do it really, really slowly and build suspense. He escapes, of course, but not until the audience starts to wonder why they needed the video and the needle if – as they made clear earlier in Disturbing Behavior – the actual process involves inserting a computer chip into the brain.
Earlier in Disturbing Behavior, Steven and Gavin encountered Mr. Newberry, the school janitor, played like a cartoon kook by Die Hard 2’s William Sadler. “Mr. Newberry here has got the full on Boo Radley-Village Idiot-Quasimodo thing going,” Gavin says. Steven must not read much because it takes him half the movie to realize that Mr. Newberry is actually a pretty smart guy. “You’d be surprised how interesting people become when they think you are really stupid,” Mr. Newberry says. I bring this up now because Mr. Newberry discovers, quite by accident, that a rat catching sonic device he bought has a Pied Piper effect on Cradle Bay’s brainwashed teenagers. He kills all of them by driving his truck over a cliff with the device turned on, and there’s a pretty cool shot of dozens of junior varsity kids plummeting to their death. The fable metaphor is a pretty clever way to disguise an obvious deus ex machina – we just happen to have a device that solves all our problems! – and the inherently dark finale is a novelty. Steven suggests to Mr. Newberry that the teens could be helped, but Mr. Newberry instead kills them all, because they’ve been hopelessly corrupted. He assumes. Also, since the teenagers were only following the rat catching device, there was no reason for Mr. Newberry to drive off the cliff personally. He could have put it in “Neutral” and let it roll on its own. Maybe he’s not so smart after all.
Steven fistfights Dr. Caldicott to the death in a stunning anticlimax, and he, Rachel, U.V. and Lindsay escape Cradle Bay to make their home somewhere else. I presume his parents aren’t going to call the police, and let their teenaged son and barely teenaged daughter raise themselves. The film ends with Gavin, now a student teacher, arriving at an inner city school filled with the first black people we’ve seen in Disturbing Behavior. “Hello, class. Welcome,” are the final, drab lines of Disturbing Behavior. The original ending took place on the ferry out of Cradle Bay, and Gavin got a big speech about how he actually prefers life after the program, and considers the process an acceleration of the natural maturing process. He gets killed anyway. They’re both anticlimactic finales, but at least the original ending – available on the DVD – has a compelling argument for the opposition.
Disturbing Behavior has moments of over the top entertainment, but for the most part it’s a plot hole laden, awkwardly paced film. What it lacks in common sense it tries to make up for with a sincere anti-conformity message, but when the heroes are this drab – or, in the case of Nick Stahl, so ridiculously overwritten – you start to sympathize with the villains a little bit. The brainwashed teenagers are all murdered, even though they were helpless victims. The parents really do want the best for their kids, even though they’re selfishly trying to circumvent puberty (and what parent doesn’t fantasize about that?). Was there no middle ground that could be reached? The basic idea is solid but underdeveloped, and ultimately comes across more like pandering to a disenfranchised target demographic than an actual statement about their underestimated social value.
Disturbing Behavior doesn’t stand The Test of Time – it’s too sloppy for that – but as a historical record of late 1990s teen cinema, and Katie Holmes’ young, jutting nipples, it serves at least some function in this great big world of ours.
Next week, The Test of Time will be taking a look at that “other” Basic Instinct. You know, the one you can’t help falling in love with, even if you be forty. See you next Wednesday!
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.