Disturbing Behavior (1998)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-03-18 03:20

Disturbing Behavior (1998)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: March 22nd, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

When Kurt Cobain howled “teenage angst has paid off well, but now I’m bored and old” to open In Utero, it was a bold declaration, one that marked a transition away from adolescent anxieties of previous albums with an eye towards a future that was sadly only glimpsed over the course of this final album. Revisiting Disturbing Behavior reminded me of this because, for one, In Utero would still have been in heavy rotation for my fifteen-year-old self in 1998, and, for another, it’s a line that the horror genre is unlikely to ever utter. For about sixty years now, horror has practically thrived on teenage angst and mined it for a cottage industry: the decades may change, but the anxieties remain the same, whether they manifest themselves in teenage werewolf parables or fretful musings on mortality and sex. At the heart of nearly all of these films is an anxiousness over identity—perhaps more than any other age group, teenagers are consciously aware of who they are, who they aren’t, and who they want to be—or at least they like to think so.

As someone who entered high school the same year Disturbing Behavior, I suppose I can say it cuts straight to the heart of all of this. I don’t think late 90s teens worried about this sort of stuff any more or any less than any other generation, but we were on the tail end of the Gen-X spectrum, so I like to think we siphoned off some of their quest for authenticity. Being yourself and not bowing to authority was so paramount that it’s little wonder the era spawned an obvious Stepford knock-off dealing with literally brainwashed teens.

Calling Disturbing Behavior a thinly-veiled allegory for adolescent awkwardness is an understatement, particularly since its studio did all it could to take scissors to it, leaving its target audience with the most digestible, easily processed version of this story imaginable. There’s an obvious irony in corporate overlords deciding what’s best for a teenage audience watching adults prey on and condition high school students, stripping them of their identities via an insidious plot hatched in principals' offices and PTO meetings.

To be fair, Disturbing Behavior is probably only going to feel deep if you’re squarely in its target audience of high school sophomores who just discovered Kurt Vonnegut for the first time and are convinced they’re about to unlock the secrets of the universe (of course a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five makes a cameo in the film). Set in picturesque Pacific Northwest enclave Cradle Bay, the film tracks Steve Clark’s (James Marsden) bizarre introduction to his new hometown. Like any other school, Cradle Bay High has a distinct clique structure composed of geeks, freaks, stoners, motorheads, and preps. However, Steve’s first acquaintance and proud outcast Gavin (Nick Stahl) insists that something is especially unsettling about the latter group, who operate as a weird hive mind, their actions dictated by some insidious plot involving the town’s adults, particularly the school’s way-too-friendly psychologist (Bruce Greenwood).

The basic horror here is straightforward, consistently highlighted, underlined, and italicized by Stahl’s walking cipher, whose rants double as a generation’s disaffected yawp, a motor-mouthed screed against, like, authority and stuff, man. It’s not the worst theme, but the approach opts for an “us vs. them” dynamic that immediately includes the audience. At no point can we doubt Gavin’s ravings because the film’s opening confirms them: in a scene that feels like your standard-issue lovers lane slasher movie prelude, we find two teenagers making out, only the guy goes completely haywire when his supercharged libido to compels him to break the girl’s neck. Even more disturbing is a cop’s reaction when his partner is butchered by this meathead in a letter jacket: for whatever reason, he’s nonplussed, almost as if he suspected this. Spying from a distance, Gavin flees and spends about half of the movie warning both his friends (Katie Holmes & Chad E. Donella) and the new kid in town. We’re just sitting around, waiting for them to catch up between implied bong hits.

But at least “half of the movie” here only entails about 40 minutes—at times, Disturbing Behavior feels less like a fully-formed movie and more like a first draft, or perhaps a speed-run through its obvious themes and anxieties. Just about every corner of the teenage experience is lightly brushed over: the raging hormones, the lost friendships, the shifting loyalties, the hovering parents, etc. All of it feels true enough (or at least as true as it can be when it’s reenacted by a sleek Hollywood movie), but the quick pace doesn’t allow for any depth, nor does it allow director David Nutter to explore some of the more interesting, prescient items, such as jock privilege and a toxic masculinity that reduces girls to literal sex objects.

These are only quick diversions, however, since the final film is more concerned with unraveling the central mystery behind the brainwashing rather than exploring its effects in any meaningful way. Marsden and Holmes become the de facto leads, bouncing from one locale to the next in an effort to discover the truth behind their off-putting school psychologist. The result is a low-rent spookablast that confines most of its scares to a sequence set in a mental ward, which is transformed into a demented funhouse of rambling patients and jarring freak-outs. While it feels like hails from an entirely different movie altogether, it’s the film’s most lively, memorable scene, at least insofar that it’s a rare moment of genuine narrative intrigue.

On the other hand, the rest of Disturbing Behavior is about as predictable as bad teenage poetry—which is to say it does have its batshit moments, at least (I mean, it’s definitely the best movie featuring William Sadler—as the school’s possibly-handicapped janitor--reciting Pink Floyd lyrics). This is a rare case where predictability doesn’t necessarily equal boredom, if only because the breakneck pace all but prevents it. A double-edged sword if there ever was one, the quick pacing does allow the film to breeze by but also functions as a lobotomy, robbing the story of much of its depth. In an amusing case of life imitating art, it’s almost as if the studio didn’t trust its audience to embrace something that didn’t move at an ADHD-addled clip, so MGM chopped the film down to its threadbare runtime, presumably in the best interests of teenagers who wanted nothing more than to revel in watching dead teenagers.

Such studio tinkering feels like a 90s tradition in hindsight, and it’s at this point I feel obligated to acknowledge Disturbing Behavior was likely influenced by Scream, at least as far as its slick production design and star cast is concerned. It feels like a film that, in my infinite, dumbshit wisdom, I likely dismissed on this basis alone at the time since it was trendy. Honestly, I’m having trouble remembering having any reaction to it; if anything, it should have been dismissed because it goes in one ear and out of the other, sort of like just about everything else does at that age. While it cribs the most shallow, surface level affectations from Scream, it misses Kevin Williamson’s rapid-fire wit, which is only briefly echoed during some of Stahl’s short-lived rants about the school’s class system.

After revisiting it now—when I’m literally twice as old—I can’t say Disturbing Behavior sticks much better. It is a bit easier to appreciate—when it was released, there was no way I truly grasped just how deep and incredible its cast is. Even if Marsden is reduced to a mostly throwaway, angst-ridden teen, he’s surrounded by the likes of Stahl, Holmes, Greenwood, Steve Railsback, Katharine Isabelle (who I think was contractually obligated to appear in every Vancouver production during this era), and, I repeat, William Sadler. It’s almost ludicrous how much talent was pressed into service for a film that features an army of lettermen blue bloods recoiling from high-frequency speakers designed to eradicate rats. I’m also not sure what’s more amusing: Holmes playing against type as the “bad girl” (with a heart of gold, natch), or the fact that her nose ring and black clothes are meant to act as a shorthand to establish that. The 90s*, man.

On that note (and if you don’t want to hear me wax autobiographically and bemoan the passage of time, feel free to skip this paragraph), the most disturbing thing about Disturbing Behavior is the realization that this is a movie that holds up a funhouse mirror to my own adolescence, wildly distorting it and dilating it to the extreme. Was high school really this awful? Did we really look and act this dumb back then? Imagine unsealing a time capsule filled with toxic amounts of rap rock, nu-metal, and grating pop-punk: that’s Disturbing Behavior, a film about teenage anxiety that might still freak out its now adult audience nearly two decades later, albeit for mostly the wrong reasons. Current and future generations will also probably detect the more timeless angst of teenage growing pains, provided they can put down their phones long enough to actually watch it (and it's not like MGM didn't do them a solid by cutting it down to 80 minutes).

*In case you’re wondering just how 90s this is, consider that it is bookended by “Got You Where I Want You” by The Flys. Admittedly, this is one of the soundtrack’s high points.

The disc:

Another benefit of hindsight is realizing just how badly MGM mangled David Nutter’s original cut of the film. When Disturbing Behavior was released, I didn’t even own a computer, much less consistent internet access, so this was a bit of a revelation all these years later. It’s not that Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release exactly shines a bright light on it in the form of retrospectives and interviews, but it does assemble most of the Nutter’s original footage as deleted scenes. The director—who had the film ripped away from him in post-production—also provides a commentary for the scenes, many of which serve to flesh out character moments and story elements that would have allowed the film to breathe some.

The biggest problem with the studio’s cut is its refusal to allow its characters to really reckon with what’s happening to them—it’s all practically sprinting from the opening credits, hurtling downhill, only taking time to absorb the obvious horror elements. You especially see this in the disparity between Nutter’s ending and the ridiculous, “gotcha” ending mandated by the studio; where the edited cut seemingly can’t wait to end and disposes most of the central drama (seriously, Stahl and Marsden pretty much share only one scene during the second half of the movie), Nutter at least cared enough to resolve it.

Longtime fans—especially those who are aware of the homemade director’s cut edit floating around online—might be disappointed that Scream didn’t incorporate these into the film for some kind of assembly cut, but I’m guessing it’s probably due to the elements of the excised material. I just can’t imagine anyone sinking money into a restored director’s cut of Disturbing Behavior, no matter how amusing that sounds. The disc also features the film's trailer but omits the Flys video that graced the original DVD release; between this omission and their decision to drop the Creed video from their Halloween H20 disc, Scream has waged a personal war against late-90s rock. Fair.
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