Children of the Darned

In the little Pacific Northwest town of Cradle Bay, troubled, "underachieving" teenagers appear to be an endangered species. One day a kid will be a hoodlum or a pothead or a slut, and the next he or she will have joined the "Blue Ribbon Club," whose members all have tidy haircuts and impeccable wardrobes. They're straight-A students, star athletes, and the young civic pillars behind bake sales and blood drives. They're also junior-league fascists--snubbing their old friends, smugly insulting and shoving around those lower on the pecking order, and occasionally erupting into shocking violence.

It's difficult to entirely dislike a movie that mistrusts the high school ruling caste as much as Disturbing Behavior does. This sci-fi/horror item, roughly the zillionth reworking of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is also in debt to The Stepford Wives (itself a Body Snatchers variation) and A Clockwork Orange, with perhaps a dash of The Breakfast Club and the faintest pinch of Clueless. But screenwriter Scott Rosenberg (Con Air) and debuting feature director David Nutter (of many X-Files episodes) combine these borrowings with some real ingenuity and self-aware wit.

And that only makes the frequent carelessness and vapidity of the picture all the more irksome. One expects better from filmmakers this smart. Even the teenage audience toward whom the film is aimed is likely to expect better than the scene, about midpoint, when hero Steve (James Marsden) and heroine Rachel (Katie Holmes), looking for clues to the sinister mystery at their high school, go to another town to sneak into a mental institution where the shady doctor (Bruce Greenwood) behind the Blue Ribbon program used to work.

One minute they decide to go there to snoop around. Then Nutter just cuts to them in mid-snoop--no indication of how they slipped through security--in the corridors of a madhouse straight out of a 1960s Hammer Film, where they're confronted with a variety of offensively stereotypical loonies. Most infuriatingly, this episode adds nothing essential to the plot. It's just there because somebody observed that there hadn't been any old-fashioned scare sequences in the film up to this point. But the kids in the audience are likely to smell the desperation, and lose confidence in the movie.

Even if that attempt at a cheap thrill was stronger, less tired and halfhearted, it still wouldn't fit. Conventional scares are precisely what Disturbing Behavior doesn't need; their absence is part of the movie's strength. Stylistically, the film links up with the neo-slasher movies that have been so successful over the past couple of years, the two Screams and I Know What You Did Last Summer. It has the same polished visual handsomeness, and the same sly comic touches, that made those films seem fresher than they really were.

But Disturbing Behavior isn't a slasher movie. Indeed, what's most refreshing about it is that its sexual politics are exactly opposite those of a slasher movie. The film's atmosphere doesn't carry the cautionary stink of blood spilled as the inevitible consequence of sex.

In the "classic" slasher form of Halloween and Friday the 13th, the heroine is a virginal type surrounded by sexually active friends who, generally, are victimized in descending order of their promiscuity. The heroine is pitilessly terrorized--as punishment for having been tempted--but is also able to survive, because she resisted that temptation. The masked killer is driven away at the end, but isn't destroyed, and the heroine is left without permanent peace. She'll have to remain vigilant for all of her earthly life. From this angle, it isn't hard to construct an interpretation of these films, which flourished in the late '70s and early '80s, as a reactionary genre--the faceless killers can very nearly be seen as agents of a conservative's angry notion of God.

The "neo-classical" slasher hit Scream and its superior sequel Scream 2 both made a big--and rather too coy and self-delighted--fuss about kidding the conventions of the slasher form. But the conventions they chose to spoof were almost all superficial--the laboriousness with which the victims were isolated, the corniness of the whodunit revelations. The Screams didn't touch the genre's sexual subtext, its agenda, at all, because they both pretty much hewed to it.

In one sense, Disturbing Behavior employs the same pattern. It's still sexuality that calls down the wrath of the monsters. In the opening scene, a girl meets misfortune when she doesn't heed the warnings of the "Blue Ribbon" boy she's trying to seduce--he tells her he needs to conserve his "fluids" (old Boy Scout manuals actually used to offer this as the reason not to masturbate).

The difference is that this movie overtly 'fesses up about what turns the Blue Ribbons into monsters--not sex, but sexual repression. They've conserved too much of their fluids. The Blue Ribbon jock, Chug (A.J. Buckley), goes on a violent rampage in a supermarkert when his attraction to the tough, sensuous Rachel overwhelms his programming. The blond Blue Ribbon princess (Crystal Cass) bashes her head repeatedly into a mirror when she finds herself turned on. The slasher films imply that only repression can save us, but Disturbing Behavior--like 1987's great psychothriller The Stepfather--seems to be implying that sexuality will be expressed either as sex or, if repressed, as violence, so it might as well not be repressed.

This is the film's most appealing thematic idea; it's what makes it possible to accept most of Disturbing Behavior's dopiness and lapses in logic with an indulgent smile. The actors help, too. Marsden is rather blandly handsome as Steve, but this generic quality is used to touching effect--he seems like especially pliable meat as a Blue Ribbon candidate. As Rachel, Holmes shows a heart under her sullen, defensive manner, and as Gavin, Steve's pal who tries to warn him of what's going on, Nick Stahl has a sardonic, reserved manner that truly engages our sympathies. William Sadler has a blast as the eccentric, rat-catching school janitor who assumes a mythic character in the film's climactic scenes.

Bruce Greenwood, the charmless leading man of several Atom Egoyan films, puts that charmlessness to good use here as the mad doctor. His role is, of course, the silliest; after all, if the man behind the project has failed to take the power of teenage horniness into account as a variable, how much of a scientist can he be? "Every time one of these kids gets a hard-on," he remarks at one point, "they beat somebody over the head with it!" This comes as a shock to him?

Disturbing Behavior
Directed by David Nutter; with Katie Holmes, James Marsden, Nick Stahl, Bruce Greenwood, Steve Railsback and A.J. Buckley.


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