Thursday, March 31, 2016

Review: Disturbing Behavior (1998)

Disturbing Behavior (1998)

Rated R for strong violence, sexuality, language, and drug content

Score: 2 out of 5 (theatrical cut), 3 out of 5 (extended cut)

This review is going to be a little different from the usual, because Disturbing Behavior isn't your usual late '90s teen horror flick. It may look like one on the surface, yes, but it's the film's production history -- or rather, its post-production -- where the real story here can be found. Disturbing Behavior is a case study in how letting focus groups drive production and editing can completely ruin a genuinely promising film, as this Los Angeles Times article lays out. Short version: after the studio received negative feedback from test screenings concerning things like the film being "too plot-heavy" and the ending being "too sad", they took control of the film's final cut and proceeded to scrub any semblance of depth, emotion, and sense from the story and characters as they chopped nearly twenty minutes out of the film and put in a new ending. Director David Nutter considered pulling an "Alan Smithee" and having his name removed from the credits out of protest, and I don't blame him. The theatrical cut of Disturbing Behavior is an empty, shallow mess of a movie that's only barely redeemed by its basic "The Stepford Wives in high school" premise and how, despite everything, it still manages to at least partly deliver on some basic thrills.

Fortunately, however, the studio at least had enough sense to take all the material left on the cutting room floor and put it on the DVD as special features (though they didn't integrate them back into the film itself), and let Nutter do a director's commentary on both the finished film and on the deleted scenes. What's more, some enterprising fan out there managed to put together an unofficial director's cut that restores all the content that the studio took out, one that's been a cult bootleg for years. And having... "acquired" a copy myself, it is like night and day. The extended cut of Disturbing Behavior is far from a perfect film, but it actually feels like a film, and a good one too. The villains have actual menace! Characters have multiple layers, and their motivations and decisions actually make sense! The ending provides true closure rather than a pointless cliffhanger! Had this film been released in the form its director intended, I swear that it would not have been swiftly dumped into the dustbin of history like it was, becoming little more than a minor cult classic among those who know the story of how it got chopped into pieces. If a director's cut allowed Nightbreed to be rediscovered, then there's no reason why the same can't be true of this film.

The plot concerns Steve (James Marsden), a teenage boy whose family moves from Chicago to the picturesque waterfront town of Cradle Bay, Washington. Steve's older brother Allen committed suicide eight months prior, and he was hit harder than anybody else in the family; his parents hoped that the move might help them, and Steve in particular, move on from the tragedy. At Cradle Bay High School, Steve soon befriends the local outcasts Gavin (Nick Stahl), Rachel (Katie Holmes), and UV (Chad E. Donella), and also meets the Blue Ribbons, who look and behave like the preppy villains of every "outcasts versus the popular kids" movie of the '80s and '90s. They're attractive, athletic, intelligent, driven, and obnoxious to the core... but they have a more sinister side to them. They're prone to mental breaks that see them flipping out and attacking anybody nearby, and the faculty head of the club, the guidance counselor Dr. Edgar Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood), seems to be up to something nasty. Together with the janitor Mr. Newburry (William Sadler), a man who's far smarter than he seems on the surface, Steve and his new friends learn that the Blue Ribbons are victims of brainwashing, all in an attempt to mold former delinquents into "perfect" teenage sons and daughters... and that they're next.

In the theatrical cut, the plot is pretty much just an excuse to string together scenes of the "bad" kids acting all evil and stuff. Steve's backstory is relegated to just two brief scenes, his sister Lindsay serves almost no purpose except as a plot coupon, we learn nothing about Rachel or why we should care about her, the villainous Dr. Caldicott is completely flat with no explanation for what he's doing and why he's doing it, and Mr. Newburry, the guy who clearly seems deeper than his image suggests, has almost no depth. Even being able to fill in the details in my head with knowledge of what was removed, the plot was still disjointed and had massive holes...

...holes that, not coincidentally, the extended cut mostly fills up. We see the trauma that Allen's suicide inflicted on Steve, how he looked up to his brother and was shaken to the core by what happened. A big reveal that, in the theatrical cut, comes out of nowhere and feels like an ass-pull is instead set up beautifully, revealing Dr. Caldicott to be an even bigger scumbag than I thought. Lindsay is implied to be in real danger, and gets some development of her own beyond just "the precocious kid sister". We also get some moral ambiguity and subtext regarding adults who think that they know what's best for the kids, showing that Steve's parents genuinely believe that they're helping him and aren't just evil control freaks, and that, for all the... flaws of the Blue Ribbon program, it did do its intended job of stamping out teen delinquency in this town. This is no mere "unrated version" I'm talking about here, the kind that only adds some new frames here and there -- more than fifteen minutes of plot is enough to turn this into an almost completely different movie, and it's definitely for the best. Granted, a couple of the deleted scenes were deleted for a reason, doing little to move the story along, and the bit where it's implied that Dr. Caldicott is working for some shadowy government agency is a glaring reminder of the fact that this was made in the '90s and that director David Nutter cut his teeth shooting episodes of The X-Files. Still, they're a small price to pay for a film that is, on the whole, better in almost every conceivable way.

That said, the restored scenes didn't really fix the acting, especially from the teenage cast. James Marsden was just a step above wooden as Steve, while Katie Holmes as Rachel didn't even clear that bar, and while some of the deleted scenes contain their best moments, they only elevate the two actors performances on the whole from "bored" to "mediocre". Given that they were the leads, having them on screen so much seriously detracted from the film. It was clear that both of them came straight out of central casting, and neither was up to the task of carrying the film, especially not with some of the "radical" dialogue spitting out of their mouths. (Rachel, stop trying to make "razor" happen!) They both look attractive here, but that's about it. It was amusing seeing a sixteen-year-old Katharine Isabelle (who went on to much bigger and better things) as little Lindsay on screen with the two of them; even at her young age, she was smoking them in the acting department. The supporting cast, fortunately, holds their own much better. William Sadler gets some great moments as Mr. Newburry, especially once we learn more about him and he starts defying the stereotype, but the big standout was Bruce Greenwood as Dr. Caldicott. The sleaze just oozes from him and his performance, more than enough to make up for some of the clunky dialogue. Unfortunately, the scenes that really elevate him as a character mostly landed on the cutting room floor, only to show up in the extended cut, but even then, his attitude in the theatrical cut was enough to make me want to punch him in the damn face. Landing somewhere in between is Nick Stahl as Gavin. While I didn't fully buy the radical transformation his character undergoes halfway through the film, he was still able to mostly sell it, and the extended cut's alternate ending gives him a great moment to shine that caps the film off on a high note.

In terms of directing, between the music and the visual style, the TV background of Nutter shows through heavily. For better or worse, watching this feels very much like a feature-length, R-rated episode of a TV show (specifically, the aforementioned X-Files) more than a movie. A few moments that were in both the theatrical and extended cuts were simply bizarre, most notably a chase through the forest that I believe was supposed to be a hallucination, but which the film never makes fully clear. It felt like it was there only to create a "scary" moment in a film, and it doesn't really work. Likewise, a big reveal is almost ruined by one of the most inopportune musical choices I've ever heard. Much like The Faculty, this is really a film that should've been going more for paranoia than visceral thrills and chills. After all, the real horror of its main inspiration, The Stepford Wives, wasn't the fact that all the women in the town were robots, but rather, the fact that they had been used to replace the human wives of the men who run the town, and what this says about those men. The parts about the Blue Ribbons' mind-control chips going haywire when they get horny not only opens up plot holes (they're hormonal teenagers, so you'd think that this would be one of the first things the programmers accounted for), it also seems to exist for little purpose beyond providing an excuse for them to violently attack people on occasion. This is a big part of why Gavin was my favorite character in the film: once he finds out he's next in line for being Blue Ribbon-ized, he starts freaking right the hell out, ready and willing to go to extremes to save himself from what horrors may await him. It was with his panic that the film reached its height in terms of real stakes, tension, and scares.

The Bottom Line:

If you're gonna watch this, seek out the extended cut on your friendly neighborhood torrent site. The DVD/Blu-Ray is only worth getting for the excellent director's commentary going into detail on how this film got trashed in the editing room, as the theatrical cut is otherwise almost worthless. In its originally intended form, it's a film that still has its flaws, but shines through anyway on the strength of its story and characters. An often-overlooked gem that fans of '90s horror should definitely check out.

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