Every decade has its ups and downs when it comes to cinema, no matter the genre. Horror fans love to loft on high the output of the ‘30s & ‘40s, the ‘70s & ‘80s, and the more recent decades. More often than not, however, the 1990s are labeled as the worst decade for the genre. Not only that, but ‘90s horror tends to be written off as a whole, beyond a handful of undisputed classics. The purpose of Exhumed & Exonerated: The ‘90s Horror Project, is to refute those accusations by highlighting numerous gems from the decade. Stone cold classics will be tackled in this column from time to time, but its main purpose will be to seek out lesser-known and/or less-loved titles that I think deserve more attention and respect from fans. Let the mayhem begin!
Directed by David Nutter
Screenplay by Scott Rosenberg
Produced by Armyan Bernstein
Starring James Marsden, Katie Holmes, Nick Stahl, Bruce Greenwood, William Sadler, A.J. Buckley, Chad E. Donella, Katharine Isabelle, Ethan Embry, and Steve Railsback
Released on July 24, 1998
The kids are not alright. Steve Clark (James Marsden) is the new high school student in town. In the wake of a tragedy, his family has moved to the quiet community of Cradle Bay, Washington for an attempt at a fresh start. While Steve actually manages to make a few friends fairly quickly, something feels “off” about Cradle Bay. When something sinister lurking beneath the surface of the town’s façade of perfection, Steve must band together with new pals Rae (Katie Holmes), Gavin (Nick Stahl), and U.V. (Chad E. Donella) to put a stop to it before it’s too late.
This is a generic synopsis that applies to many a horror tale, mind you, but a sound one. There’s a reason it became a standard genre formula over the years: it works. If you can take such a tried and true blueprint and fill it with compelling characters and put an interesting twist on it all, then you’ve won half the battle already. If you then take the time to fill those roles with capable leads and good characters actors, then you are home free.
Part of the fun of this on-going series is not only revisiting old favorites, but also charting new territory for myself as a viewer. Unlike some of the other films that I have covered in this column so far, Disturbing Behavior is not one that I have been watching for 15+ years. Up until recently, I had never even seen it before. I’d always been aware of it, but had never gotten around to it.
At the time of release, I had initially pegged it as a teen drama along the lines of Cruel Intentions. I blame the poster. While there’s nothing wrong with a Cruel Intentions-esque film, such stories just weren’t up my alley 18 years ago. I was only 14 at the time, so juvenile dismissal of certain genres and subgenres was to be expected.
Disturbing Behavior is a film that absolutely deals with social cliques, youth rebellion, teenage awkwardness and uncertainty, and many other staples of adolescent behavior and development. All of these elements can be found in any number of teen-centric entertainments, from comedies to romances to thrillers. Coming of age can be a chaotic time in one’s life and as a result, there will always be plenty of subject matter to mine from such events, no matter what direction you take your story in.
So what direction did Disturbing Behavior take? It decided to take off jogging down the path previously trod by acclaimed authors Jack Finney (The Body Snatchers) and Ira Levin (The Stepford Wives). Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg (“Tales from the Crypt”, Con Air, Pain & Gain) deftly mixes the personality-changing and identity-finding aspects of teenage life and melds them with the identity-altering science fiction/horror of such tales, creating something here that is both familiar and fresh.
Aesthetically, the film should instantly look familiar to anyone who grew up in the ‘90s or has at least caught up with a lot of ‘90s genre properties in the decades since. Shot in British Colombia by director David Nutter, a veteran of both “The X-Files” and “Millennium”, the film very much carries the look of both shows. It also strikes a similar tone in many ways, mixing dark melodrama, black comedy, and classical genre elements. In many ways, it feels like the team behind “The X-Files” went off and shot an AIP-style teen genre picture between seasons. You’ve even got Mark Snow doing the score!
Cast-wise, everyone brings their A-game. James Marsden, always an undervalued actor in my eyes, makes for a great male lead here and Katie Holmes is just as good. They are backed by a showier performance by Nick Stahl, who has always proven to be a reliable character actor. Horror fans will also note an early role by Katharine Isabelle, who plays Marsden’s little sister. On the adult front, it’s hard to not love a film that casts the likes of Bruce Greenwood, William Sadler, and Steve Railsback. Greenwood shines in particular, relishing his sinister role as the architect of the evil goings on in Cradle Bay. It’s a stellar cast and with no one sleepwalking through their parts, they only further elevate already-winning material.
Now is the time where we address the elephant in the room. This film was cut down sizably from the director’s original version upon theatrical release. In its existing form, the film is still very good, but it’s easy to tell that a lot of character work and some necessary exposition have been excised. The short version of the story is simply that the studio took the film away from him after test screenings, ultimately cutting his 115 minute version down to a running time of 83 minutes. That’s over half an hour of film; no small amount of time.
The bad news is that neither the version on DVD nor on the Blu-ray contains a longer cut of the film. Most of the deleted scenes and the original ending are included on both discs, so you can at least get an idea of what is missing. Do you feel a “but” coming on? You should, because there is one.
For whatever reason, the longer cut actually DOES exist in a legally-watchable form. For whatever reason, the version of the film often making the rounds on TV channels such as Syfy and Comet is an alternate third cut. It runs a little over 100 minutes and manages to include all of the deleted scenes from the film’s home video release, with one lone exception. Instead of using Nutter and Rosenberg’s darker original ending, it retains the theatrical version’s final moment. For the record, while the theatrical ending is certainly more typical for a film of this type, I think it works in light of the film’s tone and subgenre.
If you are interested in finally seeing Disturbing Behavior for the first time, I’d suggest tracking down this TV version of the film first. Just search your listings regularly and you are sure to come across it, as it still plays regularly. I’d suggest those of you who caught and dismissed the film upon its theatrical or initial home video releases do the same. See this film and judge it as it was (mostly) originally meant to be experienced, not in its truncated form. Then, if you find that you’ve become a fan, scoop up that recent Scream Factory Blu-ray. While it does not include the longer cut (I suspect there were legal hurdles preventing this), it’s still worth owning.
Disturbing Behavior isn’t a genre-defining classic (few films are), but it is a very, very good film. The direction and atmosphere are great, the cast is top-notch, and the writing manages to put a new spin on a finely-tuned classic premise. If you are a fan of films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives, Strange Behavior, It Came from Outer Space, etc., then I think you’ll find that this one is right up your alley.
Up Next: The Sect (1991)