If a major studio release clocks in at 85 minutes or less, there is a strong chance that it has been tampered with by the studio. Disturbing Behavior serves as a cautionary tale for this scenario: take off the opening and end credits and you have a feature that limps to the 75-minute mark. It would later be revealed that nearly a half hour’s worth of scenes was lopped off at the last minute by MGM, thus giving the narrative flow a notable choppiness and rendering the characterizations nonexistent. That said, the resulting film has issues that go deeper than studio tampering.
Disturbing Behavior starts with a new kid in a new town: Steve (James Marsden) is still reeling from the suicide of his brother when he has to deal with a move and a new school. He is befriended by misfit-rebel Gavin (Nick Stahl), who offers a jaundiced view of the “Blue Ribbons,” the too-perfect clique that rules the school. Gavin has a paranoid theory that smarmy psychologist/surgeon Dr. Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood) is using his skills to turn troubled kids into good citizens. When Gavin has that kind of transformation, Steve teams up with Gavin’s sexy pal Rachel (Katie Holmes) to find out what’s going. They will discover that Gavin’s paranoid theories were right — and the “Blue Ribbons” are both less perfect and more dangerous than anyone knows.
Even casual viewers will notice the heavy-handed re-editing at play in Disturbing Behavior: there are abrupt jumps in time, sudden shifts of attitude for characters, a general feeling that the plot is hurtling forward too quickly and an obnoxious “surprise ending” that feels like a studio note brought to life.
That said, the untampered-with parts of Disturbing Behavior have their own problems: Scott Rosenberg’s script is extremely derivative of other sources — The Stepford Wives, John Saul’s novel Creature, etc. — and often undercuts its horror elements with a campy, cynical approach. It also has the most overbearingly “hip” teen dialogue this side of Juno. The direction by X-Files vet David Nutter gives the film a polished look and some nice moments of creepy atmosphere but it feels like he couldn’t decide if he was making a teen horror satire or a straight horror flick. He splits the difference, which gives the movie a schizoid tone.
On the plus side, Disturbing Behavior has a good cast that tries its best to invest in the material. Marsden and Holmes are likeable despite affected characterizations (the script has Holmes constantly using “razor” as a slang term) and Greenwood is good enough to create a sly performance that works in both the scary and campy moments. Stahl goes for broke as the rebel: his commitment is admirable but Nutter probably should have reigned him in a bit. Steve Railsback also pops up in a too-brief role as a shady sheriff. The one flat note is a shockingly bad performance by the usually more reliable William Sadler as a janitor with a secret: he wildly overacts his oddball character, complete with vocal affectations that are like nails on a chalkboard.
In short, the finished version of Disturbing Behavior is muddled due to studio interference — but the parts of the original version that shine through suggest the film was muddled at the conceptual level before the executives had their way with it.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory recently revived this title for blu-ray in a nice catalog title-style edition. The HD bump it receives here brings out the details in the frequent night photography and shadowy interiors. Both 5.1 and 2.0 lossless stereo tracks are included: the 5.1 was used for this review and gives a decent level of depth to the soundscape.
This disc also carries over the extras from the old MGM DVD of this title, namely a commentary track and a set of deleted scenes. The commentary is a solo track by Nutter, who discusses the motivation behind his directorial choices, relates his experiences working the actors and points out the many places where scenes were deleted. 24 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes are included: highlights include more romance between Marsden and Holmes as well as a different, more dramatic ending. The original theatrical trailer rounds things out.