July 24th, 1998
is when SAVING PRIVATE RYAN came out. I wrote about that a while back. Here’s a review of a different movie that came out that day.
I don’t consider DISTURBING BEHAVIOR a very good movie, and I’m not aware of anybody it’s meaningful to, but in a certain way it’s a decent time capsule of where we were at in 1998. The gloomy drizzle and ferries made me wonder if fictional Cradle Bay, filmed in Vancouver, B.C., was meant to evoke Washington state. It would be fitting, because it sort of plays like the disaffection of the so-called grunge scene trickling out in late ’90s teen sci-fi, like chemicals that were spilled into a sewer, overflowed into the Sound, made their way into the plants growing along the shore and were eaten and shat out by animals.
Steve (James Marsden, ACCIDENTAL LOVE) is the new kid in school, moved into town eight months after the trauma of his brother (Ethan Embry from CAN’T HARDLY WAIT)’s suicide. In the cafeteria, stoner outcast Gavin (Nick Stahl, MIRRORS 2) appoints himself rope-show-er and gives him an elaborate take on that time honored teen movie trope, the explanation of all the school’s cliques. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg (BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, CON AIR, ARMAGEDDON, HIGHWAY, PAIN & GAIN) seems to be going for a cross between Shakespeare and Daniel Waters, in my opinion missing the mark on both. He uses a structured format where Gavin lists the awkwardly named groups (“Blue Ribbons,” “Micro Geeks”), describes them, says their “drug of choice,” and then his spaced out sidekick U.V. (Chad Donella, FINAL DESTINATION, TAKEN 3) makes a rhyme about what kind freak they are: “freaks who fix leaks,” “freaks who squeak,” “freaks in sneaks.”
At this point I remembered why I hated this movie so much 20 years ago. You rarely hear dialogue this violently self conscious. Though he misquoted it, Roger Ebert was right in his review to single out the horribleness of “Self-mutilate this, fluid boy!”, one of the first couple lines in the movie. And at least I could decipher that one in context. I can’t say the same for non-sequitur puns like “Keggers can’t be choosers” and “The troops shall set you free,” or the insult “Fail to be a tumor, Gavin.”
Apparently that’s a thing they say:
But I don’t get it. Let me give you the whole conversation to give you an idea just how fucking clever these characters believe they are:
Gavin: “Wow. Appropriate sparks are flyin. Somebody cue power ballad.”
Rachel: “Fail to be a tumor, Gavin.”
Gavin: “What do you say we cruise town, chase a case, hit the bluff and drink some beer? You know, consecrate Stevie Boy’s arrival to this new and pathetic tank town. You down?”
Rachel: “Sounds razor.”
It occurs to me now that it probly had a more heightened tone in Rosenberg’s imagination, but director David Nutter (CEASE FIRE, TRANCERS 4) goes for clashingly moody atmosphere and naturalistic performances. I’ve always thought Katie Holmes (who plays nose-pierced “Cook’s Ridge trash” Rachel) was a good actress who deserved better material, and here she’s deeply inhabiting the disillusionment of a girl who has to use slang that would fit better in a post-apocalyptic rollerblading movie, while talking to a guy who is both the one with the most flowery, stylized speeches and the one who meets a guy named “Steve” and decides he’s going to call him “Stevie Boy.”
A director/writer mismatch would also explain the awkwardly matter-of-fact presentation of odd social conventions like there being a clique called “Motorheads” – “All the world’s a gasket and a lube job and a pack of Lucky’s” – who are outcasts because they’re really into cars. Even one of the teachers (Dan Zukovic, PUPPET MASTER 4) hassles a guy (Tygh Runyan, K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER) about it in class:
“Tell us why you’re late. Trouble with the camshaft?”
“Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the carburetor this morning.”
When that car kid joins the popular kids they celebrate by sledge hammering his sports car in front of everybody.
In what world are jocks against having a cool car like that? (And they better hope that’s not John Wick’s car.) My only guess is that it represents classism, that guys who wear Pennzoil hats represent the working class in this story. Or maybe it has some logic behind it in the sci-fi shit I’m about to explain to you, but that’s not enough. In this type of movie that’s trying to tap into teenage emotions it’s it’s so important to feel true, and to me this stuff does not at all.
It’s definitely using that cliche, left over from the ’80s counterculture, of the1950s white suburban lifestyle – Leave It To Beaver and shit – as the ultimate symbol for mindless conformity and oppressive cultural forces telling us how to live and what music to listen to and what not. The Devil with the smiling face and the apron. The Blue Ribbons are clean cut (the first one we see shames a girl for having a tattoo) and every day they hang out at what they call “the yogurt shop” (specifically Roscoe’s Yogurt Shoppe) which basically looks like an Arnold’s or Mel’s Diner type place where they sit at a booth together drinking I guess yogurt in glasses like you’d have a malt in.
But the premise is pretty appealing to me – it’s mad scientist mind control plot as metaphor for high school identity struggles. The Blue Ribbons are the letterman’s jacket wearing athletes and cheerleaders who take part in Dr. Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood, PASSENGER 57)’s program that’s passed off as “a motivational workshop, really” but is actually an experimental surgery. They’re clean cut conformists who turn their noses up to others unless they’re trying to recruit them. They’re praised and covered for by the school and the sheriff (Steve Railsback, LIFEFORCE).
The covering is necessary because there’s a flaw in their programming that causes them to flip out when they get horny. “Toxic Jock Syndrome,” Rachel calls it. The dudes have violent, even murderous rampages, while a girl named Lorna (Crystal Cass, AMERICAN DRAGONS) sent to seduce Steve, finds herself bashing her head against a mirror repeating “Wrong. Bad.” over and over again. So the metaphor covers guys getting away with sexual aggression but also sexual repression being pushed onto girls. In the opening scene one of the Blue Ribbons (Tobias Mehler, Tommy Ross from the TV version of CARRIE) murders his date (Natassia Malthe, ELEKTRA) for/while giving him a blowjob. As a judgmental square he also shames her for having a tattoo. In another rampage a guy named Chug (A.J. Buckley, Danny Crowe from Justified) pulls out a random dude’s nose ring.
Gavin, of course, is established as the ultimate stoner outcast who believes something nefarious is happening in town so that he can (SPOILER) get snatched and show up to school as a totally different person the next day, disavowing his old ways, sitting with the popular kids, not wanting to talk to Steve or Rachel. So it’s also about how kids try to fit into different social circles and sometimes lose friends over it. Because it’s personal to them this sudden transformation is a little scarier than the guys flipping out and beating people up in grocery stores.
And the whole school seems completely flabbergasted to see a burnout show up all cleaned up, even though it’s happened to this entire clique over the past two years, including the car guy just the other day. I guess they have short memories.
As you may have heard, parents just don’t understand. They don’t get that the freaks aren’t all so bad and the jocks aren’t all so good. I like that Steve’s parents (Terry David Mulligan [the president in NICK FURY: AGENT OF SHIELD] and Susan Hogan [THE BROOD, ROLLING VENGEANCE]) seem well intentioned and understandably worried about him after losing one son. So it makes sense when they give in to pressure to put him in the program (even moreso if you watch the deleted scenes where Dad is very torn about it, Mom finds a gun in his room, and we learn that his brother’s suicide was by gun). It definitely draws a parallel to well-meaning parents who don’t understand their “weird” kids and unwisely send them to a boot camp or a gay conversion therapist or some bullshit like that.
There’s only one adult who gets it, and he’s an outcast too: the mumbly, seemingly crazy janitor Mr. Newberry (William “Blood Bank” Sadler, TRESPASS). He passes as a weirdo obsessed with killing rats, but this turns out to be kind of a cover and he’s using extermination technology to try to counteract the brainwashing. Steve uncovers Newberry’s secret smarts by spotting a copy of Slaughterhouse Five in his pocket.
At the end Newberry (SPOILER) pulls a pied piper move where he runs all the Blue Ribbons off a cliff, his last words an out of the blue Pink Floyd The Wall quote. And then Steve saves the day by fist fighting the doctor and knocking him off a cliff. This is treated like a solution to the problem, but it seems to me like there’s a good chance nobody will understand what happened and it will go down as one of the biggest school massacres in history. Either way it’s gonna be a hell of a yearbook spread.
I have to wonder if there’s some significance to the last names Caldicott and Newberry being similar to the names of two prizes for excellence in children’s literature. Seems too odd to not be intentional, but then again I get stuck coming up with character names and end up looking at movie posters and CD liner notes and stuff. Maybe he was looking at a book shelf.
Katharine Isabelle has a pretty small role as Steve’s younger sister. It’s not her first movie, but it’s a few years before she became a lifetime horror star with GINGER SNAPS one, two and three (and BONES, the same tv movie of CARRIE that the other guy was in, FREDDY VS. JASON, SEE NO EVIL 2, etc.).
I’ve talked in other Summer of ’98 reviews about the influence The X-Files had on pop culture of the era. Unlike CAN’T HARDLY WAIT and SMALL SOLDIERS this one doesn’t have any direct references, but I do think the sight of an alien autopsy themed Operation game is a nod to Nutter having been the director of 15 episodes of The X-Files including “Little Green Men” and “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” He’d been a prolific TV director since the late ’80s whose previous genre work included episodes of Superboy and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures (!?) and the pilot of Space: Above and Beyond. He also directed four episodes (including the pilot) of Chris Carter’s X-related show Millennium.
The opening credits of DISTURBING BEHAVIOR already reminded me of The X-Files introduction before I realized that Nutter had brought along the show’s composer Mark Snow and director of photography John S. Bartley. And of course we’re dealing with a sci-fi idea that could’ve made for an episode, though maybe not one of the more memorable ones.
Gavin names Harvester of Sorrow and Language of the Mad as he and U.V.’s “music of choice,” and I have access to Google so I know those are Metallica songs. Rachel has NOFX and Alternative Tentacles stickers on her truck, and a poster for a Canadian band called Limblifter. The soundtrack is kind of alternative-y, I guess? Some band called The Flys that Wikipedia labels “post-grunge,” and Phunk Junkeez (“rap rock”) and Eva Trout (“alternative rock.”) But also a Scarface song. Wayne Newton, Barry Manilow and Olivia-Newton John to represent evil blandness.
There’s a sudden and prominent use of “Flagpole Sitta” by Harvey Danger, which had been out for a year and I think I thought it was pretty lame at the time. Now I gotta admit it’s a really catchy song and that band’s singer Sean Nelson has remained active in Seattle’s music and film scenes (he was film editor for The Stranger for years) and he seems like a cool guy. When the song was used as the theme for the British comedy Peep Show, Nelson called the show “the only pop culture item the song has been associated with that feels like a kindred spirit to the original attitude of the lyric.” So take that, DISTURBING BEHAVIOR running-away-from-the-mental-asylum scene.
According to Wikipedia, the released version of the movie is not Nutter’s cut, and he considered taking his name off of it. I doubt that would’ve fixed my problems with it, but within the 11 deleted scenes on the DVD are some story details that I can understand him not wanting to lose. The theatrical cut is only 83 minutes with credits! There’s also an original ending where the main teens face off on a ferry and Gavin gets shot. He stays alive long enough to mention his fondness for Trent Reznor. And it’s weird that no security or other passengers seem to check that part of the boat to see why there was a gun shot.
I guess that’s kind of a bleak ending, and it must’ve tested poorly, or maybe they were unhappy with it, so they went with one that’s more ridiculous (and therefore the one I prefer). If the changes were supposed to help the movie become a hit, it wasn’t enough – it opened at #7 under the fifth week of DR. DOLITTLE (but just about JANE AUSTEN’S MAFIA!) and ultimately only made about $2 million more than its $15 million budget.
Too bad, because maybe if it was a smash they could’ve made a sequel following up on that ending. It’s an epilogue taking place not in Cradle Bay, but some DANGEROUS MINDS style Rough Inner City School. And in walks the new substitute teacher, the somehow-survived-and-still-brainwashed Gavin. I guess he would try to continue the experiments while also trying to keep the kids out of gangs and visiting their parents at home to convince them not to drop out of school to work and stuff like that. Could be good.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.