Most horror fans will agree that the genre experienced a bit of a lull in the nineties. Sure, there were some bright spots, like Event Horizon, Nightbreed, and Candyman, but much of the decade’s horror output was dedicated to high-gloss, hip-cast clones of Scream. Some of these too-cool, slick-and-glossy productions weren’t all that bad, though. Case in point – the 1998 sci-fi horror flick Disturbing Behavior.
Disturbing Behavior is about a young man named Steve Clark (James Marsden from the early X-Men movies and the Straw Dogs remake) who moves to the sleepy town of Cradle Bay, Washington with his family. Along with his little sister, Lindsay (American Mary’s Katharine Isabelle), Steve is sent to Cradle Bay High School, and the first friends he meets are a trio of metalheads named Rachel (Katie Holmes from Touched with Fire and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), Gavin (Bully’s Nick Stahl), and U.V. (Final Destination’s Chad E. Donella). Gavin shows Steve the ropes, pointing out all of the usual high school cliques in the process. Cradle Bay has the nerds, the skaters, and the gearheads, but the group that runs the school is called the Blue Ribbons. They’re the popular kids, the jocks and cheerleaders, but there’s also something sinister about them. Steve and his new friends soon uncover a plot to turn problem, “poorly behaving” kids into soulless Blue Ribbons. They also discover that they are next on the list to be transformed.
The making of Disturbing Behavior was reportedly a tumultuous affair, with director David Nutter (“Game of Thrones,” “Entourage”) butting heads with MGM studio execs at every turn. The screenplay, written by Scott Rosenberg (fresh off of writing Con Air), is a creative take on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers/The Stepford Wives motif updated for a teenage world. More than a half hour was trimmed from Nutter’s original cut and a new ending was tacked on, resulting in a film that was so far from the director’s vision that he considered having his name taken off of the finished product. He didn’t, and an unofficial “Director’s Cut” of the movie does exist with the excised scenes restored (most likely made by fans from the deleted scenes features on the DVD release). The fact that people care enough for there to be more than one version of Disturbing Behavior only goes to show that the film has grown legs of its own.
Although Disturbing Behavior gets lumped into the same bin with the late-nineties Scream clones (and rightfully so), it’s a low-rent one. At the time of filming, Katie Holmes (who figures most prominently on the promo posters despite having a second-tier role) was going strong on “Dawson’s Creek” and James Marsden’s star was rising from his role on the family drama “Second Noah,” but the rest of the younger actors were in the early stages of their careers – the most experienced and recognizable was Katharine Isabelle, who had toiled away as a child actor but had not yet broken through. Heartthrob Ethan Embry, hot off of his starring turn in Can’t Hardly Wait, pops in a few times, but his screen time is limited to a few flashbacks, as he plays Steve and Lindsay’s dead older brother. The rest of the kids in the film aren’t exactly nobodies, but they’re not marketable stars, either.
Now, the adults in the film are much more recognizable, particularly to horror fans. Steve Railsback from Lifeforce and Trick or Treats plays the town sheriff. William Sadler from The Mist and Machete Kills shows up as the kid’s only adult ally, a likeable janitor named Newberry. Steve’s mother and father are played by The Brood’s Susan Hogan and A Stranger Waits’ Terry David Mulligan, respectively. Last, but certainly not least, Dr. Caldicott, the purveyor of the evil plan in the film, is portrayed by Bruce Greenwood from Super 8 and Good Kill. Again, no name-above-the-title stars, but the grown-ups are more experienced than the kids.
The photography in Disturbing Behavior, provided by cinematographer John S. Bartley (Wrong Turn, Eight Legged Freaks), looks very much like all of the other nineties post-Scream horror movies. The nighttime scenes are dark and brooding, heavy on the blues and greys, while the daylight scenes are brighter, but very flat, so the whole thing has a very sterile, clinical look to it. It’s a good look, especially when combined with the MTV-style editing of Randy Jon Morgan (who primarily works in television on shows like “ER” and “Third Watch”), but it’s a look that dozens of other movies from the era also have. It works, but it doesn’t make the film stand out at all.
Also just like every other nineties post-Scream horror movies, Disturbing Behavior contains a whole lot of rocking music. The soundtrack features hits (of the time) by Phunk Junkies, The Flys, Eva Trout, and Treble Charger. There are also more “adult” songs peppered throughout, snippets of things like Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen” and Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You.” And, every once in a while, a classic rock riff will sneak its way in from Pink Floyd, Metallica, or even Vanilla Ice. And it’s all held together by a raging, guitar-stabby cinematic score from Mark Snow (who cut his teeth doing television movies, but is most notable for his work on “The X-Files”). The music is more than filler; it helps to tell the story, whether it’s the power ballad that blasts the first time that Steve lays eyes on Rachel, or when the kids race to escape a mental hospital to the beat of Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole SItta” (“Paranoia, paranoia, everybody’s comin’ to get me!”). It’s a soundtrack that is designed to sell albums, but it functions pretty well as musical accompaniment to the movie, too.
For as much as people complain about it, the decade of the nineties gets a bad rap when it comes to horror. One only needs to look at under-the-radar movies like Disturbing Behavior for proof.