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The Disturbing Thing About 'Disturbing Behavior' Is That It Makes Respectability Seem Almost Desirable.

By Stacey Richter

AUGUST 3, 1998:  THERE'S SOMETHING VERY wrong with the high-school kids of the sleepy, whitebread community of Cradle Bay. The students there have been consuming sci-fi and horror movies from the 1970s. They've gorged on these films until their very being has become so bloated with details from A Clockwork Orange, The Stepford Wives, and Dawn of the Dead that all they can do, when spoken to, is turn their head slowly and say, in perky voices, "Let's all go to the yogurt shoppe!" It's chilling.

The motherlode source of rip-off for Disturbing Behavior, though, is The Stepford Wives, a 1975 made-for-TV thriller based on the novel by Ira Levin. The Stepford Wives was re-broadcast on late-night television for years, but for some reason has been unavailable on video until recently. It's a truly disturbing story about a sleepy, upper-class town where the men have their wives--who have become interested in that pesky women's lib--killed and replaced by robots who love to cook casseroles and do whatever their husbands tell them and dress in frilly, low-cut shirts like gals in douche ads. There was a lot that was creepy and timely about The Stepford Wives, but what seemed especially powerful about it was the idea that the husbands of Stepford wanted these robots-things to be their lifelong mates. (Much is made of the secret society that plans this mischief.) They preferred sexy robots to real women.

This not only tapped into the spirit of the 1970s, when women were assuming new roles that sometimes intimidated men (though the Stepford wives don't do anything as radical as work; they were still mostly wives), it still has a kind of resonance today. There are plenty of perfect wives on TV commercials commiserating about the difficulties of getting whites really white, and I think most women are at some level still a bit taken aback by the disparity between these images of femininity and the dinginess of the real world. Good horror movies tap into the fears and tensions that are already floating around in people, or in society--suspicion between genders, the fear of being alone, a disgust in reproduction, shame about sex, a horror of our unconscious selves, even fear of pets.

Though Disturbing Behavior uses The Stepford Wives for a template (they ought to pay royalties), it doesn't tap into anything horrible. The villain isn't even scary, because he doesn't have a reason for wanting to make bad high-school kids into zombie-like good ones. It's like Stepford Wives without the family tension.

Like The Stepford Wives, Disturbing Behavior begins when a family, featuring nice kids Steve (Jimmy Marsden) and his forgettable little sister, move to Cradle Bay. There they find a clique of antiseptic high schoolers who belong to the Blue Ribbon Club. Blue Ribbon kids dress neatly and are way into pep rallies and bake sales. They study together and eschew drugs. Joe falls in with some more normal, outcast guys who smoke weed and talk about masturbation. All's well until his loser buddy Gavin (played by DiCaprio clone Nick Stahl, the best thing about this movie) gets "changed" into one of those "things." He starts grooming and hanging out with the homogenized good kids at the yogurt shoppe. Clearly this evil must be stopped.

The problem with Disturbing Behavior (though there's more than one) is that there isn't really a villain. Evil just sort of floats around without meaning anything. There's a school counselor who also does a little brain surgery on the side--he's the technician. He pushes the idea of technologically upgraded kids. (The process by which he does this is the one from Clockwork Orange, where they hold your eyes open and bombard you with images. These images seem to be from a Nike ad, and feature hellish words like achieve!) Aren't the parents the best candidates to be the brokers of betrayal and tension? I kept waiting for the scene where the intergenerational tension heats up, but all that happens is that Steve's dad won't let him talk about his brother's suicide. Shucks. Where's the rebellion?

With the parents curiously absent from all the drama, Disturbing Behavior fails to stir up even the slightest amount of paranoia. The feeling is like: "Hey, our parents sort of want us to become zombies, but they don't really mean anything bad by it!" It degenerates into a sort of action/horror movie where the Blue Ribbon kids are the bad zombies, who must be fought off with soundwaves, which the crafty, brilliant janitor bravely engineers. Ugh.

The odd thing is that this film is so unsuccessful it finally makes it look fun to be a Blue Ribbon zombie. "It's not like you think!" says Gavin, who certainly looks better with his hair combed. "I've never felt so alive!"

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