There's no place like ho-hum
D.J. Caruso's Disturbia may seem like a teenage remake of Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) updated to allow for digital cameras and cellphones but other films figure as well: Tom Holland's Fright Night (1985), David Lynch's Blue Velvet released a year later, The Blair Witch Project (1999) among others. Nowadays you don't steal wholesale, you mix in borrowings from other pictures too--never mind that the result doesn't have the cheeky humor of Holland's stylish teen horror flick, the persuasiveness of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's pseudo-documentary, the surreal kick of Lynch's small-town noir, the elegance and control of Hitchcock's thriller, one of the greatest ever made.
It does start off as its own movie--a horrifying car accident; Kale, a troubled teen (Shia LaBeouf) under house arrest for punching a teacher; an electronic ankle bracelet enforcing Kale's confinement; Ashley, a beautiful next-door neighbor (Sarah Roemer), newly moved in; and Mr. Turner (David Morse), a quietly eccentric neighbor Kale suspects of being a serial killer.
Caruso's coy about admitting to having lifted from Hitchcock; the early scenes of house arrest are more Lynch than anything, everyday suburbia overlaid with so much boredom and stillness you understand when Kale starts to freak out a little, at one point running far enough that his bracelet light turns red (ten seconds and the police are called in). When Kale's attention eventually turns to Turner, Caruso suggests that Turner's cunning may be too much for Kale, as Turner introduces himself to Kale's mother Julie (Carrie Ann-Moss, who in the words of one teenager is "hot"), hence introducing the possibility that he'll be visiting the house more often--maybe become the youth's latest stepfather (Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955) anyone?).
That possibility is quickly dropped when Caruso goes into Blair Witch mode, with Kale's best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo as the token Asian sidekick) sneaking around Mr. Turner's property with a digicam. Which is a pity--I'd like to have seen how Kale's angst might develop when faced with a possible killer for a father (besides Laughton's film, there's Joseph Ruben's The Stepfather (1987) and Olivier's 1948 Hamlet--'fathers gone wrong' is a rich genre, when you think about it); but Caruso's all about easy thrills as we eventually find out; subtle psychological tension isn't exactly his cup of tea.
And it would still be okay, these borrowings--Quentin Tarantino among others makes a so-so career out of such. But the visual style is so obvious and uninspired--shaky-cam, loud music, thunder and lightning--that you can't help but think of Hitchcock and how he played with audience expectations. Hitchcock wasn't above making his hero Jeff (James Stewart) send not the Comic Relief but Lisa, The Love Interest (Grace Kelly--such was Hitchcock's parsimoniousness that Kelly was Relief and Interest) running straight into danger (more at stake, you see), cunningly photographing everything in static long shot (exactly the way Jeff would see it), inserting mercilessly extended footage of Jeff's anguish while Lisa is being assaulted (he has to cover his ears while we hear Lisa's screams in the distance), then having the temerity to play a sweet love song in the background.
Then there's the plot loopholes--why, if Kale has such trouble convincing the police that Mr. Turner killed Ronnie doesn't he mention he has footage of Ronnie running into Mr. Turner's house? Why does Ronnie pull such a stupid stunt afterwards (he explains doing what he did because he didn't want to "get into trouble"--which is such a lame excuse you wonder if perhaps he and Mr. Turner are in fact collaborators)? Why is Mr. Turner silly enough to transmit footage of Ronnie unconscious, possibly dead when Kale can record it, maybe even broadcast it on the internet?
Tiresome stuff, and perhaps I wouldn't be so annoyed if the movie hadn't shown so much early promise--Caruso's blessed with a sufficently clever premise (a young man under house arrest suspects a neighbor of murder), a topnotch cast, and even young actors with some talent. Ann-Moss has the stricken gravity of her Trinity in the Matrix movies, and Morse shows us why he's such a terrific character actor--he plays up not the creepiness, but the affability, the charm, the sheer plausibility (at one point asked about the stench in the garage, he explains to a police officer "Thought I'd save a few steps and get it off the road myself") of man carefully living a quiet life.
LaBeouf is a pretty face, much as, say, Kyle MacLachlan was in Lynch's film, though Caruso largely uses LaBeouf in obvious ways, pointing up his boyish charms and teen angst instead of (as Lynch did) presenting paradigmatic innocence ready for corruption. Roemer is no Grace Kelly even if you keep one eye closed and afflicted the other with nearsightedness but she's an engaging enough presence, and she has a way with dialogue (looking at Kale's binoculars and listening to his explanation of what he's looking for, she replies "Where are the coffee and doughnuts? You can't have a stakeout without coffee and doughnuts").
But the script (by Christopher Landon (based on his story) and Carl Ellsworth (a TV and suspense flick veteran)) doesn't go beyond quick sketches and stereotypes. Accused by Ashley of peeping her, Kale explains "I've seen a lot; I mean, not like that…you're reading substantial books…so you look out the window all the time like I do, only you're looking at the world you know? Trying to figure it out, trying to understand the world. Trying to figure out why it's not in order like your books." It would have been nice of Landon and Ellsworth to have Ashley point out that she was reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, that life in that novel isn't exactly "in order" as Kale assumed. They might even have had something happen between Ashley and Mr. Turner to justify inserting the novel in the picture--but no, the filmmakers don't seem to want to work that hard.
In Rear Window Lisa points out to Jeff the full implications of what he's doing ("We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known"); in Disturbia Ashley raises the question then drops it without much discussion, much less thought. In Rear Window, the suspect, Lars Thornwald (a magnificent Raymond Burr) is no smirking, confident killer but a troubled man, fearful of exposure--you know he's capable of anything because he's scared to death of being found out. He's another of Hitchcock's guilt-haunted men, and such is the empathy Hitchcock builds around him you feel for him even as you wish for his capture (no such complex web of emotions surround Morse's otherwise stylish performance). Disturbia is a passable--sometimes less than that--way of wasting two hours, I suppose, but if my next-door neighbor happened to be playing Hitchcock's masterpiece on his DVD player, I'd rather stay at home and peep through his window.
(First published in Businessworld, 9/7/07)