It’s a hoary old cliché – the so-called somber suburbs are actually a hotbed of unfathomable evil. Along with the rampant adultery, everpresent pedophilia, tantamount teen criminality, and infinite unhappy marriages, the biggest stereotype remains the unknown killer next door. You know, the neighbor who’s too quite, keeping to himself and his locked up house in a way that suggests something must be up. Speculation turns to outright suspicion, and soon everyone within a two block radius is avoiding eye contact and wondering why he (or on rare occasions, she) is wearing such a subtle, sinister smirk. There have been lots of movies that have exploited this white flight fear mongering, from the appropriately named The ‘burbs to the terrific Tom Holland horror film Fright Night. Now comes the wonderful Disturbia, a movie that takes an old school Master of Suspense setting and tricks it out with all manner of high tech terrors.
Clearly coping the best bits from Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Rear Window, director DJ Caruso guides rising superstar Shia LaBeouf through the standard spook house situations. After the death of his dad, our sullen hero Kale gets three months house arrest for “an incident” at school. Hopelessly bored and restricted in his recreational options (Mom – Carrie-Ann Moss – has cut off the iTunes, and the Xbox 360 Live), he starts looking in at the houses on his street, including the one super hot chick Ashley just moved into. Their game of cutesy cat and mouse (and growing affection) is interrupted by the news that a slew of local girls have gone missing, and the suspect seems to be a middle aged man with a classic blue Ford Mustang sporting a dent in its fender – just like the car owned by Kale’s other neighbor, the menacing Mr. Turner. With the help of his best buddy Ronny, and the contributions of his new gal pal, our hero begins to suspect the worse.
Similar to the way Blade Runner effortlessly channels the archetypes of noir inside the wholly original world of a futuristic LA, Disturbia drops us smack dab in the middle of a quaint, Cornball, USA, cul-de-sac pulled directly out of a Spielberg spectacle and then paints in plenty of likeable logistical color to brighten the otherwise tired thriller genre. Caruso, who’s been connected to some interesting blips on the commercial cinema radar (The Salton Sea, Taking Lives) really had his work cut out for him here. The slightest misstep, a minor crossover into full blown formulaic territory, and the “been there, done that’ brigade would have made its meaningful presence more than known. But to his credit, this director does what moviemaking experts before excelled at – creating sympathetic and identifiable characters that we come to care about, and then sticking them directly in harm’s horrifying way. Though the eventual tension is tweaked well into the patently obvious (our killer is an evident outsider), because we like our teen heroes, we fear for their eventual fate.
Kudos should be given to star LaBeof who has to walk the fine line between troubled adolescent and too slick Tinsel Town type. The opening tragedy helps establish his angst-driven dynamic, and the situation that sends him into house arrest is handled in a similarly strategic style. So we are ready to support our locked-up lead through any and all manner of misadventure. Wisely, Caruso takes his time getting to the good stuff, building a rapport between Kale and his best friend Ronny, and the flirtatious fascination with new babe Ashley. The director also sets up other ancillary situations (bratty neighbor boys pulling pranks on our house-bound hero, other nearby mischief) that provide their own sense of impending comeuppance. The finishing touch, the one element that really helps Disturbia work, is in the sly insinuation of evil. During the opening hour, snippets from news reports establish the disappearance of local ladies, and our adolescent trio does a lot of ‘Net snooping revealing nasty details of unexplained crimes.
When added together, they create an aura of dread that drives the film toward its last act permutations. The novel use of new tech toys (camcorders, cellphones, laptops, and other electronic goodies) allows the movie to open up, to take the terror beyond LaBeof and his backyard. Ashley follows our inferred fiend to the local hardware store, where his every move is documented by wireless slight of hand. Similarly, Ronny raids the bad guy’s home, looking for clues with a computer connection camera. Kale can then sit back, spy style, and hack through the visuals for the evidence he needs. Still, any film like Disturbia can’t get away with merely suggesting the scares. It has to get our lead directly involved in the fear. This is the moment where the movie either lives or dies, where it overcomes the trappings typically associated with this standard of story, or it sinks back among the rest of the derivative efforts that currently define the cinematic category.
To say that Disturbia shines during its finale would be an understatement. There hasn’t been this kind of controlled, bravura filmmaking in quite a long time. Caruso begins with the basics – lost friend, imminent threat, the return of the everpresent police (Kale has a tendency to trigger his anklet, meaning the cops are constantly coming over to see what’s up), the well meaning mom looking to protect her troubled son. Once LaBeof is required to take on the role of champion and defend his turf, everything begins to fall into place. The investigation of Turner’s house, the eventual discoveries there, the showdown to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, the conclusion of that clash – everything Caruso does zips along like a well-oiled movie machine. Sure, we might wonder why no one saw this killer’s obvious signs before, and some of the logistical elements (the guys underground catacombs are a little out of place) do push the boundaries of believability. But since it established a solid foundation at the start, we buy directly into all of Disturbia’s daft adeptness.
Of course, there will be critics, people who purposefully play wet blanket because they obviously adore the feeling of damp wool. And in all fairness, this is about as far from Hitchcock as any modern movie can get, unable to match the Master’s glorious stylized vision while readily referencing his wealth of procedure tricks. Others can crow about the lack of scares – but that’s really a red herring. Fear is not the major sensory response created by this genre. Instead, the thriller is supposed to produce edge of your seat shivers, the constantly shifting “unknown” working overtime to disorient and disturb you. Under those perceptive parameters, Disturbia works effortlessly. You can complain that it takes too long to get to its denouement, or that LaBeof and the rest of his Gen Xbox cast mates are given too much pre-pulse pound playtime to show off their cultural cliquishness, but the only real measure for this kind of movie is the creation of dread. In that regard, Disturbia delivers.