A smart teen thriller that ably mixes suspense and adolescent melodrama, Disturbia boasts an articulate script and nuanced performances. Though Rear Window's voyeuristic premise provides the inspiration, this Paramount/DreamWorks release adds hints of Kubrick-ian chills and nicely understated insights into the tumultuous lives of young people to add freshness to a conventional horror set-up.
When Disturbia opens on April 13 in the States, it will be fighting for space in a theatrical landscape overrun by thrillers: Sony's Perfect Stranger will arrive the same weekend, and New Line's Fracture and Sony's Vacancy open the following Friday.
Aiming for a younger audience than its competition, this DJ Caruso-directed film will try to ride positive reviews, an easily marketable hook, and the growing visibility of star Shia LaBeouf to strong mid-range business.
As the film reaches the rest of the world over the summer, Disturbia may struggle to find a foothold in markets that will be at that point inundated by celebrity-powered Hollywood blockbusters. Ironically, the success of one of those summer blockbusters - Transformers, which also stars LaBeouf - could help Disturbia's profile, but probably not until the DVD release.
Still reeling from the death of his father a year earlier, 17-year-old Kale (LaBeouf) has grown sullen and combative. When a fistfight with a teacher leads to him being sentenced to house arrest, Kale must spend the summer within the confines of his home or risk being sent to prison. He has an electronic monitor strapped to his leg that will send a signal to the police if he leaves the premises.
That difficult arrangement proves even more challenging when Ashley (Roemer), a sexy young woman, moves in next door and Mr Turner (Morse), a menacing neighbour, starts behaving mysteriously, leading Kale to think he could be the unidentified serial killer who's recently slain several people in the area.
With its confined protagonist investigating a suspicious neighbour, Disturbia obviously recalls director Alfred Hitchcock's classic Jimmy Stewart thriller Rear Window. But Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth's script shrewdly transplants the story line to the adolescent misery of staid suburbia, keying in on the alienation and helplessness most teenagers feel as they struggle with hormones and broken homes.
For the first half of the film, director DJ Caruso (The Salton Sea, Two For The Money) emphasises the character drama, especially Kale's still-lingering anger and guilt over his father's death. (Although it wasn't his fault, Kale was behind the wheel during the car crash that claimed his dad.)
Particularly poignantly, Kale's house arrest occurs during the summer months when most young people are out enjoying their freedom from school; instead, he's mostly home alone with his thoughts while his mom (Carrie-Anne Moss, giving a sharp performance in an underwritten role) is off working.
As opposed to most teen-centered studio movies, Disturbia presents a group of young people who actually act like young people. LaBeouf and Roemer both deliver layered, likeable performances, playing regular kids who try to shield their insecurity (and mutual attraction) with quips and attitude.
But unlike so many recent cinematic teenagers, especially the ones at the mercy of serial killers, Kale and Ashley feel vulnerable and smart, rather than shallow and hip.
Landon and Ellsworth's dialogue features the prerequisite pop-culture riffing and glib putdowns, but they also allow for some disarmingly sincere moments between their characters, which gives the proceedings a basis in reality that helps make the later scare scenes additionally nerve-jangling.
LaBeouf is a sweet, charismatic screen presence while still suggesting Kale's social awkwardness and barely-concealed hostility. And Roemer plays the perfect teenage crush, using her budding sexuality to torment Kale as she simultaneously reveals the character's brains and ennui.
Because the film-makers invest even bit parts with empathetic moments, Jose Pablo Cantillo transforms a seemingly one-joke character of the local cop into a pivotal supporting role that ends up factoring into a crucial scene near the conclusion.
Likewise, Morse projects an unsettling calm as the villain, eschewing hammy theatrics for a quiet understatement that, like just about everything else in the film, grounds the thriller in an everyday believability.
Admittedly, the film's overall structure follows a conventional thriller narrative, and Caruso and his screenwriters don't exert much energy trying to reinvent that particular wheel. (Those familiar with Rear Window will be able to predict a few of the story beats with confidence.)
But even when Disturbia transitions into a cat-and-mouse chase between our young hero and the killer, the film-makers deliver their shocks with skill and restraint, building the intensity and anxiety gradually.
Some of the late-reel jolts are a bit derivative of Kubrick's The Shining, but because Caruso is never needlessly gratuitous, Disturbia maintains a heightened sense of claustrophobic dread throughout.
Like its attractive young leads, Disturbia may be a tad self-conscious, but its brains and sincerity make it undeniably fresh and appealing.
Cold Spring Pictures
Montecito Picture Company
E Bennett Walsh
from a story by Christopher Landon
Jose Pablo Cantillo