Monday, July 3, 2023

Dawson's Clockwork Orange

As the runes predicted, the time has come to pass: '90s theatrical horror movies I once despised with my teenage might are now things I've come to enjoy with the same relish as a Snackwell's chocolate yogurt. Time does strange things to our tastes.

Quick Plot: Stoner Gavin is out for a walk with his (thankfully safe) dog when he spots a curious scene: an alpha jock refusing his girlfriend's sexual advances, breaking her neck rather than emitting his...fluids. Cops arrive only to have one shot and the other (Steve Railsback!) letting the letter jacket wearing murderer off with warning. 

Meanwhile, the Clark family is settling into their new home in Cradle Bay, the kind of small town that also happens to only be accessible by ferry. A cloud hangs over the ridiculously good-looking family following the suicide of oldest brother Allen (Ethan Embry!), which has been hard on middle child Steve (James Marsden!) and youngest daughter Lindsay (Katharine Isabelle!!!).

Apologies for the constant exclamations, but good golly: there are a lot of pleasant faces here.

They're also all ridiculously good-looking and about 98% white, including the albino character played, of course, by a non-albino actor. 

We had a lot to learn in the '90s. 

Gavin takes Steve under his baggy shirt-wearing wing, introducing him to fellow outcast Rachel via a music video slow motion of Katie Holmes' bare midriff. Like any high school, Cradle Bay has its clearly defined social caste system and at the top are the Blue Ribbons, a "community group" who live clean. Their only vices seem to be the local froyo shop(pe) and the need to bully those who misbehave. 

Having witnessed one commit murder, Gavin is convinced that the Blue Ribbons, coached by school psychologist Dr. Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood!), are some kind of cult under serious, possibly surgically-induced mind control. He's right, of course, but that doesn't stop his parents from signing him up, leaving Steve to take up the fight. 

I first saw Disturbing Behavior right when it hit video rental, and as a surly teenage horror fan, it epitomized everything wrong with theatrical horror following the success of Scream. I lumped it in my brain with I Know What You Did Last Summer as one more example of Hollywood misunderstanding a genre I loved. Why was everyone so pretty? Why did everything always end happily? Who did they think they were scaring?

It's been, apparently, 25 long years since Disturbing Behavior quietly came and went (though you wouldn't know by the possibly Dorian Gray-ish skincare regime of James Marsden) and while the characters ARE still too pretty, I can now sit back and say that for its time, it's quite possible that Disturbing Behavior is actually kind of interesting. Scott Rosenberg's screenplay hints at some surprisingly layered questions about teenagers' relationships to sex, as well as well-meaning parents struggling to make the right decisions for their kids. Director David Nutter (who has since gone on to be one of the most successful television directors working today)  doesn't quite break any of the mainstream '90s molds with his choices, but there's a solid core here. 

Under 90 minutes (including a full 3 of those minutes devoted to the opening credits) there's clearly something missing. According to the internet, that's another whole half hour. Not shockingly, the studio wanted Disturbing Behavior to be a teen hit and did everything it could to, well, not allow that to happen. It's clear that storylines and character journeys are cut (the fact that we never see Gavin's dog again is one clue) and as a result, the movie just never really comes alive. 

That being said, I had fun with this movie. Sure, the utter '90sness of its needle drops and wannabe Williamson dialogue is razor on its own (note: no it's not; nobody said "razor" as a term of approval except for Katie Holmes in Disturbing Behavior) but nostalgia aside, there's some meat here. It's impossible not to compare this film to The Faculty, another Body Snatchers/Stepford Wives-inspired high school sci-fi horror of the era. The Faculty is a better movie, and more importantly, a more entertaining one, but weirdly, thinking about the two side-by-side, there's more substance to Disturbing Behavior, even if it never had a chance to be developed. 

I'm not ready to say Disturbing Behavior is a misunderstood wonder, but time has been oddly illuminating to it...or rather, what it could have been.

High Points

One of the biggest whiffs of '90s slashers was how scared they were of sex. Disturbing Behavior kind of naturally embraces that by how it positions the very idea of sexual impulses in the Blue Ribbons' chastity. Like everything else in the film, it's not fully realized, but I appreciate its attempts to at least acknowledge how complicated a role sex plays in the teenage brain (in this case, literally)

Low Points

It's almost cute today, but it really can't be understated much seeing Nick Stahl and Katie Holmes in bad kid costuming feels like dress-up

Lessons Learned

The real path to a janitor's heart is Kurt Vonnegut (so it goes)

Psychiatric hospitals had no sign-in policy in the 1990s

The higher the school spirit, the better the bake sale


I'm not calling Disturbing Behavior a good movie. It's just more fun than I remembered, and more interesting in its potential than I probably realized. If you enjoy messy '90s genre films, it's definitely worth a watch. You can find it streaming now on HBO Max (if it's still called that). You know. Razor. 


  1. I’ve gone through a similar transformation. All those 90s teen movies were beneath me in high school but now I absolutely love revisiting them and enjoying them for what they are.

  2. It's really fascinating. Part of it is certainly nostalgia, but there's more to it in that time has given us this new ability to experience some movies in a completely different space.