Hitchcock, eat your heart out … with a fork and knife! Television director D.J. Caruso hits hard with “Disturbia,” a “Rear Window” throwback that doubles as a teen thriller, in which the killer’s body count is rivaled only by Apple product placements.
Kale Brecht (Shia LeBeouf) is a disaffected everyteen who has just been sentenced to three months under house arrest. Sporting a GPS-equipped ankle bracelet, Kale tries to make the most out of his imprisonment until his mother (Carrie-Anne Moss, of “Matrix” fame) decides to pull the plug on his television, as well as several other modern conveniences he can’t seem to live without. While he accessorizes like Martha Stewart, he lacks her household savvy. His boredom, then, escalates until he finds himself passing the time by spying on the neighbors.
He soon begins to suspect that one of these neighbors, Mr. Turner (David Morse), is a serial killer connected with the recent disappearance of a local woman. With the help of two friends, he keeps Turner under close surveillance in order to sleuth out his all-too-coincidental links to a series of Texas homicides.
If you’re expecting a less-competent, teenworthy adaptation that is still pretty faithful to the Hitchcock classic, don’t. Caruso may not be entirely original, but he manages to breathe life into an otherwise vapid teen movie with the infusion of the post-1960 slasher canon. The first half plays somewhat like what you would expect from a version of “Rear Window” that is aimed at a young, hi-tech audience. Caruso does, admittedly, exchange much of the Hitchcockian device for cheap thrills, but that isn’t to say that “Disturbia” is without a brain. In fact, our antagonist has plenty to spare.
“Disturbia” posits itself in middle-of-somewhere suburbia, as the title suggests. In the tradition of realist horror, Caruso capitalizes on relocating his horror into small-town America — an anonymous, controlled suburban refuge that begs to be shaken up. Caruso does well in establishing the “filmula rasa” upon which he will spatter the blood of his victims. Considering that “Rear Window” was released in 1954 — a time when the film industry was in competition with the emergence of television as a mass medium — part of Caruso’s strength (as a director of television, especially) is his complicity with a very different, contemporary television.
Whereas the different windows in Hitchcock’s apartment complex play like separate screens within a film, “Disturbia” addresses this voyeurism with an updated approach, in the vein of a post-9/11 reality TV mindtrip (“The world is in heightened state of paranoia,” Turner reminds us). The film plays less on the subtleties of Hitchcock’s horror and more on the intertextuality of Hollywood cinema, drawing from films like “Silence of the Lambs,” “The Shining,” “Psycho,” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
LeBeouf gives a surprisingly solid performance, toggling smoothly between the many genres of the teen flick. Thriller veteran David Morse is a decent watered-down substitute for Anthony Hopkins, although without any chainsaw-wielding, shower-stabbing cannibalism. And if you ignore a couple of plot holes and the itch to see a motherly Carrie-Anne whip out some bullet-time, the film actually lives up to the expectations of a smart teen thriller.
That said, “Disturbia” does set up some problematic expectations as a Hitchcock remake; until the last 40 minutes, it’s hard to tell what it is and what it isn’t. It has all the elements of your typical teen movie — the best friend, the staple girl-next-door love interest, the team of youngster sleuths that are in over their heads, and an overwhelmingly predictable plot — but it is not a Hitchcock imitation. It is a good thrill, and it may even be a treat for the young horror enthusiast, but it probably isn’t the best date movie. I found that out the hard way.