John Hughes meets Alfred Hitchcock meets the 21st century in "Disturbia," an adeptly crafted if not terribly original horror-thriller. The film's title rhymes with "suburbia," and that's not an accident. Director D.J. Caruso (2004's "Taking Lives
") and screenwriters Carl Ellsworth (2005's "Red Eye
") and Christopher B. Landon aim to take an honest look at the faux-cheerful facade of a dysfunctional neighborhood landscape before digging into darker territory with the suggestion that one of the inhabitants may be a serial killer. The two partsthe relatively light and comedic first half and the taut and violent second halfgo together quite well, hypnotizing the viewer into a sense of security before the floor is dropped out and lives become at stake.
A year after witnessing the death of his father in a freak auto accident, 17-year-old Kale (Shia LaBeouf) has found himself disinterested in school and getting into trouble at every turn. When a physical altercation with a snide teacher puts him on strict house arrest during his three-month summer vacation, Kale vegges out on a healthy diet of peanut butter, video games and television. When the latter two things are taken away courtesy of his concerned and fed-up mother Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss), he is forced to get more creative with how he spends his time.
Spying on his neighbors with binoculars becomes a favorite pastime, especially when the beautiful Ashley (Sarah Roomer) moves in next door with her family and Kale, of course, gets a front row seat to her bedroom window. Things appear less savory at the other house beside him, lived in by the creepy Mr. Turner (David Morse). All evidence points to him being a wanted serial killer involved in the disappearances of several redheads, but with a police-monitored ankle bracelet on and no one but Ashley and best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) to believe him, Kale is left vulnerable and without a solid plan to prove it.
The collective whole of "Disturbia" treads on exceedingly familiar territoryplot points and individual scenes from 1954's "Rear Window," 1988's "The 'Burbs," 1999's "American Beauty
," 1999's "The Blair Witch Project
," 2002's "Cherish," and 2004's "The Girl Next Door
," among many others, are borrowedbut as far as well-worn pastiches go, the film is smarter and a little deeper than expected. Kale's isolation from the outside world gradually evolves from being carefree fun to desperately boring, and the slow build as he whiles away his hours and is eventually drawn into snooping and secret surveillance helps to plant the film in the real world. Likewise, his attraction to Ashley nicely develops beyond that of a sexual crush when she turns out to be intelligent, savvy and complicated as a person. For a while, "Disturbia" doesn't even appear to be concerned with its thriller side as their romance takes center stage for some very sweet scenes right out of the teen movie handbook.
Once director D.J. Caruso finally reveals a convincing and horrifying threat in the form of Mr. Turner, whose level of villainy should be left for the viewer to discover, "Disturbia" takes a sharp turn toward tension and frights. One of the most effective sequences finds Ronnie digitally recording his break-in to Mr. Turner's garage to retrieve his cell phone. As Kale watches the video feed from his room, the film's suspense quotient rises through the roof when it becomes clear Ronnie is no longer alone. The last twenty to thirty minutes flirt with slasher movie conventions and, although narratively involving and shot stylishly by cinematographer Rogier Stoffers (2005's "Bad News Bears
"), they rely too heavily on coincidences in the plot and are admittedly by-the-numbers. The intended visceral response is also lessened by the PG-13 rating; as authentic as Caruso aspires for his picture to be, not embracing an R rating feels like a creative compromise.
In a layered and emotionally demanding performance as Kale, Shia LaBeouf (2006's "Bobby
") takes his first veritable step toward conceivably becoming a leading man on film. LaBeouf, not always the most subtle of performers and too often stuck in supporting roles that give him little to work with, is on his game here and then some. Portraying a sympathetic and flawed character who tries to do what's right even when he makes the wrong decisions, LaBeouf is on target throughout. As object of his affections Ashley, Sarah Roemer (2006's "The Grudge 2
") pleasingly digs beyond what could have just been an airheaded bombshell. As friend Ronnie, one supposes Aaron Yoo is supposed to be the comic relief, but he keeps it natural and doesn't go overboard. And in the two major adult roles, Carrie-Anne Moss (2004's "Suspect Zero
") essays the thankless role of Julie, Kale's mom, and David Morse (2006's "16 Blocks
") is supremely threatening without having to raise his voice or his heart rate as Mr. Turner.
"Disturbia" doesn't end on a jump scare or a false alarm or a suggestion that trouble is still afoot. Instead, it ends on a pair of characters together at last, in a moment of deserved contentment. This is how it should be, as director D.J. Caruso wisely sees his human figures as more than caricatures and knows that, by the end, the film has earned such a low-key conclusion. Had the rest of "Disturbia" defied these sorts of expectations, he might have been onto something really special. Instead, the movie is efficient, even thrilling in spurts, but lacking the invention and courage to genuinely surprise.