The "___ from Hell" genre has remained dormant for years now, following a slew of entries during the 1992-1995 period (1992's "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," 1992's "Single White Female," 1993's "The Crush," 1993's "The Temp," 1995's "The Tie That Binds"). With the fill-in-the-blank already having been filled by babysitters, roommates, teenage neighbors, temps, and foster parents, the only logical next step is legal guardians.
Several years have distanced viewers from the once-hot formula, paving the way for "The Glass House," a tautly directed thriller from newcomer Daniel Sackheim. Despite following the inevitable basic outline of all "____ from Hell" pictures, "The Glass House" is a step above the norm because of the savvy intelligence screenwriter Wesley Strick (1998's "Return to Paradise") has brought to the story and characters. Always involving and not nearly as predictable as one might suspect, the biggest delight that comes from watching the film is following a central character that is not only worth rooting for, but uses her mind, rather than any sort of physical weapon, to overcome the predicament she has found herself in.
Ruby Baker (Leelee Sobieski) is a typical 16-year-old girl who finds herself in a not-so-typical situation following an unfortunate automobile accident that kills her parents (Rita Wilson, Michael O'Keefe). With their parents leaving Ruby and her 11-year-old brother, Rhett (Trevor Morgan), more than enough money to last them through their adult lives, they are sent to live with their former, very wealthy next-door neighbors, Terry (Stellan Skarsgård) and Erin Glass (Diane Lane). The Glass' home--a cliffside Malibu estate that is, fittingly, made out of glass--leaves Ruby and Rhett awestruck at first, and then increasingly suspicious and frightened. Since the Glass' have such a big house, why must Ruby and Rhett share a bedroom? Why are Terry and Erin always arguing into the late hours of the night? What is up with physician Erin's seeming dependency on the drugs she subscribes to her patients? And is there more than meets the eye behind the longing gazes Terry keeps making at Ruby?
"The Glass House" opens with a great scene that acts as ominous foreshadowing of things to come. As they watch a fun slasher movie called "Prom Nightmare" at the theater, Ruby and her friends delight in being scared, unbeknownst to Ruby that her own life is about to take a turn for the worst. As played remarkably well by Leelee Sobieski (2000's "Here on Earth"), currently one of the most talented young actresses in film, Ruby is a normal teenager who finds herself suddenly placed under frightening circumstances. She is resourceful, strong, and smart--three attributes you rarely ever find together in this genre. Sobieski is a bonafide star in the making, as you grow to care about her far more deeply than expected.
Ably supporting Sobieski are Stellan Skarsgård (1999's "Deep Blue Sea"), deranged and menacing as Terry Glass; Diane Lane (of this week's "Hardball"), bringing a tinge of added emotional depth to her unhinged role of Erin Glass; Trevor Morgan (2001's "Jurassic Park III") as Ruby's brother, Rhett; Bruce Dern (2000's "All the Pretty Horses"), memorable as the family's financial lawyer; and Kathy Baker (2000's "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her"), as a concerned social services worker.
The gloriously moody cinematography, by Alar Kivilo (2000's "Frequency"), and beautifully capacious production design, by John Gary Steele (2001's "One Night at McCool's"), create indelible characters of their own, particularly the central setting of the house, made completely out of glass.
As the film makes its way to the finish line, slowly building up momentum and quickly raising the stakes, "The Glass House" continues on its successful path with a conclusion that forgoes banality for a fairly unpredictable climax. "The Glass House" is a thrilling suspenser that wisely puts the lovely Sobieski front-and-center, where she belongs.
©2001 by Dustin Putman