As many before me already have noted, Disturbia -– newly released on DVD -- is Rear Window for the You Tube generation, a clever commingling of a classic Hitchcockian concept (a homebound voyeur suspects a neighbor of homicidal activity) with more state-of-the-art electronic gizmos (camera phones, iPods, X-Boxes, you name it, they got it) than you’d find in a Best Buy advertising flyer. But wait, there’s more: Director D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea) and scriptwriters Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth also add to mix a heaping helping of "The Boy Who Cried Murder," a Cornell Woolrich short story that has inspired everything from Sudden Terror (a.k.a. Eyewitness, a nifty little 1970 thriller with a post-Oliver! Mark Lester) to, no kidding, The Boy Who Cried Werewolf. (Not incidentally, Woolrich also wrote the story on which Alfred Hitchcock based Rear Window.)
Shia LaBeouf continues his current winning streak with an engagingly callow and effectively skittish turn as Kale, a troubled teen-ager who’s outfitted with an ankle-bracelet monitor and sentenced to house arrest after he punches out a thoughtless teacher (who, truth be told, really deserves it). Left to his own devices during the long summer days after his hard-working mom (Carrie-Anne Moss of Matrix fame) pulls the plug on his video games, Kale amuses himself by spying on neighbors.
At first, he spends most of his time with his binoculars focused on Ashley (Sarah Roemer), a sassy teen hottie who just moved into the house next door, where she spends most of her time swimming and sunbathing and swimming and sun... well, you get the idea.
Eventually, however, Kale turns his attention to the nocturnal activities of Mr. Turner, a neighbor who just might be a psycho killer. Actually, there’s never any real doubt that this guy is accumulating corpses, since he’s played by David Morse, an actor whose specialty is soft-spoken, spooky-eyed menace whenever he isn’t in a movie directed by Sean Penn. But Kale has a hard time convincing anyone other than his best buddy Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) and his new sweetie Ashley (who, fortunately, is a good sport about being the object of Kale’s surveillance) that Turner is the chief reason why several local women have gone missing.
I appreciate the way Caruso refrains from rushing things while revving up the plot mechanics during the first half of Disturbia. We get just enough time to develop a sympathetic interest in Kale –- while, of course, he is developing an attachment to Ashley – and that makes the movie all the more pleasurably suspenseful and anxiety-inspiring when the thriller elements kick in big time. I would be willing to bet that at some point during post-production – or maybe even pre-production -- the suits suggested Caruso delete the prologue sequence that begins with Kale and his devoted dad (Matt Craven) bonding during a day of fishing, and ends with the unfortunate father dying in an auto mishap. (“Gee, D.J., couldn’t you just refer to the death so you can get the story started quicker?”) But I’m glad the prologue is there. Not because the death is shocking, because it isn’t. (Trust me: In this kind of movie, people never enjoy that level of happiness very long.) But the scene achieves a surprisingly potent emotional impact, and goes a long way toward enabling the audience to accept some fairly extreme behavior – like punching out teachers, or spying on neighbors – that might otherwise be fatally off-putting.
Disturbia might have been even more fun had Caruso and his scriptwriters allowed Kale to discover other dark secrets in sunny suburbia. (He does get a glimpse at adultery in the house across the street, but that’s not quite enough. James Stewart enjoyed much greater variety in his voyeurism throughout Rear Window.) Still, the movie pushes all the right buttons when it comes to ratcheting up suspense, and the well-cast supporting players are persuasive even when, as in Morse’s case, they’re not exactly stretching themselves.
I have to admit that, when I first heard about Disturbia, I figured, hey, I’ll wait for this one to be released on video. If you felt the same way -- well, like me, you waited too long. Take my advice: Don’t wait any longer.