Reality Bites: The Disturbance (1990)

Dave is back in Florida and checking out an educational film that, years later, morphed into a slice of Southern sleaze and schizophrenia.

Recently released after a short stay in a mental institution, Clay (Timothy Greeson) is faced with trying to blend into the society that put him there. Living with his overbearing folks (Ken Ceresne and Carole – mother of Jeff – Garlin) isn’t making this readjustment any easier, but when he meets Susan (Lisa Geoffrion) at the beach, things immediately take a turn for the better. Unfortunately, the demons that haunt his schizophrenic mind are tough to keep at bay, and inevitably, this softly-spoken introvert begins a gradual descent into madness, that may well send him back to the facility from whence he came.

In his examination of regional horror, Brian Albright suggests that THE DISTURBANCE began life as early as 1985, when screenwriter Trent Meeks wrote and directed the educational film What’s Wrong with the Neighbour’s Son: Recognizing Schizophrenia in Your Family [1]. Then, three years later, wily producer and nightclub owner Ron Cerasuolo drafted the same cast in to shoot extra footage in order to expand the film to feature length, and to market it as a psychological horror movie.

At least that was the presumed version of events, because lead actor Greeson would disagree:

“To be clear, we did not shoot ‘extra footage’ for What’s Wrong with the Neighbour’s Son,” asserts the actor during a brief email interview. “We shot an entirely new film and storyline [The Disturbance] in mid-1988, where we inserted footage from Neighbour’s Son, but only where it fitted with the plot of the new movie. Besides, the actress who originally played Susan wasn’t available, so this presumed version of events just wouldn’t have been possible.”

Irrespective of the whys and wherefores, if you didn’t know any of the above trivia, chances are you probably wouldn’t notice – which is a great credit to first time feature director Cliff Guest. The Florida-born filmmaker rose to prominence in the mid-‘80s after winning MTV’s ‘Make My Video’ competition, where his version of Madonna’s True Blue got his foot in the door at Geffen Records. Sadly, The Disturbance would be his one and only venture into motion pictures, which is a shame as he does a great job with the new footage, shooting gorgeous nocturnal blues against shadowy sex scenes that raise the quality of this conjoined oddity immeasurably.

There’s plenty that doesn’t work, not least the lightweight quartet of Joel Jacob and Paul Pettitte music tracks that seem so at odds with the desperate tone of the film. They do, however, facilitate a scene in Cerasuolo’s nightclub, Flix, so it’s easy to see why they’re so prevalent. [2]

It’s Greeson’s film, though, and he’s truly magnificent, showing subtlety and nuance as life gradually becomes too much for him. The character is plagued by nightmarish visions that are littered with freakish make-up effects from Barry Anderson (Day of the Dead (1985)), which peak in a laundry room scene that features a zombie cat, before heading into a pulsating final third which virtually negates any criticism of the first hour.

The Disturbance is certainly not in the same league as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) or, for that matter, Confessions of a Serial Killer (1985). But as a low key, low budget, and low expectation support act, it would be the perfect appetiser for an evening inside the minds of some disturbed individuals.

Taking its video bow in America courtesy of VidAmerica in 1990 before a cut version landed here in the U.K. via 20:20 Vison, both incarnations seem to have attracted an alarming amount of unsubstantiated acclaim over the years. The website Trash Film Guru states that What’s Wrong with the Neighbour’s Son “won praise and accolades from most major psychological associations, was included as part of the curriculum in countless college courses and research and study groups, was shown in numerous mental illness support groups, and was praised by Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush Junior”, while several sources at a popular movie database claim that The Disturbance was “highly rated by film director Quentin Tarantino”.

I’ll leave such fanciful boasts for you to ponder, but disinformation be damned, Cliff Guest’s film is overdue for at least a modicum of impartial praise.

USA ● 1990 ● Horror ● 93mins

Timothy Greeson, Lisa Geoffrion, Ken Ceresne, Carole Garlin ● Dir. Cliff Guest ● Wri. Laura Radford

[1] Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990: A State-by-State Guide with Interviews by Brian Albright
[2] Cerasuolo claims Flix was the inspiration for the creation of Planet Hollywood.
[3] The Disturbance, Trash Film Guru Review, 25th October 2009

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