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In the opening scene of The Glass House, screenwriter Wesley Strick and director Daniel Sackheim take pains to reassure us that they aren’t out to make yet another formulaic teen horror picture. In a theater, 16-year-old Ruby Baker (Leelee Sobieski) and her Valley Girl pals nervously titter, then shudder, through a slasher movie in which a lunatic terrorizes a nubile adolescent. In the excerpts we’re shown, the filmmakers parody low-budget chiller clichés: the birdbrained heroine who puts herself in harm’s way; the masked, bloodthirsty sadist who pursues her. But long before The Glass House’s fadeout, Strick and Sackheim succumb to the fatuous manipulation that they previously made fun of.
Rebellious Ruby’s life is shattered when her parents die in an automobile accident while returning from celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary. After the funeral, the family lawyer (Bruce Dern) informs Ruby that she and her 11-year-old brother, Rhett (Trevor Morgan), have been left a $4 million trust fund, and that their parents’ close friends, physician Erin Glass and her businessman husband, Terry (Diane Lane and Stellan Skarsgård), have volunteered to serve as their guardians. A stretch limo transports the orphans from Encino to the Glass residence, a lavish steel, concrete, and glass home (neat pun, Wes!) perched atop a hill in Malibu, Calif.
Unlike the old dark manse of Gothic tales, the Glass’ showy, open-plan house, with its gym, swimming pool, and high-tech electronics, initially seems inviting. Although Ruby and Rhett find the couple’s yuppie cuisine off-putting (calamari, yuck!) and are forced to share a small bedroom, they appear to be in safe hands. But the starkness of the modernist home, decorated in aseptic blues, grays, and blacks, hints at something disturbingly chilly about the Glasses. When Ruby finds correspondence addressed to her dumped in a garbage can and discovers that her e-mail account has been mysteriously closed, she begins to suspect that something’s amiss. And when Terry appears to be hitting on her and she accidentally observes Erin shooting up, her apprehension intensifies.
For several sluggish reels, the filmmakers encourage us to wonder whether Ruby is really endangered or merely suffers from an overactive adolescent imagination. In contrast to the gnarled, wicked stepparents in fairy tales, the Glasses are glamorous and worldlywhich makes them even more insidious and able to outwit Nancy Ryan (Kathy Baker), a sympathetic social worker assigned to oversee the children’s welfare. When appeals to adults fail, Ruby has no recourse but to take responsibility for her and her little brother’s survival.
Top-billed Sobieski scowls and delivers her lines too flatly to encourage much empathy for her plight. (Inhabiting the no-woman’s land of adolescencethe contours of her baby-fat-rounded cheeks are echoed by her ample cleavage, which is exploited by costume designer Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko’s tank topsshe looks like the illegitimate child of Vladimir Nabokov and Paula Poundstone.) Young Morgan is more expressive in a largely reactive role. Although adequate, Skarsgård lacks the suppressed menace that would make Terry a fearsome antagonist. Lane turns in the film’s sole memorable performance; strikingly reminiscent of Natalie Wood, she’s both scary and oddly pathetic as a woman pushed to the breaking point by drug dependency and the pressures of foster parenting.
Jon Gary Steele’s titular dwelling is a triumph of production design, a sleek, sterile structure suitable to die for, or die in. Moodily photographed by Alar Kivilo, it sustains interest while we wait for the lumbering screenplay to run its telegraphed course. The movie collapses when it finally abandons the house for several obligatory car chases, climaxed by one of those ridiculous he’s-not-really-dead showdowns and capped by a maudlin, feel-good coda.
Apart from Lane, there’s no pressing reason to see The Glass House, though I found it more entertaining than the soporific The Others, which, surprisingly, has won critical and commercial favor. At least Strick and Sackheim’s cheesy updating of Hansel and Gretel has a bit more energy than Alejandro Amenábar’s bloodless, suffocatingly tasteful take on The Turn of the Screw. And during its duller stretches, you can amuse yourself by tallying up the shameless product placements for Jaguar, BMW, Blockbuster, AOL, Nintendo, Domino’s Pizza, and Coca-Cola. CP