Leelee Sobieski, Trevor Morgan

There's nothing in genredom quite so unhinged as the badly made psycho-thriller, and long before it's over, "The Glass House" collapses from wretched design and execution.

There’s nothing in genredom quite so unhinged as the badly made psycho-thriller, and long before it’s over, “The Glass House” collapses from wretched design and execution. More interesting than the film itself is speculation over what attracted so many exceptional thesps, led by Leelee Sobieski (in her first major feature lead) and Stellan Skarsgard, to a script by Wesley Strick that pushes the domestic hysteria into a spasmodic display of unintended comedy. In turn, the script’s legion faults are doubly underlined by tyro helmer Daniel Sackheim’s cliched staging and mannerisms, which fatally telegraph the suspense. What is being updated here is nothing less than “Hansel and Gretel,” but word of mouth will be far more menacing to pic’s prospects than any nasty witch in the woods.

This being present-day L.A., the witch is a married couple, Erin and Terry (Diane Lane and Skarsgard), and the remote house is made of not candy but of glass, ominously perched like an alien spaceship on the Malibu coastline. But before our Hansel — Nintendo-addicted Rhett (Trevor Morgan) — and Gretel — teenage Ruby (Sobieski) — find themselves in the giant abode, they’re regular kids living with parents Dave (Michael O’Keefe) and Grace (Rita Wilson).

Ruby splits her time between drawing and frolicking with her joy-riding girlfriends, but the carefree life is ripped apart when her parents die in a car crash.

Like the crudely placed shocker prelude — a slasher pic Ruby catches with her pals — the aftermath of the tragedy, with Erin and Terry displaying suspiciously excessive comfort to the sudden orphans, lays on the portentousness like sloppy masonry. And if there were any question that the couple is up to no good, Christopher Young’s score irritatingly nudges us in the ribs with the bad vibes.

That Erin and Terry’s last name is Glass seems silly; that it’s the Glasses and not, for example, Uncle Jack (Chris Noth) or some other immediate family member who are appointed the kids’ guardians simply indicates how ludicrous matters are about to get. Pushed in a different direction, this thriller easily could have been made as a black comedy.

When her parents’ attorney, Begleiter (Bruce Dern), tells Ruby she and Rhett are financially secure for life, it seems to reassure her. But within two nights of staying in the ultramodern digs, so excessively shiny and reflective that it’s like living inside a diamond, Ruby doesn’t like how things are going. Rhett’s happily sedated with a ton of new electronic game gadgets, but Ruby is taken out of her private school in the Valley and slotted into a Malibu public high school.

Overhearing her on the phone with friends, Erin tells Ruby to start accepting her new school. Italicizing the threat, Ruby then is shocked to find Terry standing over her while she takes laps in the pool at night. Later, Ruby eyes Erin’s medicine chest of Erin (she’s a doctor), which is full of morphine bottles.

Terry well reflects pic’s subtlety: In one scene, he lures Ruby out of the house to a swank restaurant, where he bluntly refers to how he and his wife don’t have much sex these days while casting leering glances. The guy’s creepy. Back home, when Ruby spots Erin drugged out in the living room with a needle in her hand, that’s enough for her, and she meets with Begleiter.

Ruby is a smart kid who appears to be boxed in from all sides, and Sobieski keeps a lid on this potboiler — at least for a while — by looking observant, eyeing everything like a hawk. She can’t afford to pick many terrible scripts like this (not to mention the maudlin “Here on Earth”) if she’s to become what so many expect her to become, which is a great actress for her generation; but she at least shows here how she can act on instinct, with her eyes doing the work. She’s learned to be the camera‘s extra pair of peepers.

And yet, once the plot’s nonsensical details and actions start piling up, the inevitable faceoff between Sobieski and Skarsgard is so feverishly ridiculous that the only option is to laugh. The movie lurches from high-toned references containing loud hints (“Hamlet’s” revenge tragedy is mentioned so often that a cameo from Kenneth Branagh seems sure to come) to the trite recycling of old terror devices. Pic ends up making it awfully easy for Ruby to triumph, since the Glasses are conveniently self-destructive.

Playing a role that defines slumming, Skarsgard aims for a variation on his desperate showbiz exec in Mike Figgis’ “Time Code,” but this is about as far from the glories of his best film work as he’s ever gotten. Lane’s perf, like so many from her, is pushed so far to the background that she almost disappears, as does Morgan.

Tech credits are undeniably slick, but designer Jon Gary Steele’s interiors reps Hollywood’s latest attempt to equate a taste for great modernist design with evil, while lenser Alar Kivilo’s own taste for blue and liquid reflections is too excessive by half.

The Glass House

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of an Original Film production. Produced by Neal H. Moritz. Executive producer, Michael Rachmil. Directed by Daniel Sackheim. Screenplay, Wesley Strick.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Alar Kivilo; editor, Howard E. Smith; music, Christopher Young; production designer, Jon Gary Steele; art director, Sarah Knowles; set designers, Randy Wilkins, Charisse Cardenas; set decorator, Tessa Posnansky; costume designer, Chrisi Karvonides Dushenko; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS), Mark McNabb; supervising sound editor, John Morris; special effects, R. Bruce Steinheimer; makeup, Nina Kraft; assistant director, Louis D'Esposito; casting, Mary Vernieu, Anne McCarthy, Felicia Fasano. Reviewed at Sony Studios screening room, Culver City, Sept. 10, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Ruby - Leelee Sobieski Erin - Diane Lane Terry - Stellan Skarsgard Begleiter - Bruce Dern Nancy Ryan - Kathy Baker Rhett - Trevor Morgan Uncle Jack - Chris Noth Dave Baker - Michael O'Keefe Grace Baker - Rita Wilson Don - Gavin O'Connor Whitey - Vyto Ruginis

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