Remember that string of "...from hell" psycho flicks in the early 1990s? There was "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle" (nanny from hell) and "Single White Female" (roommate from hell). Well, here's one that was missed at the time: legal guardians from hell.
"The Glass House" is a failed spine-tingler about a teenage girl (Leelee Sobieski) whose parents die in a car crash leaving her and her little brother a $4 million trust -- money their surrogate parents are just itching to get their hands on.
Following the funeral, Ruby and Rhett Baker (Sobieski and Trevor Morgan, "Jurassic Park III") move in with Terry and Erin Glass (Stellan Skarsgard and Diane Lane), seemingly wealthy old friends of their parents who live in a expensive, ultra-modern, ultra-stylish, windows-and-concrete house in the Malibu hills.
Their guardians give Ruby the creeps, and with good reason -- Skarsgard ("Good Will Hunting," "Ronin") and Lane ("My Dog Skip") give superb, subtly but unmistakably sinister performances. Skarsgard's habitually whispery line delivery is tweaked with a chilling touch of the ominous, but just enough that only the audience and Ruby can really sense it. Rhett thinks Terry is cool because he bought the kids a PlayStation and a Nintendo 64.
Lane's warm-on-the-outside, icy-on-the-inside way of reassuring the kids "we want you to trust us" is enough to make you want to scream, "Get out of the house!"
But even with its talented cast and all its potential for a fresh take on the teen psychological thriller, "The Glass House" is cheapened beyond belief by frying-pan-to-the-head foreshadowing, insultingly over-scripted metaphors (Ruby's Lit class is reading "Hamlet") and indulgent, undignified gestures of exploitation.
The picture's opening scene finds Ruby and a gaggle of girlfriends at a slasher movie, showing how cool and collected she is while her pals scream their heads off. Call it irony for idiots.
There's a cop car in front of her house when Ruby gets home, but just because it adds a little false suspense, when she goes inside and calls out to her mom and dad, nobody answers until two officers come out of the next room a good 30 seconds later. Where were they? Having a snack in the back yard?
When the kids move into the expansive Malibu pad, they have to share a room for absolutely no reason -- it's just director Daniel Sackheim's shorthand for implying the Glasses are somehow wicked.
This kind of easily avoidable stupidity can be poo-pooed in small doses, but "The Glass House" is packed to the rafters with it. Sackheim simply doesn't care that he's insulting the audience is every other scene.
Terry Glass frames Ruby for plagiarism on a school paper. Why? He closes her AOL account. Why doesn't she confront him? The floorboards squeak as Ruby sneaks into the Glasses' bedroom to steal the car keys to make a getaway. Squeaky floorboards in a concrete house? As she drives away nervously (she only just started driver's ed.) in a big rainstorm, her brother turns on the radio to jam some tunes, just to add another asinine and extraneous scare as Ruby looks down to turn it off and veers into oncoming traffic.
Back in the house after being caught, Ruby is drugged by her caretakers to put her out of commission. As she screams and struggles to get away, they explain to Rhett "You're sister's just throwing a tantrum" -- and he buys it, returning to his video games. Puh-leaze!
The film has more fundamental problems as well, like the fact that no adequate explanation is given why people like the Glasses are into a loan shark for $1 million (their motive for wanting the kids' inheritance) instead of borrowing money from a bank. (Terry's business is in trouble and Erin is a doctor with a severe morphine habit.)
Sackheim's most blatant disrespect of the audience's intelligence comes when he angles for cheap exploitation. One example: Ruby changes for bed in the most open part of the house (where creepy Terry Glass is watching) because she doesn't want to change in front of her brother in the bedroom. Hey girl, ever heard of a bathroom?
It's a pity "The Glass House" takes a moron's approach to suspense because if it weren't for its distracting stupidity, the movie would be pretty chilling. Its mood is terrifically foreboding, the photography is icy blue and deftly eerie, and the actors are all in top form.
But Sackheim can't seem to hold on to a higher standard for more than two minutes at a time and clearly didn't care enough to sidestep the perfectly obvious landmines in the script. He even speeds right past a perfectly good finale to tack on one of those bad-guy's-not-really-dead-yet surprises to which all truly awful thrillers subscribe.
Willfully thrusting such witlessness forward when a smart, sly film lurks beneath all this hackneyed crap just goes to show what little respect the director has for his audience.