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Ruby Baker’s carefree days of staying out past curfew, carousing with her besties, and simply being a teenager are all over. The nightmare of The Glass House begins with the protagonist (Leelee Sobieski) learning her parents, David and Grace (Michael O’Keefe, Rita Wilson), have both died in a car accident. Ruby and her younger brother Rhett (Trevor Morgan) are then quickly taken in by family friends and former neighbors Terry and Erin Glass (Stellan Skarsgård, Diane Lane), whose home is located in Malibu. Obviously a big life adjustment like this requires some time, but Ruby’s grief turns into suspicion. There’s something not right about her new guardians.

In this 2001 thriller, those first couple of scenes with the whole Baker clan are wholesome and inviting; David and Grace’s last moments with their children are warmly colored and glowing. But once they’re gone and the Baker children move into their foster home, the movie gradually becomes cold and severe. Not only does the color start to drain from the screen, so does the sense of life. It would appear this dramatic change in palette is reflecting Ruby’s emotions. In actuality, the clinical aesthetic is more a token of Terry and Erin’s lives.

Absurdity sets in early as the kids move into the fittingly designed house at the heart of this see-through mystery. That exquisite piece of seaside property is a long way away from the modest suburban home Ruby and Rhett hail from. While the numerous windows built into the architecture add to the sleek and modern look, they also make the place feel unemotional. In this house every sound echoes, shadows peek through glass doors, and the lack of opaque walls prevents any sort of privacy. It’s absolutely uncomfortable to live in, due to its construction and its inhabitants. The on-the-nose setting here does a lot of heavy lifting as far as mood-building goes.

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Remembering some of her mother’s last words to her — “The simplest thing is the hardest; to see what’s really right in front of you” — Ruby looks into her new guardians at the first sign of trouble. This entails a lengthy solo investigation as Ruby unearths the Glasses’ histories and reveals their true intentions, bit by bit. The teen, whose spotty past is already damaging her credibility, does the right thing by first going to the people whose sole job is to protect her. However, her family’s trust fund lawyer (Bruce Dern) and a social worker (Kathy Baker) disappointingly side with the Glasses only because the story requires them to. These little defeats all feed into a frustrating but satisfying game of cat and mouse between the captive and the captor.

Leelee Sobieski, whose physical stature runs the risk of undermining her character’s young age and vulnerability, brings out all the qualities of her troubled character. Clever Ruby has a small advantage as she learns to be responsible and mature, but there’s also nary a hint of forced precociousness in her development. She’s refreshingly imperfect, not to mention unsure of herself and the world around her, often appearing confused or asking questions only a real teen would ask in such a situation. Sobieski channels her own youth and delivers an equally sincere and shrewd performance.

Meanwhile, Stellan Skarsgård wears many faces as show-stealer Terry; he can switch from fatherly to utterly creepy with relative ease. As the greatest obstacle to Ruby and Rhett’s freedom, Terry is frightening all thanks to the actor’s prowess and an ability to go with the flow. Skarsgård was fairly new to Hollywood at the time, and he was the last of the three leads to be cast, so his portrayal of a villain doesn’t quite startle audiences like his on-screen better half. The well-liked and renowned Diane Lane plays Erin, who is without question the most tragic character here. She turns to heavy prescriptions to deal with her guilt, among other plaguing emotions. Lane is underused, but she manages to expose that pathos and even provokes an ounce of sympathy. She, along with her two costars, brings life to an unsurprising story.

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Signs of studio meddling are all over the wild conclusion. According to director Daniel Sackheim and screenwriter Wesley Strick, they didn’t insert a romantic subplot for Ruby like Columbia requested, but they did compromise on the ending, regardless of their mixed feelings after the fact. Where The Glass House was supposed to finish was later changed to include Ruby’s last-minute confrontation with Terry from behind the wheel of an unmanned police car. It’s far gaudier than what either the director and writer originally envisioned for their characters, though it satisfied Columbia’s desire for a more commercial thriller.

“Prom Nightmare”, the fictitious slasher flick Ruby and her Valley pals see in theaters at the very beginning, isn’t merely a magnified parody of what’s to come for Ruby. This one minute of misleading footage demonstrates what many people find to be truly scary. Any given slasher movie indulges the craving for immediate and safe scares, whereas The Glass House unexpectedly touches on the subconscious fear of loss and death. Whatever shortcomings this movie ultimately has as a mystery, it succeeds as a reminder of how unexpected and temporary life can be.

This movie plays out like a reimagining of the fairytale Hansel and Gretel with a heavy helping of The Night of the Hunter thrown in. The two kids are lured into a glass castle rather than a gingerbread house, but they are nevertheless trapped. The boy is overfed shiny new toys, whereas his sister is broken down, gaslighted and thwarted at every turn. This whole movie surely lacks the design and unpredictability of better-made thrillers; much of its story is as transparent as the titular location. However, fans of The Glass House can agree this inflated teen-mystery has a confounding lived-in quality that keeps them coming back for more.

Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios.

The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.

glass house

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