Grade: D-

There’s always room for a nifty little psychological thriller on movie screens. Too bad “The Glass House” isn’t one. The feature debut of television director Daniel Sackheim (who worked on shows like “The X-Files,” “NYPD Blue” and “Law and Order”), the picture–about two orphans taken in by a couple whose motives become increasingly suspicious–is lurid, ludicrous, and, in its idiotic finale, protracted beyond endurance. It’s based on a script by Wesley Strick, and that’s where the problem lies: structurally it’s as rickety as the titular edifice, while looks as though it’s constantly poised to crumble into the Pacific off the Malibu shore. Strick co-wrote some acceptable pictures–“Arachnophobia,” the newer “Cape Fear,” “Wolf”–but he also had a hand in such more recent bombs as “The Saint” and “Return to Paradise,” and when one looks at his solo efforts, the result is even grimmer. He was responsible for the overwrought James Woods vehicle “True Believer” as well as the idiotic Richard Gere-Kim Basinger suspenser “Final Analysis,” and he both penned and directed the truly atrocious, virulently mean-spirited “The Tie That Binds” in 1995. It’s not surprising, then, that his screenplay for this picture leaves so much to be desired.

The focus of the story is on a rather rebellious sixteen-year old, Ruby Baker (Leelee Sobieski), whose parents, Dave and Grace (Michael O’Keefe and Rita Wilson), are killed in a car crash after celebrating their anniversary. Under the terms of their will, explained by their estate lawyer Begleiter (Bruce Dern), Ruby and her eleven-year old brother Rhett (Trevor Morgan) are financially well-off; the will also names as their guardians Terry and Erin Glass (Stellan Skarsgard and Diane Lane), formerly next-door neighbors, who now live in the title’s rambling hillside home with its huge windowpanes, and who seem to be prosperous too (he runs a business fine autos, and she’s a physician). Almost immediately, however, the children find the Glass’ attitudes strange, and Ruby, in particular, comes to suspect them guilty of nefarious purposes against her and her sibling. Is she deluding herself, or is she right?

It’s the sort of question that could conceivably form the basis of an effective suspense film, although the very premise of children in jeopardy might be thought in questionable taste; but the makers of this debacle show themselves thoroughly incapable of transforming it into effective cinematic terms. The locale itself–a cold, antiseptic horror of a house that looks as though it had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wrong–is supposed to have a Kubrickian mood about it, but it seems merely ugly, and the interior geography is never made sufficiently clear so that the action within it will be comprehensible. To make things worse, the cheapest sort of genre tricks are deployed again and again in a vain attempt to give it a threatening aura. A plethora of spooky shadows, mostly in moonlight turned into swirling shapes by the surging waves offshore or by near-constant rain (does Malibu really have a monsoon season?), are accompanied by convenient thunderclaps designed to generate sudden shocks–which become drearily predictable. There are innumerable sequences in which one of the youngsters is trapped in a situation where his or her discovery in some compromising situation seems imminent, only to disappear without explanation when a villain pulls open a door or curtain to disclose them–probably the dumbest, most irritating of artifices, repeated an unconscionable number of times here. As the narrative grinds on, the would-be twists grow more and more asinine, with the implausibilities piling up faster than the corpses, of which there are many. There’s a considerable amount of gore, too: the only thing left to the viewer’s imagination is how “The Glass House” might have been made into an even remotely good movie.

And then there are the characters. Ruby is supposed to be a resilient, smart kid, but in the deadpan performance of Sobieski she’s not at all engaging–Jamie Lee Curtis was far more animated and likable in “Halloween.” Morgan is merely annoying as her younger brother. As for Lane and Skarsgard, they’re forced to overplay the strangeness so early on that as the plot sickens, they can only descend into grislier, ever-more flamboyant thespian excesses; Skarsgard, who’s done some good, subtle work in the past, suffers especially in this regard. Dern looks as though he’s falling apart as the elderly attorney Ruby trusts, and O’Keefe and Wilson come across as smug and insensitive as the short-lived parents. Faring worst of all, perhaps, are Kathy Baker, as a social service worker whose intervention proves ineffectual, and Chris Noth as the kids’ uncle. He has but two scenes, but is made to deliver the picture’s absurd final line–he can barely keep from laughing as he does so, and we viewers needn’t even try.

Given the sort of junk that Sackheim and Strick are tossing at the audience in “The Glass House,” one may observe that the old adage about throwing stones will doubtlessly be vindicated here in spades. The picture deserves demolition from viewers who are pummeled by it, and they’re sure to fling some brickbats at it, at least in the form of poisonous word-of-mouth. This review is merely a small contribution to that laudable effort.