(This review discusses plot details that could be construed as SPOILERS. I would advise viewing the film before reading.)
The DVD of Marcus Dunstan’s The Neighbor is void of supplemental material, which is a shame, because I’m genuinely intrigued by the film’s casting of Bill Engvall – better known as part of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (alongside Jeff Foxworthy, Ron White, and Larry the Cable Guy) – as the villain of the piece.
That’s not a spoiler. If you don’t glean it from the cheeky, Noir-staged monologue his character, Troy, gives to neighboring criminal John (Josh Stewart – The Dark Knight Rises) early on, you haven’t seen enough movies.
But wait a second: like John, could Troy be engaging in criminal activity and pursuing the dark side of the American Dream because no other options remain?
Therein lies the paradox of The Neighbor, which brings to mind the blue-collar, morally muddy horrors of The Hills Have Eyes (original and remake) and Mother’s Day (remake), among others.
As the film begins, John and his wife, Rosie (Alex Essoe) are holing up in an isolated house in the boonies, saving their cut of the profits from drug trafficking in hopes of one day making a getaway to Mexico. They are not the scenery-chewing, kill-for-kicks sadists of Rob Zombie movies; in some ways, they are jaded to their lot in life, to the point of being impassive. When they try to rip off their fence (Skip Sudduth), an unfortunate string of events are set into motion as Rosie is kidnapped by Troy.
What ensues is a bleak, suspenseful rescue mission that relies more on tension-building than shock value to deliver its impact. And the aforementioned paradox, coupled with the quandary of being able to relate to these pulp-fiction characters in some ways, makes for an at-times complex viewing experience.
Don’t worry – it’s not complex enough to override the siren song of lurid thrills.
Dunstan and co-writer Patrick Melton got cozy with franchise formula early in their careers. They wrote the Feast trilogy, Saw IV – VII, and The Collector (plus its sequel, The Collection). These are films that thrive on new and unique ways to tear human bodies asunder, and I had no reason to expect that The Neighbor would represent a change of course.
Yet it does (well…sort of).
In an echo of the Mother’s Day remake, The Neighbor keeps its conflicts “all in the family.” Troy is a widower, and has two sons who are complicit in the capture and ransom of local youths from wealthy families. Like John and Rosie, they, too, are looking to escape their economically desperate lives, albeit through kidnapping and extortion.
It bears noting that Dunstan deflects the overly graphic violence of his previous films while hewing closely to the stylistic flourishes that marked the likes of the Collector series. There are corridors lit with blacklights for no discernible reason; a prologue and epilogue shot in 8mm; and an opening-credits sequence edited in a ridiculously ADHD manner. He also can’t resist lighting a confined, screaming girl with the same purplish hue that recalls the poster art for Suspiria. That being said, there is some great technique on display: from a subtle, dialog-free cat-and-mouse game that ensues after Josh breaks into Troy’s house; to some inventive blocking that plays with perspective in clever ways.
While the sometimes-stilted opening gives way to a more satisfying second half, there are still regressive things occurring in The Neighbor, from Troy’s underwritten sons (who recall the “do anything for the parent” siblings of Mother’s Day) to the old familiar of having the victims – usually women – locked in cages, awaiting their doom. While Rosie is more assertive, Dunstan’s idea of her being “strong” is bashing someone’s brains in with a camera tripod. (That being said, after this and Starry Eyes, Essoe is definitely an actress to watch out for.) Similarly, a tough female cop (Jacqueline Burns) gives a speech early on that is all heavy-handed foreshadowing and (figurative) mustache-twirling, to the point where it feels tonally out of place. And while John isn’t a hero in any conventional sense, Stewart’s performance sometimes confuses apathy with reservation. Engvall fares much better at creating a multilayered antagonist with a twisted yet cohesive agenda.
The Neighbor never really ventures into exploitation for its own sake, and its socioeconomic subtext makes it more ambitious than anything else Dunstan and Melton have contributed to horror. Like Cheap Thrills, this examination of the extremes people go to in order to remain financially afloat mirrors the ability to persevere in the face of fight-or-flight situations. The interest in making the characters more than just virtuous heroes, black-and-white monsters, or cannon fodder speaks to a bit of maturity on the duo’s part, which makes me optimistic for their future efforts.
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 6 out of 10