R | 2016 | Marcus Dunstan | 87 mins | USA
The Neighbor (2016) was one of those films that started out well and then got better. It started out appearing to be one kind of story, and then it became another—a much more human story. At every turn, writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton reveal that characters who appear unredeemable, the sadistic stock characters of exploitation horror, are just powerless individuals, caught in a web of hopelessness, trying to survive.
The Neighbor is Marcus Dunstan’s third film as director, following on the heels of The Collector (2009) and The Collection (2012), both also written by Dunstan and Melton. These two earlier films can’t help but shape expectations for The Neighbor, as does the trailer and all the brief synopses of the film. As the summary on IMDb tells us: “the film follows a man who discovers the dark truth about his neighbor and the secrets he may be keeping in the basement.” So you could be forgiven for thinking The Neighbor is another Collector, another entry in the by-now rather tired “torture-porn” subgenre. It isn’t. It’s much more interesting than that.
That The Neighbor rises far above every preconception I had of it is due not only to Dunstan and Melton but to tremendous performances by the three leads: Josh Stewart as John, Bill Engvall as Troy, and Alex Essoe (star of the under-appreciated 2014 horror film, Starry Eyes) as Rosie. Stewart’s John is a careworn, somewhat beaten-down thirty-something who lives in Cutter, Mississippi, and helps his uncle traffic drugs. What he really wants to do is escape to the beach with his girlfriend Rosie—to get away from the town and the uncle that have stifled him, given him no choice about how he lived his life. His only reprieve was when his uncle “allowed” him to join the army, but then somehow he ended up back in Cutter, back in a seedy kitchen, back running drugs.
The trailer for The Neighbor suggests that things start happening when John and Rosie see their neighbor doing some rather untoward things. And that’s certainly true, in part. But while John and Rosie are watching their neighbor, Troy (Engvall) is also watching them. Surveillance is pervasive here, heightened by the way the film is punctuated by scenes shot on a diegetic camera, and yet we never know by whom. So while Troy, John, and Rosie watch each other, someone else is watching all of them. The film thus fundamentally raises the question: who actually is “the neighbor” that poses the threat here? In the end, the film draws more parallels between John, Rosie, and Troy than it draws lines that divide them.
The film becomes really interesting at the moment when John realizes something is going on at his neighbor’s house and he crosses the line separating their properties. As John enters Troy’s house, Dunstan makes repeated visual references to Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) and Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974). John steals through this strange house in the way so many characters entered the Bates house and the house of Hooper’s former slaughterhouse workers. There are trophy animal heads on the walls (as in both films). And, in a specific reference to Psycho, John looks through a large peephole at what his neighbor is doing. If the peephole in Psycho suggests Norman’s compulsion, it also reminds us that John, too, is under the control of a domineering relative.
The references to Texas Chain Saw Massacre are still more pronounced: Troy and his sons have lost their wife and mother, along with any real way of making a living in their isolated southern town. There’s a scene that clearly evokes the scene in Texas Chain Saw Massacre in which the family torture Sally, as she is bound to a chair. But Dunstan’s family is not Hooper’s family. The latter are deranged, driven only by a perverse irrationality (albeit one rooted in economic conditions). Troy and his sons are nothing if not rational actors. As Troy says at one point: “It’s about survival—getting what we need from people who have plenty.” Indeed, it turns out that Troy’s and John’s lives are more alike than not. They’re men forced by economic exigency to create choices for themselves—and those choices, the only choices that provide a means of subsistence, happen to be criminal. It’s hard not to read this as a commentary on the current bleak economic state of much of America (as Hooper’s film was a similar commentary of the recession of the 1970s).
As I write this review, the police of East Liverpool, Ohio, have created controversy by posting a picture of a couple, in the driver and passenger seats of a car, unconscious from a heroin overdose—their small child in the backseat. The Neighbor begins with a scene that uncannily anticipates this photo—and both moments sharply crystallize the terrifying fall into heroin addiction currently afflicting way too many in economically depressed rural communities that are just like The Neighbor’s Cutter, Mississippi.
The Neighbor’s references to Psycho and Texas Chain Saw Massacre bring forcefully home its profound truth, one deeper even than its reflection on economic stagnation. People–especially in this small southern town—are essentially trapped. The film echoes—in its plot, in its characters, in its cinematography—those famous words of Norman Bates: “I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other—and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
The characters in Dunstan’s film scratch and claw at each other, but for all of it, you don’t feel that any of them are bad—or that any of them will escape. They’re just trapped; they’re like actors on the stage and someone else (though no one knows who) is pulling the strings (suggested by those uncanny scenes shot through a camera that no one seems to be holding). As someone says near the end: “I’m just a middleman. Just like you. They all know who you are and they’re coming. Nobody gets away.”
Honestly, The Neighbor is brilliant. Above all, it’s surprising—surprisingly human and surprisingly profound. It isn’t a story of one sadistic monster torturing a helpless victim; it’s about something else, but something that hurts just as much. You need to watch this film.