California Literary Review

The Weekly Listicle: There Goes The Neighborhood

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August 19th, 2011 at 12:47 am

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This week, yet another cult horror favorite gets a remake. Tom Holland’s 1985 vampire-next-door tale Fright Night will return under the same title and an insistently stylized 21st century veneer. Bearing little resemblance (at least trailer-wise) to its namesake, the original film starred Chris Sarandon – of Dog Day Afternoon and The Princess Bride – as a sinister fellow who probably has bloodthirsty designs on his neighbors. The remake features Colin Farrell in the vampire seat, which sounds all right so far.

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Hmm… it does seem awfully… serious. A hint of dark humor in the trailer would make it look a bit more promising. On the other hand, it might turn out to be secretly brimming with nasty fun like the unfairly maligned 2009 remake of The Stepfather. We are sailing in similar thematic waters here. What happens when the people closest to us turn out to be the most dangerous to our health?

Forget good fences, and forget good neighbors. Characters in movies and television are far more compelling when not acting the least bit neighborly. Many a comedy hinges on the inability to get along with the freaks next door. Plenty of horror and suspense stories begin with the suspicion that the guy down the hall is up to something he should not be doing. Television thrives on dystopian views of neighborhood life, from Twin Peaks to South Park to True Blood, and down countless other alleys besides. Whether obnoxious, intrusive, or actively homicidal, a bad neighbor can ruin a perfectly good day like nothing else.

With all respect to good neighbors everywhere, I now call this town meeting to order. Brett Davinger and I (Dan Fields) will now report on the activities of some of the worst folks on the block.

DAN’S PICKS:

Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

James Stewart stars in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window

I spy.

What begins as innocent nosing around becomes a game of life or death in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. One of the legendary director’s most famous films, it is also one of his most narrow in physical scope. James Stewart plays L. B. Jeffries, a photographer confined to his upstairs apartment by a broken leg. Unable to leave his some, he distracts himself from the boredom and extreme heat by watching his neighbors out the window. The weather has compelled many of them to pull up their shades and open their windows, and Jeffries gets an intimate view of several very different lives. He starts assigning them nicknames and piecing their stories together as best he can from the glimpses he gets.

This practice meets with disapproval from his day nurse, Stella (played by Thelma Ritter, and to this day my favorite character in a Hitchcock movie). She warns him about the dangers of snooping, and that if he watches the sexy lady, the drunken musician, the lonely gal, the newlyweds, the artist and all the rest of them long enough, he may see something that he will wish he had not.

Alfred Hitchcock's cameo in his film Rear Window

No, no, no. The director is supposed to photograph the star. This movie has it all backwards!

Confined to Jeffries and his point of view, the film presents little snapshots of each household, which occasionally intertwine in momentary encounters. The most nondescript personality is the salesman across the way (Raymond Burr), who only pipes up to bicker with the woman next door or chase the upstairs dog out of his garden. In private, he seems to have a tense relationship with his bedridden wife. Until… the wife disappears on a trip. Something about that idea does not add up, and as Jeffries witnesses the strange behavior of her husband, he starts to harbor dark suspicions.

Besides Stella, Jeffries has two ties to the outside world. The first is his detective pal Tom. The other is his on-and-off fiancée Lisa (Grace Kelly at her most stunning – why Jeffries is reluctant to marry her clearly speaks of a disturbed mind). When Jeffries shares his concern about the missing woman, his friends insist that his morbid imagination has gotten the better of him. They all give him the same advice: stop snooping and take up a healthier hobby. However, Jeffries cannot tear himself away from the mystery.

Raymond Burr co- stars in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window

It’s Raymond Burr! And he is not here to save Tokyo.

Initially, Jeffries is the bad neighbor on the block. He is the one invading everyone else’s privacy, and when he begins to notice things amiss, he can hardly defend his position from an ethical point of view. In order to gain the sympathy and support of those around him, he must prove beyond doubt that murder is the most likely explanation for what he sees.

Through his questionable pastime, he becomes a guardian angel of sorts. Only he can see that something is wrong, and he works relentlessly to set it right. Hitchcock foreshadows the film’s conclusion in a minor scene involving his attempt to stop a neighbor’s suicide. From the moral gray area of benign voyeurism, he has the power to speak up or look the other way when he sees his neighbors at their darkest moments.

Rosemary’s Baby (dir. Roman Polanski, 1968)

Mia Farrow stars in Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby

A bun in the oven? Well, it rhymes with oven…

Warning: Important Plot Details Ahead

This career-maker for Mia Farrow still manages to chill and horrify every time. Three years after putting Catherine Deneuve through a psycho-sexual breakdown in Repulsion, Hollywood’s rising freak Roman Polanski sent Farrow down a more tangible tunnel of dread and misery.

Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) have just moved into a lovely new place, where Guy can get his acting career going and together they can start a family. At least, that’s what Rosemary is pretty sure she wants, but after a while it seems that the decision has been made for her already. Helping her to settle in to the new digs are an elderly couple called the Castevets (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), whose well-meaning intrusions begin to wear on the younger couple’s nerves. The Castevets seem friendly enough, but they also seem talkative, nosy, and prone to drop by just any old time they please.

Eventually, Guy seems to make peace with them, and then to embrace them as fast friends. Coincidentally, things begin going better in his professional life. This abrupt turnaround is the first of many instances in which Rosemary feels that everyone is keeping secrets from her.

Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon co-star in Rosemary's Baby

The Castevets are everything obnoxious neighbors ought to be. And several things that no neighbor should be.

Rosemary and Guy conceive a baby, though the circumstances are disturbing at best, and weigh Rosemary down with intense anxiety. Meanwhile, the Castevets are simply brimming with advice about how she should care for herself, which doctor she should see, what friends she should have, and how often she should go out in public (essentially, never). Their hearty interest in the baby’s welfare becomes positively obsessive, and Rosemary feels a growing sense of imprisonment in her own home. Guy, along with everyone else, assures her that her fears are simply grounded in hormonal imbalance.

Things go from eerie to positively scary as bad things start happening to the people who warn Rosemary away from her new neighbors. Rosemary is also hearing strange things through the walls – chanting and such – and soon she begins to suspect that her neighbors are part of a secret coven. What’s more, their care about the baby may not extend to her own safety and survival. However, Guy and the Castevets keep her under such close scrutiny that trying to slip away would be suspicious and possibly dangerous. She has no one to trust.

Ruth Gordon and John Cassavetes co-star in Rosemary's Baby

Spoiler alert: this is no Tupperware party.

Though her story is partially grounded in the natural worries of an expectant mother, Rosemary is not crazy, or “hysterical,” or even unreasonably worried. Guy has made a deal with the devil, brokered by their kindly neighbors, though the actual role of Rosemary’s baby in the bargain is a mystery until the very end. And… yeesh. What a final scene.

Straw Dogs (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1971)

Dustin Hoffman stars in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs

If only he had started shooting sooner.

If you thought the forces of hell were the worst entry on this list, you may be wrong. After all, humans are capable of just about anything on their own. Sam Peckinpah, famous for excellent and shockingly violent westerns like The Wild Bunch, stepped outside his familiar canon for this unsettling study in country life.

David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered intellectual who has had enough of the USA, torn as it is by the ongoing Vietnam war. He withdraws with his wife Amy (Susan George) to her sleepy little hometown in England. Immediately, the bookish American becomes a target for taunting by the local toughs, one of whom has a romantic history with Amy. David tries to make nice, but clearly needs to assert a dominant male presence or be a victim for good. Amy wants him to stand up for himself against the bullies, whom he has employed to do repairs on the farmhouse. David’s nonviolent philosophy will do him little good in the rough-and-tumble countryside, especially against farm boys with a few sexual and territorial points to prove.

Things escalate painfully until Amy’s lover eventually forces his way into the house and rapes her while David is out. Amy keeps the fact from David, for reasons that have been much debated given the controversial history of the rape scene, but at the most fundamental level she clearly feels he is not up to the task of taking the matter in hand. As it happens, David will have his chance for vengeance after all, though not in any way he would have sought out for himself.

Dustin Hoffman stars in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs

Go get ‘em, Tootsie.

A twist of fate leads to the couple sheltering the local idiot (David Warner) in their farmhouse. As it turns out, that idiot strangled a local girl in a fit of passion and now several townsfolk are in a lynching mood. Amy’s assailant and his pals join the mob, no doubt relishing the excuse to give the Sumners more trouble. Things get right out of hand, and David is forced to become one ruthless son of a gun to survive the night. Resorting to some very nasty tricks and traps, he takes on the invaders one by one.

Straw Dogs is a mighty bleak and hopeless picture of human behavior. Despite David’s reluctance to rise up and clash with his bad neighbors, there is an overriding sense of fate governing the story. As in John Boorman’s Deliverance, the unwelcome outsider could ultimately have done nothing to prevent the bad things that happened. In some scenarios, violence and evil are inescapable. Moral questions take a backseat to the immediate problem of survival. And when the neighbors lay siege to your house, you had by gosh better be ready to fight.

BRETT’S PICKS:

The Simpsons: Two Bad Neighbors (dir. Wesley Archer, 1996)

The Simpsons, Two Bad Neighbors

President George H.W. Bush’s First Attempt at Vengeance

Back during The Simpsons‘ seventh season, Evergreen Terrace received a new resident: former President George Bush, who moved in right across the street from The Simpsons. By interrupting Homer’s tribute to the Bee Gees (leading to the introduction of Disco Stu) during a block-wide rummage sale, capturing his neighbors’ attention, and attracting Santa’s Little Helper away from his owner during a jog, George roused the ire of the leader of the Simpson clan. However, when a menace-y Bart accidentally shredded George’s memoirs with a lawnmower and George spanked him in retaliation (a common occurrence in Grandpa Simpson’s day), a prank war was on.

Homer Simpson and President George Bush in The Simpsons' Two Bad Neighbors

See? It is possible to write about the Bush family without relying on hackneyed jokes about the previous administration.

Bart and Homer lit up the night sky with rockets and crazy glued a rainbow-colored wig onto Bush’s head, while the former Commander-in-Chief, to the embarrassment of his wife, ruined their driveway with his car and hung up a banner (see above) subject to misinterpretation. Eventually, the two homeowners met in an epic sewer battle where Bush used a From Russia with Love garrote watch as Homer wielded a mighty army of locusts. After being caught by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who arrived with a housewarming gift, during the battle, George admitted disgust with what Springfield brought out in him, and he sold the house. Former President Gerald Ford took up occupancy, and he and Homer immediately bonded.

Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders from The Simpsons

Stupid Sexy Flanders

Of course, focusing on Two Bad Neighbors does a disservice to Homer, himself a legendarily horrible neighbor. Despite Stupid Flanders’ virtually endless patience, Homer borrows stuff without asking, never returns items, starts fires from gas lines both inside and outside the house, steals electricity, steals cable, shows a willingness to bash Ned over the head with a pipe, curses in front of his sons, has the news present him as a slumlord after he kindly bought their house at foreclosure so the Simpsons could continue to live there, turned him into a bigamist during a Las Vegas bender, and inadvertently led to the death of his real wife (though I personally cannot blame Homer for that tragedy). No wonder all other neighbors put up For Sale signs after The Simpsons regained their house in 2009.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The Gang Goes Jihad (dir. Daniel Attias, 2006)

The Gang From It Always Sunny in Philadelphia

The Gang From It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

While horrible residential neighbors are one thing, horrible commercial neighbors can be a bother as well, as one expects the owners of Paddy’s Pub to be.

By the second episode of the second season (very early in the show’s run; the first season only had six episodes), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia had already seemed to find its footing. In this episode, the gang learned that Ari Frankel (Josh Stamberg), an Israeli businessman, bought most of Paddy’s property, and that they will be evicted.

Although the gang had regular opportunities to buy the land, they never bothered to so. Learning from an attorney that they have no “legal” recourse (legal recourse), they take matters into their own hands. After TPing his property only leads to the construction of a giant fence at the back of Paddy’s, they decide to make a jihad video to scare Ari into leaving, featuring Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Mac (Rob McElhenney) as towel-wearing jihadists and Charlie (Charlie Day) behind the camera as director and screenwriter.

Mac, Dennis, and Charlie on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's The Gang Goes Jihad"

“We don’t have a problem with Jews. It’s just this guy in particular.”

Shocked by the video, they decide not to send it to Ari, and, instead, go with Charlie’s original plan of throwing a bag of flaming dog poop into the building. Unbeknownst to them, a contractor found a gas leak, and Ari’s building (now owned by Frank Reynolds (Danny DeVito)) explodes. Unbeknownst to Mac and Dennis, Charlie refused to let the gold on the video go to waste, and the episode concludes as the police investigating the arson enter the bar with the tape in an evidence bag.

Dogville (dir. Lars von Trier, 2003)

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The dark side of small town America might be common fodder, but rarely is it presented as brilliantly as in Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Divided into 9 chapters and a prologue, this Bizarro Our Town (in many ways it seems like a filmed play) establishes the early 20th century Rocky Mountain village of Dogville on a stage with barely any props and no buildings; every house is “opened” to the audience and physical boundaries are represented with white outlines. The native inhabitants of Dogville are simple, kindly folk played an impressive cast consisting of Paul Bettany, Jeremy Davies, Philip Baker Hall, Željko Ivanek, Chloë Sevigny, and others.

Grace (Nicole Kidman, in arguably her best performance) is a young woman on the run from mobsters. She is found by the town’s moral conscience, Tom (Bettany’s character), who brings her to Dogville where she is given a two week probationary period to convince the inhabitants to let her stay. She reads to the blind, helps with gardening, never speaks up, and the town soon accepts her as one of their own.

Paul Bettany as Tom and Nicole Kidman as Grace in Dogville

Paul Bettany as Tom and Nicole Kidman as Grace in Dogville.

When the townspeople discover that Grace is wanted by the police, they turn on her righteously (as the chapter’s subtitle states, “Dogville bares its teeth”). She essentially becomes their slave, performing more chores for less money or goods, forced into sexual relations with practically all of the town’s males, and treated like a sub-human by everyone. An attempt to escape leads to more punishment, such as making her wear a chain attached to a heavy wheel that greatly restricts her movements. After Tom rats out Grace, the mobsters return to the town and massacre everyone except Grace, the mob boss’ (James Caan) daughter.

The Set of Lars Von Trier's Dogville

An overhead view of the Dogville set.

While we might be used to the “average American” showing their horrendous underbelly, Lars von Trier takes it to disturbing, uncomfortable, and fresh places in Dogville. On the minimalist set where everyone lives, we witness the dark soul that lives within the sweetest of people and how all neighbors can be bad neighbors together.

Christmas with the Kranks (dir. Joe Roth, 2004)

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Obviously not the best movie on the Listicle (it’s actually probably the worst), but for a zany Christmas family comedy (it’s even rated PG), Christmas with the Kranks has some of the most frightening neighbors since Neighbors.

Based on John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas (which I assume involves a young attorney discovering a worldwide conspiracy), Christmas with the Kranks stars Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis as Luther and Nora Krank. They live in a town where people are obligated to spend thousands of dollars on Christmas decorations each year. At the start of the film, with their daughter (Julie Gonzalo) away on a Peace Corps mission they decide to, well, skip Christmas and take a Caribbean cruise.

Upon discovering that the Kranks will not be participating in their reindeer games, the neighbors turn against them, Dogville-style. The police, the Boy Scouts, and a fascist Dan Aykroyd shun and ostracize the Kranks. Children and adults spend the month harassing this couple that simply wants to celebrate Christmas differently. The Kranks even earn a front page story describing what terrible people they are for refusing to put lights up or buy a tree.

Dan Aykroyd and Tim Allen in Christmas with the Kranks

Conform or die.

As the Kranks are about to leave for their vacation, their daughter calls them, announcing that she is coming home later that day. So Luther and Nora, instead of telling her the truth, rally the troops and the town comes together to create a perfect Christmas for the family, honoring the Kranks for finally accepting that complete and mindless conformity is the only way to survive in this world.

The Griswold Family in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

For a much better Christmas movie featuring horrible neighbors, of course, check out National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where the Griswolds and Cousin Eddie make the lives of yuppie couple Todd and Margo Chester (Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) a living hell.

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