Editor’s note: Neighbor has been reviewed elsewhere on Brutal as Hell by Marc – you can check out his thoughts here. Beware of moderate spoilers ahead.
Is there a way of reinvigorating the horribly hackneyed ‘torture porn’ subgenre? For a type of horror film which has had a comparatively short, yet abundant lifespan, it is remarkable how quickly even the most extreme movies have settled into cliché: people tied to chairs, people assaulted with household tools, the menace of facial disfiguration…these things are now as obligatory as longhaired ghosts in the cinema of the Far East or the omnipresent masked killers of slasher flicks. So – and speaking as someone who became immune to excruciating gore on screen at some point shortly after seeing Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood around fifteen years ago – does torture still have a future? For me, at this point, it can only be achieved by a steadily-building relationship with characters; this doesn’t mean I have to like them, but I have to be able to empathise with them and I definitely need to feel they exist in the first place. No pathos, no point. It is not enough to presuppose that it is ‘subversive’ to swap the obligatory tool-wielding male for a tool-wielding female; it is certainly not enough to conjure up a montage of bloody sequences, especially when the censorship of the most notable of those scenes lessens the film’s bite so significantly. Yet, this seems to be the premise with Neighbor, a film so keen to try to shock that it dispenses with many of the elements which could have helped to make it a success. The film shows its hand almost immediately, introducing us to our killer, where she is and how she operates. We even see as much of her motivation in the first sequences as we’re ever shown. This is a gal who vaguely seems interested in what death means, and that’s all the audience gets: the rest of the film makes little attempt to generate suspense, simply picking off a few of the residents of a suburban area in a bloody fashion before moving on. I felt too distant from the brutality on screen to really care.
The plot is thus: nameless girl (America Olivo) is shown dancing about in her nightclothes somewhere in banal suburbia before finding some folk tied to chairs (natch!) upstairs. At first she’s shocked but you see, she isn’t actually shocked at all, because she’s the guilty party. After this, she’s on the look-out for her next victims, and after a few disjointed murder set pieces in the local area, she espies Doug (Christian Campbell) and his friends. They seem ideal, so she keeps an eye on Doug’s place until it’s a good time to strike. When she does, she ties him up and mauls him in a variety of ways, extending this treatment to anyone along the way who calls in.
In the midst of this standard torture treatment (and it looks as though the British Board of Film Classifications have rejected the infamous penis torture scene which was one of the movie’s chief calling-cards) Neighbor takes an excursion from its linear format to toy with timeshifts and to intimate that it is all a dream or a trip. There is no resolution to these sequences of repetition and (possible) hallucination: during the commentary, director Robert Angelo Masciantonio and producer Charles St John Smith III suggest that they experimented with this as a way of ‘getting to know the characters’ but insist that it is not overdone. Hmmm. If I was being entirely cynical, I might suspect that what we have here is filler, but in any case, you need a sturdy screenplay to withstand this sort of development. It worked in Funny Games USA, but only because the whole film was a well-constructed assault on the concept of home, not a series of gory tableaux in which the audience have little invested. I felt further removed from proceedings by the suggestion that Doug was dreaming (as well as confused by what sort of mushroom trip would be quite that bad!)
Something which is very interesting about this film is its (self-proclaimed) subversive approach to gender stereotypes: I don’t mean simply in terms of casting a woman as the killer, but also in commissioning an audio commentary by a film studies tutor/doctorate-holder. Now, gender in horror is a hot topic of late, and horror itself is gradually being explored by an academic community which had all but ignored horror and genre cinema as grounds for serious study for many years. However, it is all the same still unusual to have an academic commentary on a film like Neighbor. Much of the commentary explores the film along the lines of a film studies lecture: describing potential desired effects of using certain shots, suggesting symbolism behind colour choices in the film, and so on, but it also focuses particularly on ‘expected genre roles’.
So, is Neighbor really a gender-subversive film? I would say no. It suffers from the schizophrenia which is at the heart of much gender-subversive cinema and critique: utterly dependent on stereotypes on one hand and in many ways as reductivist as the stereotypes it wishes to subvert. Neighbor seeks to deliver an ass-kicking heroine because this is unusual, but cannot quite bring itself to give us a believable one: we get, as the commentary reiterates, a woman with a Playboy model body and ‘come to bed’ eyes – i.e. very usual – who can yet crush a man’s windpipe with one manicured hand or beat up a guy as he flails around looking for a weapon (a weapon? Try punching her – you’re twice her weight, fella). For all the film’s deliberate unstitching of assumptions about The Girl’s gender though, it’s nothing compared to what we’re told about the guys in the film. Being men, their conversation is, we are told, immediately ‘sexual and violent’; men stigmatise other men who are in relationships; men are interested only in tawdry sex; men can’t be trusted with household tasks; men just discuss bodily functions…this eventually feeds into a sort of jubilance, as the Playgirl-bodied actress proceeds to mistreat them. The film tries to question gender stereotypes yet quickly falls back on basic misandry. Whilst I’m not sold on this idea of horror as a gender arena in the first place – horror serves many functions but fairness is seldom a factor – I would have liked Neighbor a lot more if it didn’t rely so heavily on that it seeks to undo (see also: the film’s UK release cover). It makes – it needs – a stack of assumptions of its own.
It isn’t a disaster: I applaud the filmmakers for using make-up effects as opposed to CGI, and a lot of the gory effects are interesting: I’m not staunchly anti-CGI, it has its place, but the film definitely benefits from having real-time blood and guts. Some of the dialogue has a sense of mischief, too. However, there is little to love about this movie. Like Murder Set Pieces – actually, just like Murder Set Pieces – it seeks to shock, but for those of us who want more context for their ‘scenes of an unsettling nature’ it is just another disjointed torture flick, only this time with more than one axe to grind therein.