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July 2011

Neighbour

cast: America Olivo, Christian Campbell, Pete Postiglione, Joe Aniska, and Sarah McCarron

director: Robert Angelo Masciantonio

90 minutes (18) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
High Fliers DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Paul Higson

Neighbour

It seems as if the starting point for most horror films these days is a foundation of abject meanness in extremis. Yes, I refer to torture porn. Filmmakers may fool themselves that they are responsible for some new horror benchmark, but all they are really doing are making excuses not to try and construct a genuinely creative story that might afford them any imagination. The young pups may dismiss at this point as some old fart with his best gorehound years behind him but neither did it appeal to me in days of yore. Oh, the curious kid that I was, I sought out the Japanese Guinea Pig movies, Sexandroide (1987), Violent Shit (1989), and My Lovely Burnt Brother And His Squashed Head (1988), and these illicit titles still rest in my old video collection, but these were plot-free movie abortions that doubtlessly did without scripts.

The titillating grind-house variant of the 1960s in Olga's Dance Hall Girls (1966), and Scare Their Pants Off! (1967) are also basic, but bemusing and innocent by comparison. Dungeons and their infernal equipment, often unique to an abominable villain, be it Fu Manchu or witch-finder, have been a facet of the genre since its earliest kindling, not to mention the fiction before it, but it was always part of a storyline, and it was never so graphic. Like the flaying of Karloff in The Black Cat (1936) the horror was suggested and that was more than enough.

The horror is now in the powerlessness of the victims but I don't find lack of control frightening, I find it frustrating. Most of us live in traps of one kind or another, be it our limiting bodies or the psychological slum of our social and economic subsistence. We can excuse the hormonal teen his fascination with the flood of blood and the carnival of carnage but I wonder what the more experienced horror film aficionado can get out of it when the endangered protagonists are dullards and the executioners no less brainless. Whatever floats your boat, I suppose. But the sadness is that the carefully constructed tales of the uncanny are getting side-tracked by this trend, and one suspects often by the skilled filmmakers too, because torture porn is what sells.

At the Bradford film festival this June, the only truly dismal offering in the programme was James Kendall's Darkness Within (2009), a London film and television school exam piece. Twenty-five minutes long, but feeling interminably longer, it was a nothing story with a torture core and if this is what the LFTS are passing now, then sad days indeed. Even when the finale was bleak, the horror films of the 1970s and 1980s were survivalist, retaliatory and hopeful. We still have 'competitors' in the horror genre, characters who take on supernatural enemies, as seen in Husk (2010), a worthy addition to the scarecrow horror (corn) field. In these movies we are delivered rules, and an Achilles' heel for the monster, if not one for each heel. If the protagonists fail, we might not, by learning from their mistakes. We would have done it differently.

There is invention in torture, of course, but having put yourself in someone's shoes can you really deceive yourself that you can plough on when your toes have been cut off, when in real life a toothache would normally cripple you. At the point at which you have had your eyelids sliced off, I would propose that you have lost. This is the point at which I concede defeat when watching a film. In their shoes, the torture has gone too far and riven too deep and is irreparable. The majority of the torture porn titles are market driven and reveal in the directors only a creative failure.

This is why I find it all the more disappointing that a writer and director with genuine talent resorts to unnecessarily excessive sadism. Torture porn is that additionally thrown in kitchen sink, in Robert Angelo Masciantonio's Neighbour (2009). It is only when the film's murderess ecstatically drills holes in legs or hacksaws a mouth wider that the film becomes less interesting. The ugliness resulted in the removal of 17 seconds by the BBFC last March (the screener is apparently intact) during a scene in which the captive male has a urethra tube forced bloodily into his penis so that it can remain erect as the murderess has sex with him. The police 55 list would be a police 5555 count today.

With the exception of these moments we have a film which is alive with character and postmodern play, and one of the most promising debuts or step-ups in production value of the last few years. Neighbour is inventive, intelligent and well-performed, and unlike most torture porn does toy with hope, though in one of this film's greatest cruelties yanks that hope away from us again. The 'new horizon' is offered halfway through the film, in a redirect and U-turn reminiscent of Haneke. It is a relief from the torment which you rightly, over the following minutes, come not to trust. The lighting and camerawork are not adventurous but, because it is old school and there are elisions into and out of reality during the trick middle, the film benefits from it greatly.

Despite the low-budget roots considerable thought has gone into the writing. We spend a lot of time with the serial killer and I will avoid giving away several smart gimmicks, one of which opens the film. One of the angles on the killer is that despite everything that she says and does, we come away uncertain that we really know anything about her background. She ends the film as a portent. It becomes impossible to determine the facts about her as she has an infantile penchant for role-play which hides and confuses anything that may have a factual basis in her backstory. So, when at one point she alludes to her own sexual abuse it becomes calculably dismissive as yet another of her sick fantasies.

We don't even know her name, and she is credited as 'the Girl' on the credits. The killer is played with true bravado and star potential by America Olivo, and the scariest acceptance by any viewer is that in one guise or another, friend or fancy, most of us would surely walk into her trap, and that is scarier than actually being in any trap. She is the dictionary definition of callous and nobody is safe. We are, thankfully, saved of what she might do to a crying baby, as the film cuts the moment she slips into the nursery closing the door after her. Indeed, she may have done nothing to the child; it is never referred to in news broadcasts of her crimes (for which an escaped lunatic is likely to take the blame).

As further evidence that we should not chuck Marascantonio in with the other torture bumpkins he does not make every murder visually gruelling. A victim may be denied their medicine, electrocuted in their bath or tricked into a pint of drains cleaner, and so despite the constancy of her evil acts these anaemic crimes act as deadly breaks between the more graphic of horror spectacles. The Girl also kills out of curiosity, exploring classic methods of dying, particularly in the movies, and she experiments with popular killing scenarios. "I always wondered if this actually worked," she comments before throwing a hairdryer into a bathtub with one victim, followed by quick cuts of other plugged in electrical equipment hurled in on top. The scene is filmed as a medium-long shot from an upward angle displaying the director's potential for more reserved, wry thrills.

Though the film is titled Neighbour, she is certainly no Jenny from their block and is a neighbour in transit only, moving from one house and household to the next until settling upon a musician (Christian Campbell). His soundproofed basement recording studio provides her with a particularly useful location for her activities and any friends of his tumbling upon the secret torture gig become other human canvases for her experiments. She never goes for full out mimicry on her victims - a la Single White Female (1990), and Prey Of The Chameleon (1989) - but she will assume some of their lifestyle and chores. Upon murdering one person she then gleefully walks their dog until she tires of it, and identifies her next victim.

The film is often quick to the punch and in so doing there is no long lead in to many of the murders. We are never shown how she gains access either to the lives of her victims (on the occasions that it is clear that some short history has been established) or to the properties. The Girl is never shown picking a lock or jimmying open a window, she is merely inside as if everyone has left their door open or she has a supernatural key to the city.

The dialogue is never dull and often witty. The players are likeable and there is therefore applicable concern for the victims. I suspect Marascantonio feels that he has earned his right to enact nastier excesses in his film in a way in which idiotic contemporaries like Eli Roth have not. But minus its extremes this could have been a more winning shocker. Ultimately, if does not feel like it belongs to the current splat pack but as more in common with several turn of the 1990s' explorers in cinematic excess, films like Man Bites Dog (1992), and Fatal Exposure (aka: Mangled Alive, 1989). Neighbour though, is more intelligent and contradictory in its makeup than those films, and is instead an enthralling compilation of wicked concepts and conceits that is likely to reward again and again on repeat viewings.



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