Monday 19 October 2009

Neighbor (2009)

Director: Robert Angelo Masciantonio
Stars: America Olivo and Christian Campbell
Neighbor begins with one of the best trick openings I've seen in quite a while, which I'm leary of spoiling but don't really have much of a choice given that it constitutes the first couple of minutes of a feature film. A cute and homely lady dances around having a great time in what appears to be her own home, heads upstairs and finds a young couple tied to chairs and covered in blood. The female is already dead and the male can't be far behind. Reacting at first as we might expect to such a horrific sight, our girl turns out to be the reason they're there.

She's a serial killer, a charismatic sort who really gets into her work. She gets upset with her male victim for letting his girlfriend (wife?) die, then stabs a tap into his heart and drinks his blood. Next thing we see, she goes for a jog over to the house of a diabetic old woman she's been 'taking care of' by swapping her medication for something else. Later she tosses a toaster into a bath just to see if it would really electrocute the victim she's already tied up inside. She seems to move into places, torture and kill their owners, have fun doing so, and yet not care about leaving her DNA behind.

What makes her even more fascinating is that she goes utterly hatstand at the sight of her own blood, but has no problem in the slightest causing copious amounts to other people. So cutting her finger is seriously scary to her but tearing out Don Carpenter's kneecap is great fun. Don is one of a number of characters here named after horror legends (Hitchcock, Hodder, Landis, Cunningham, Baker etc) and he's one of a trio of young friends who we see plenty of so we know they're going to be important to the story. He's also the victim that gets most of our serial killer's attention, until his friend Sam rescues him by pouring acid all over her face.

So halfway through this film, the protagonist is apparently no more, which makes us wonder all the more. Don Carpenter starts his recovery process and tries not to see his tormentor everywhere he looks, though that does give writer/director Robert Angelo Masciantonio plenty of opportunity to set up some great and highly surreal gore scenes. This is vicious stuff, make no mistake, and it's done very nicely indeed. There's one scene in particular with a glass drinks stirrer and Don's genitalia which will have all the men in the audience cringing for weeks. Indeed, the fact that even jaded horror mavens cringe was one of the key reasons why Neighbor made the pick for this year's International Horror & SciFi Film Festival. Regardess what else this film has to offer, that's a major achievement all on its own.

It also gives Masciantonio plenty of opportunity to start messing with our minds the way the killer messes with Don's because this isn't the simple torture porn it starts out to be. Now we start wondering how much of this is real and how much is dream, how much is flashback or imagination or the product of the mushrooms Don took the night before we first meet him. Is Don hallucinating to escape the torture or hallucinating because he escaped it? Is this over or isn't it? Shaking up our expectations like this halfway through a movie is the sort of thing that Hitchcock did with Psycho and that's an obvious influence here, especially given the blatant shower scene homage.

America Olivo is wonderful as the unnamed protagonist. She calls herself Christine at one point but we don't believe her. Whatever Masciantonio provides in the way of utter gross out gore, she counters by not acting like any serial killer we've ever seen. Bizarrely, as this is independent horror at its most independent, her previous role was in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. She seems to alternate Hollywood movies like Iron Man and the Friday the 13th reboot with indie flicks like The Thirst: Blood War and Bitch Slap. This is the model of actors like Ron Perlman, John Cassavetes or Crispin Glover, alternating the material that pays big money with the material that they care about, and look what they've given us to enjoy. Olivo is definitely someone to watch.

I wonder how this will play on the festival circuit, because I have a feeling it'll grow quite some reputation. It would fit pretty nicely as a double feature with Eben McGarr's Sick Girl. There are obvious similarities between the two female leads though they work in different directions. I'd really enjoy watching the double bill then throwing questions out at Leslie Andrews and America Olivo about how they felt about the characters they played and how they managed to be so matter of fact and dismissive and wring such subtle humour into what those characters did. While both films are undeniably and deliberately brutal, that subtle humour and characterisation is what carries them both.

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