Movie Review – Neighbors

Neighbors (1981)
Written by Larry Gelbart
Directed by John G. Avildsen

Animal House and The Blues Brothers are probably the only films John Belushi was in that a large number of people agree were good pictures. Neighbors is a movie that held a consensus as a complete disaster. This was the final film Belushi would star in, dying from a drug overdose, a combination of heroin and cocaine. When you look at the final product and Belushi in it, there’s a lot to like, but so many elements fail hard. Part of the film’s inability to find success in the box office lies in the fact that it’s an art-house picture, not a mainstream comedy. But when your two big names are Belushi and Dan Akroyd, and it’s 1981, you are going to try and sell this as a comedy for the crowds.

Neighbors, based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Berger, is not set in reality as we know it. This is a Kafkaesque realm where humans do not behave in the patterns we expect, emotions can shift from one end of the spectrum to the other on a dime. Characters can pop up in places where they couldn’t possibly be, and no one will make a note of it. The film is dripping with satire, which fails to hit its targets almost every time, but still remains a fascinating movie to watch unfold. Belushi and Akroyd play against their respective types, and it keeps the audience unsure of where this story is going.

The story follows Earl Keese (Belushi), suburbanite living a quiet, dull life whose peace is interrupted by the arrival of new neighbors on his two house cul de sac. Vic & Ramona (Akroyd and Cathy Moriarity) immediately disrupt and eventually wreak all-out chaos on Keese’s home and personal life. Throughout a single night, Earl loses his sanity while his wife and daughter seem to fall under the sway of the new neighbors’ charms and wildness. Events unfold in a cartoon style, ignoring conventions of time and space, turning minutes into hours, and moving characters around the neighborhood with no care about logic.

Before we get into why this film should be considered a horror flick, we need to address what caused it to run off the rails so disastrously. Every element of Neighbors seem destined to help is succeed. We have a director who had won an Oscar for Rocky, the producers behind Jaws. The script was penned by Larry Gelbart, who had developed MASH for television. Belushi and Akroyd were some of the hottest comedic talents at the time. Cathy Moriarty had debuted the previous year in Scorsese’s Raging Blue to huge acclaim.

Belushi and Akroyd originally played opposite characters when production began but decided to switch roles before filming began. The actors also argued on set with director Avildsen, their focus being on his inexperience making comedies. They were ultimately right as Neighbors falls totally flat as a satire, delivering only a handful of moments that could be considered funny. At one point, they lobbied to have Avildsen replaced by John Landis, we can only imagine if he could have salvaged the movie. Akroyd did significant rewrites to the screenplay, which angered Gelbart. Belushi’s drug use was a problem on set. Even the soundtrack, originally planned to be in the vein of punk music was replaced by one composed by Bill Conti (Avildsen’s collaborator on Rocky). The end result is a movie that doesn’t understand what it is and fails to really be anything at all.

That said, the horror doesn’t merely lie in the production nightmare that led up to the release and reception. I was reminded at moments of The ‘Burbs, another 80s horror comedy, though much better. I think if someone like Joe Dante had been given control of Neighbors, we’d have a better focused and sharper satire. When the movie does hit on the themes of suburban isolation and the paranoia of middle-class white men, it’s very effective. Vic is presented, through clothing and speech as a city person, a New York greaser cliche. He’s a cartoon con-man, and we see right through him. Earl hands over cash for Vic to pick up food for dinner, and we understand this will be the start of series of scams.
There’s a recurring motif of Nazism associated with Vic. Visually he’s a perfect Aryan, blond hair & blue eyes (provided by some unnerving colored contacts). He thumbs through a book with a large swastika emblazoned on the cover. There’s a remote control plane in the back of his truck that is modeled after a German Red Baron style fighter. When Vic’s dog needs correction, he barks commands in a harsh German tongue. All of this adds up to Vic possessing a menace about him. No one ever directly comments on this pattern of elements, but it’s hard not to notice them while you’re watching.

In the same way that Kubrick played with distorted space in The Shining to subconsciously unsettling the audience, there’s play with time going on in Neighbors. Earl eventually becomes disoriented and has to ask his wife what it is after so many starts and stops on his way to finally settle down for the night. She tells him it’s two in the morning, but soon after, he ends up paying Vic a visit. When he emerges from that bizarre conversation, the birds are chirping & it’s sunny outside. These are not continuity errors but intentional distortions.

Earl also seems to be incapable of holding a definite opinion on Vic and steeling himself for the next attempt at a con. At the start of the film, he gives his neighbor thirty dollars to go into town and buy food for everyone. Later, Earl spies through Vic’s kitchen window and sees the man preparing cheap spaghetti and store-bought sauce trying to pass it off as gourmet. The next morning, Vic asks for more money and to borrow the car so he can grab breakfast for everybody. Earl doesn’t seem able to protest and folds, eventually getting his vehicle taken away from him permanently.

Neighbors is a bizarre, disturbing film, and it’s a shame that so many production elements weren’t there to make it something better. I could easily see Tim & Eric remaking this novel and doing it right. If you’ve seen their Bedtime Stories horror anthology, it traffics in the same territory. The difference is that those comedians understand how comedy works, and Avildsen seems entirely out of his element. I would say Neighbors is most definitely worth a watch because it is unlike most films. It has piqued my interest in the novel, which I’ve heard is much better than what was adapted on film.

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