If you didn’t know that John Carpenter despised the Reagan years with a furious passion, you certainly will once you get hit over the head with this 1988 sci-fi satire starring former WWE champion Roddy Piper as a working-class drifter who stumbles across a worldwide alien conspiracy to turn us all into the mindless consumerist slaves we kind of already are. Carpenter has certainly had cinematic political agendas before (most notably Escape From New York) but never one this… well, obvious; however, as heavy-handed as They Live may be, it’s also one of the director’s most joyously entertaining films thanks to Piper’s (heh heh) rowdy performance (“I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubble gum”) — watching him blast the holy hell out of a bunch of ugly extra-terrestrials (which, if you aren’t wearing those special sunglasses, look just like regular people) with a shotgun in a bank is as cheer-inducing as any wrasslin’ theatrics he ever pulled off in the ring. By the way, the now-legendary alley fight between Piper and Keith David was originally supposed to last only 20 seconds; it’s now one of the longest one-on-one movie fights ever, clocking in at well over five minutes.
This moody and rather weird mystery would’ve been right at home in the indie-happy days of the ’90s, and wouldn’t you know it, the story actually takes place in the dead of winter ’95, as three tenants in an old apartment house have to decide who they can and can’t trust as their small Montreal neighborhood is besieged by a serial killer. Good Neighbors is actually more of a strange character study about very strange people than it is a rip-roaring thriller, though the various relationships and interactions of the tenants — which include the cat-loving Louise (Emily Hampshire), the reclusive, wheelchair-bound Spencer (Scott Speedman) and the neurotic Victor (Jay Baruchel) — often create enough of a feeling of paranoia and suspicion without the serial killer subplot. The apartment building itself is as much a character as its tenants, and an intimidating one it is — you get a sense that this is a building where people don’t go to live so much as die, and sometimes in horrible ways. While the story is rather thin, the oppressive tone and atmosphere will suck you right into this macabre tale… even though there’s nothing particularly satisfying waiting for you at the end.
Many have crowned The People Under the Stairs as Wes Craven‘s sickest and most demented film to date, though after the DIY depravity of The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, it almost seems like self-parody — especially after Craven had (seemingly) graduated to “classier” horror like A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Serpent and the Rainbow. People proves that you can’t really go home again, as this tale of incestuous real estate psychos who keep their misbehaving “children” locked away in the basement (where they’ve succumbed to cannibalism) isn’t nearly as shocking, edgy or even as funny as it seems to think it is… but then again, hell, maybe it is? It’s hard to tell what Craven is going for here, and the whole thing just oozes with pointlessness and needless excess — though that’s not to say the film is without its over-the-top pleasures, which include a completely ridiculous production design that turns this house of horrors into a labyrinthian freak show complete with false walls, hidden rooms, booby traps and a secret treasure room filled with cash and gold. As the evil parents/siblings, Everett McGill and Wendy Robie seem to be in on a joke that the rest of the cast isn’t… or maybe it’s just their form of mutiny on the whole thing? If even Craven himself knows what’s going on, he’s certainly not sharing.
Writer-director Neil LaBute’s follow-up to his impressive debut, In the Company of Men, is another frank and brutal examination of how miserable and horrible people can be, though Your Friends & Neighbors doesn’t pack as powerful a sucker punch due to some stylized flourishes (such as the distinct lack of exterior locations and establishing shots and the use of rhyming character names like “Barry,” “Terri” and “Mary” — which aren’t revealed until the closing credits). The film follows three upper-class couples whose various sexual dissatisfactions lead to them all engaging in intertwining affairs with each other, which of course only leads to more pain and misery. Luckily, the cast is totally game for this emotional torture, with Jason Patric in particular delivering a chilling performance as a doctor who picks up women and dumps them just for the pleasure of watching them cry; Ben Stiller is also surprisingly effective as a theatre instructor whose aggressive yammering in bed (“We! Are! In! Total! Harmony!”) is rejected by his wife, played by Catherine Keener (“Is there any chance you could shut the fu** up?”). Your Friends & Neighbors is, ultimately, an effective symphony of nastiness — if you’re into LaBute’s rather rambunctious Theatre of Cruelty, then by all means take a seat in the front row.
One of the above-average episodes of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, “Family” stars Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar as Celia and David, a young couple who move into a suburban home and meet their seemingly super-nice neighbor, Harold (George Wendt). Wouldn’t you know it, Harold is actually a psycho killer — but he’s also something of a family man, dressing up the skeletons of his victims as his make-believe wife, daughter, mother and father, interacting (and arguing) with them as if they were fully alive. His “wife” ends up being rather jealous of Celia, and with good reason — Harold is starting to think divorce and looking to Celia as his replacement bride. This gleefully sick fable features some of director John Landis’ best work in years (and is a considerable improvement from his lame MoH Season One offering, “Deer Woman”); he balances comedy and horror almost as well as he did oh so many years ago in An American Werewolf in London, with Wendt delivering a tour-de-force performance as a very disturbed man you can’t help but kind of like (come on, it’s Norm!). The only real weakness of “Family” is its somewhat surprising but completely unnecessary twist ending which reeks not so much of clever irony as it does of not knowing how to really end the story.