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Simon Read [Celluloid 09.15.16] thriller

The Good Neighbor (formerly known as The Waiting) is a fairly slick and effective thriller from director Kasra Farahani. It stars Logan Miller and Keir Gilchrist as Ethan and Sean, a pair of teenage misfits embarking on a kind of prankish social experiment which involves convincing their curmudgeonly neighbour Harold (a grizzled James Caan) that his house is haunted by malevolent sprits. They install cameras, microphones and high-tech equipment in Harold's home, including special gizmos which control the windows, lights, stereo, thermostat and even the doors - all operated from Ethan's desktop computer in his bedroom. What starts off as a (relatively) harmless practical joke takes a sinister turn when the old man reacts to this apparent haunting in unexpected and dangerous ways.

When watching a screener for review on a laptop on my own, I always consider it a small miracle if I can sit through the whole thing without stopping for a while and doing some laundry or making a sandwich. In this case, I watched the entire 95 minutes of The Good Neighborwithout pausing once, and this is testament to the filmmaker's skill in generating real tension and suspense from the material. Although the style of the film feels very familiar - a combination of POV shots from characters holding cameras, fixed shots from the remote cameras, as well standard shot set-ups - it all works reasonably well. I didn't have particularly high hopes for this movie, so was pleasantly surprised at how watchable it turned out to be.

The film benefits from starting with a fairly light-hearted and jokey tone, as Ethan (a bratty wannabe filmmaker) and Sean (an impressionable rich-kid nerd) discuss their plan, picking up last-minute supplies at the hardware store before sneaking into Harold's house while the old geezer's out at the liquor store. At a party with some friends, the boys brag about their idea, justifying its inherent cruelty by explaining what a bastard Harold is, that he beat his wife, killed a local dog, and how he bullied them both as kids. While we're not entirely convinced by these claims, it becomes clear that Harold is a genuine misanthrope who drinks himself into a whisky stupor on a nightly basis. As Ethan and Sean begin their 'hauntings', Harold becomes increasingly insular and demented, retreating into his locked (and therefore unmonitored) basement. Ethan wants to discover what's down there, but Sean has developed a conscience and seeks to end the project immediately. As they bicker and argue, things slip out of control, and their experiment develops into something altogether darker and more twisted.

The action is punctuated by court scenes of a murder trial where characters comment retrospectively on events taking place during the main narrative. We only hear testimony from supporting characters, so we're left in the dark as to exactly who's on trial for whose murder. It's hard to say whether this technique works or not. In one sense it's kind of a neat gimmick, but in another way it feels like a cheap a narrative device employed to give the film a bit of edge, add a sense of mystery and keep us guessing. The same goes for occasional flashbacks giving us insights into Harold's past. I suppose for a film which doesn't aim too high it makes sense to use all the tools in the bag, but it also illustrates one issue I had with this movie.

The film touches on several ideas, but doesn't give them due consideration. Ethan is a spoilt punk, a self-obsessed bully who dreams of one million YouTube hits, and the film highlights that ubiquitous modern obsession with instant fame and success which inspires kids to create their own video channels and projects. There's an opportunity here for the script to examine the character's motivations, but it only pays lip-service to the idea, as Ethan clumsily attempts to manipulate his friend, pushing their project further into ethically dubious territory. It's unfair to point to those films which successfully examine the extent to which people will go to achieve celebrity, as this isn't the focus of The Good Neighbor, but nevertheless it feels like something of a wasted opportunity - particularly towards the end as the film shifts to events surrounding of the trial and its aftermath. (I kept thinking of how John Waters would have handled the trial scenes, but then I'm completely insane.)

Similarly, while cool and inventive, the hauntings themselves form only a very small part of the story, despite this film being marketed as something of a supernatural-style horror. The cineliterate characters reference Night of the Living Dead and The Shining, and the film enjoys paying respect to horror classics, but this is essentially a suspense thriller and a morality tale. I would have liked to have seen more focus on Harold's reaction to the fact that there appears to be an actual goddamn ghost in his house.

There are some good ideas, but it feels as though they're passed over too quickly to leave much impact. All that said, the film is successful if taken on its own terms. Certainly, if I were a teenager looking for a good thriller aimed at my age-group, I'd be happy watching this film - though I'm grateful these days that I'm not a teenager. There are other issues I could mention: James Caan is game, but very underused, which is a shame as he can do so much more than simply grunt and scowl and look sad; the two lead characters are both unlikable and annoying (particularly Ethan) although they've probably been written that way; and one need forgive large plot-holes, wild coincidences and gaps in logic in order to fully enjoy the ride. But hell, if you can, it is an enjoyable ride.

I'm glad there are still films being made for teenagers which have a bit of bite. I'd heard that last year's Unfriended, a film which just sounded so fist-eatingly stupid, was apparently as bad as it looked, and there's probably another Paranormal Activity film on the way, so give yourself a treat and see The Good Neighbor instead. It's not great, but it is good.

The Good Neighbor opens September 16.

Recommended Release: Good Neighbors

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JC (6 years ago) Reply

I thought the idea was great but just weren't enough thrills and chills for me. Had the suspense been kicked up a notch or two it would have been really good. At least it was original.


danR (2 years ago) Reply

Somewhat spoiler, stop now.

Often the closing 30 seconds resolves what a movie is <i>really</i> about, or else presents an artfully arranged tableau of ambiguities.

And I must emphasize 'artfully'. We see a face and we are really being asked to scrutinize the expression; because we are panned around the face, which fills the screen. Is that Ethan's passive expression? Or is he smiling... is he starting to smile, or what? He's standing before a crowd. Does he really perceive the people, or not. Or do they figure into some construct building behind those eyes?

The creators want us to drawn some conclusions, but I'm drawing a blank; and I regard that as a failing of the tableau.

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