THE MAN NEXT DOOR is a 1997 film that only came out on VHS. The cover has a big skull, a scary house and a very dated font choice. It’s written and directed by Rod C. Spence, known for his raw suspense. Or perhaps he’s known for editing 2000s reality TV shows like Survivor, The Apprentice, American Chopper and Jersey Shore, which he did for a while after this (and his websight says he writes screenplays and novels).
It was released as part of First Rites, which was an imprint from Hollywood Video (the biggest American video store chain besides Blockbuster) for low budget independent movies from new directors. Showcasing new voices or whatever. It fascinates me because it doesn’t seem to me like they would earn any more money from having THE MAN NEXT DOOR available than just having more copies of CON AIR or whatever. With some research I learned that it was someone else’s deal that partnered with Hollywood in the U.S. and Rogers in Canada, but still, there must’ve been someone within the shitty corporate structure of Hollywood Video that really believed in this mission and convinced someone to get behind it. That’s pretty cool.
So the tape starts out with a logo and sort of a drum and bass version of the “Funky Drummer” beat, a cheesy ad for 5-day rentals at Hollywood Video, trailers for other First Rites films, and a “Director’s Mission Statement.” Spence is walking out doors, giving a very professional Turner Movie Classics worthy introduction, referring to his film as a “Hitchcockian thriller,” talking about how as a film buff it was amazing to work with Virginia Mayo (THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES – this was her last film), how he made it to study how traumatic events in one’s youth can lead to homicidal tendencies, because “Ted Bundys exist everywhere.”
I don’t want to make too much fun of him, because I know he was just doing the sort of introduction they wanted from him, but his self-serious tone makes it really funny when you see the very home-made, often laughable and definitely not psychologically complex movie he’s been talking up.
It opens at a Mardi Gras parade – not the fancy kind you usually see in movies, not a downtown one, but a small town type of thing, in kind of a strip mall type area. You can see a freeway exit, an Arby’s and a Regal Cinema. I like that – it looks like it’s a real parade, they filmed on location, so you get to see something real that’s not usually in movies. (IMDb lists Frierson and Natchitoches, Louisiana as the filming locations.) Also there’s a river boat going by in the background right before the first murder scene. An engaged couple wanders off into a grassy area. Male fiancee gets killed behind some bushes, killer comes out wearing his mask. As female fiancee dies of a stab wound she says, “Wedding dress… so beautiful.”
Our lead is Vivian (Laura Lael Ellis, no other credits), a young woman dealing with some trauma which she awkwardly exposits by caressing a framed photo of her childhood crush and saying, “Clayton, I bet you could’ve saved my parents. You wouldn’t’ve let them die in that car crash.”
Little does she know that 1) Clayton (John Hardison, also in a 2003 comedy with Frank Grillo in it called APRIL’S SHOWER) is about to come back into her life and 2) actually he’s a total psychopath now. She figures it out before everyone else, but no one believes her, on account of her mental health issues. In my opinion she seems a little too passive about the situation, for example just rolling with the punches when her mom invites him over to the house for dinner.
I guess she’s not passive in that she sneaks into his house to try to find proof that he’s a killer. He’s in the shower but hears her so he runs out and chases her around outside wearing only a towel. That was kind of cool. Probly a deliberate subversion of a trope.
He likes to walk around flipping a knife, you can tell he practiced that. Most of his psycho stuff just comes across as self conscious, but one of his early scenes made me laugh. A woman gets into her car talking to her friend Karen, but he’s in the passenger seat.
“Wait, who are you? You’re not Karen.”
“Karen’s in the trunk.” He opens his switchblade.
Okay, I mostly laughed because “oh no” seemed like an understatement.
I’m sorry to be laughing at the movie, but you gotta take what you can get. One of my favorite parts is when they’re at dinner making small talk about work and the dad, who works at an orphanage, immediately launches into a monologue about how sad it is that being an orphan might lead one to a life of crime, a very simplistic and even more transparent attempt to explain why Clayton is one of these Ted Bundys that exist everywhere.
My other scene involves some frat boys who are big muscle dudes who must be close to 30 and keep talking about going to “the frat party.” Also they act like 12 year old neighborhood bullies, leading to this dialogue exchange:
“Let’s give this guy a wedgie.”
“Just what the doctor ordered!”
Maybe Rod C. Spence really was trying to homage the Master of C. Spence, but like most movies I review for Slasher Search there’s some definite HALLOWEEN influence. In particular there’s a closet scene where he knocks the hangers all around like Michael does, and a thing where someone shoots him and then turns their back and then the body disappears.
The ending is pleasingly light-hearted, though. After the fake out death Vivian manages to overpower him in the attic he abducts people to and puts his own handcuffs on him. Then she just leaves him there and laughs about it as the cops arrive. Not worth hanging around for.
The main actors other than Mayo all seem like your standard awkward first timers in regional horror movies. So it’s funny that David Huddleston, right before playing the title role in THE BIG LEBOWSKI, plays the sheriff. He shows up and has a scene and doesn’t phone it in and you’re like, “Oh shit. That’s a real actor. That really adds something here.”
I’m afraid it wasn’t enough for me to like this one. But, as I often say because I like to be positive, I’ve definitely seen worse.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.