Cult Cinema: Neighbors (1981)

Before Efron and Rogen, there was Belushi and Aykroyd.

"awwwww.....look at his cute
little cheeks!!!"
Hey all, let's talk about “Neighors!” No, not that new comedy due this week with Seth Rogen squaring off with a young hothead who happens to live right next door. Though it stands to reason that the neighbors-from-hell sub-genre has produced some of the funniest films of all time, let's talk one of the oddest dark comedies from two of their era's best comedians, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. 

Earl Keese (Belushi), is an uptight, middle-class straight guy neighbor at the end of what looks like a nightmarish lot of swampland with powerlines towering far above their home.  He saunters home from work each night to plunk down in his easy chair in front of television, his bored housewife Enid (Kathyrn Walker), and a daughter recently expelled from college. Violently interrupting his sullen tranquility is the arrival of Vic (Aykroyd), a hyperactive, obnoxious, and potentially psychotic young party animal with Ramona (Cathy Moriarty), a sultry seductress at his side.  Both proceed to turn Earl's life upside down with increasingly bizarre antics they pull on him.

For Belushi and Aykroyd, an inspired idea arose involving the duo switching roles, with the usual party animal Belushi prim and proper and straight-guy Aykroyd going nuts. In this adaptation of Thomas Berger's novel of the same name, “Neighbors”, however, was a truly curious misfire in dark comedy neither Belushi nor Aykroyd were proud of. From the get go, there was something inherently wrong with the production, but who can take all the blame for it?  While there have been many opposing views on what ultimately turned “Neighbors” from a sound idea to a box office flop, it's well known it's two stars pointed to its Academy Award winning “Rocky” director, John G. Avildsen.

I mean, hey, when you think comedy, you think “Rocky,” right? Not since William Friedkin's “Deal of the Century” or Steven Spielberg's “1941” (also a Belushi/Aykroyd vehicle) has comedy been this mishandled in spite of featuring otherwise hilarious individuals. It's not to say great directors haven't achieved comedic genius (think Kubrick's “Dr. Strangelove”), but it goes without saying great directors sometimes aren't suited for the art. To put it mildly, Belushi reportedly spoke to one of his producers about hiring a hitman to off the director when attempts to replace Avildsen with director John Landis or take over production himself had failed.
"I already told you. I'm not
into girls."
Although well shot with surreal lighting and fog machines, an undeniable stake through the heart of “Neighbors” is Avildsen's regular composer, Bill Conti. Conti, who has produced the “Rocky” theme, here creates a most aggravatingly obnoxious score that tries so hard to sound like a campy variation on the 'Twilight Zone' theme it's desperation tears away at the comedy.   Belushi, in particular, objected to the score ultimately used for the film, and repeatedly vied for punk rock group 'Fear' to do the score instead. What remains isn't an outright bad film, as what's there is well made and a consistent plot emerges involving Earl Keese warming up to the offending neighbors with time.

Earl's eventual transformation itself echoes the crux of Lester Burnam's awakening from “American Beauty”. Some of its surreal, somewhat illogical dark episodes don't so much play off of Earl as they symbolize his outlook on life. There are intermittent moments that do hint at the comic swagger of the duo, but they're so few and far between that most viewers were indifferent to the oddity before them. Sadly, this would become known over the years as Belushi's final film, after a drug overdose took his life shortly after the film's premiere. Over the years, interest in Belushi's movies helped give the film a cult life and it's still the first film I think of when the title 'Neighbors' gets reused time and time again.

-Andrew Kotwicki