I don’t know exactly what it is, but there’s a predisposition among people in suburbia and small towns in general to feel the need to watch people. Especially new people. Sure, everyone puts on an inviting face, but there’s always a sense of “who are these people and where do they come from?”
There’s a fascination there. There’s an addiction to small town gossip and the need to believe that the people around you are up to something. It probably stems from the need to prove that you—the general you, not you the reader, specifically—are the normal one in your neighborhood, that your life has stability by believing that the people next door are probably murderers. Of course, the reality is that sometimes you’re right.
I mean, John Wayne Gacy was somebody’s neighbor. So was Dennis Rader. But these guys, being very calculating real life serial killers, were also pillars of their community so that nobody would suspect them. For the most part, nobody ever does, and that’s what’s interesting about this niche type of horror film for me. All it takes is one person to believe the neighbor is up to something and nobody to believe them, and then you have a story.
Disturbia is one of the best examples of this type of horror movie in recent memory. It stars a young Shia LeBeouf, almost predicting his later career shenanigans as this time he’s on house arrest and spends the majority of the feature confined to his home. He’s suspicious of his next door neighbor who is very clearly a serial killer but nobody around him wants to believe that. It tries to play like a modern Rear Window but reads more like Fright Night with the vampire element stripped away.
Apt Pupil is a sort of middle-of-the-road adaptation of one of the scariest things Stephen King ever written. Bryan Singer’s movie is saved by the premise and by the unstable lead performance by Brad Renfro and Ian McKellan’s chilling but supremely layered acting. The story is basically about a young man obsessed with Nazi culture who finds out a former Nazi is hiding out in his neighborhood and forces the man to relive the grisly details of his past on the grounds that he’ll tell everyone who he really is if the old man doesn’t do exactly what he says.
Pacific Heights is, more than anything, an amazing showcase for Michael Keaton as an actor. Sometimes, your nosy neighbor is a tenant renting space in your own house. Keaton is weird from the get-go and you know that there’s something off about the guy, but the way in which it unravels is amazing to watch. Definitely a film that doesn’t get enough credit.
Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs is one of the reigning kinds of this small sub-genre. It’s in many ways the ultimate nosy neighbor movie. Because even if (spoiler alert) they turn out to be right, their actions and paranoia are inexcusable although they are hilarious. It’s such a fun, underrated flick. Absolutely one of Tom Hanks’s best comedic performances.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is the ultimate film about suspecting your neighbors are up to something, being ridiculed for your voyeuristic behavior, doubting yourself, your morals and your mental health only to turn out to be right about everything. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a masterpiece. For younger audiences of a more modern sensibility, I think it’s one of the Hitchcock pictures that actually holds up best for modern viewers.
Rear Window has gotten so big that it’s almost beyond its own concept, to label it as a nosy neighbor film almost seems beneath it because it’s one of the pinnacles of cinema in general. Fright Night, for that reason, might take the cake for the suspicious neighbor subgenre. But, admittedly, I’m biased in that it’s one of my favorite horror movies in general. It’s such a perfect blending of genres, from teen comedy to paranoid thriller to outright, genuine horror show. It’s a blast.