I was still in Strongsville, Ohio at the ACM conference on Friday Night, so I watched this low budget gem from Texas. In between news reports on Balloon Boy and his exploits. Turns out his dad was doing it to warn us about the reptilians from the middle Earth! Rock on Balloon family!
SUBURBAN NIGHTMARE (2004)
D. John Keeyes
Shock -O-Rama/ Pop Cinema
John Keeyes made a nice splash in the horror community with his first feature film AMERICAN NIGHTMARE that starred indie queen DEBBIE ROCHON. They were supposed to work together again from a story she created on this film, but due to an on-set accident she suffered on a different film that seriously injured her hand, she had to step away from acting for a short while, rendering her unable to do this film as well. No doubt this was a great disappointment, considering they had worked so well together previously and she had conceived the project herself. What ends up counting in that situation is the final product, and SUBURBAN NIGHTMARE is actually a winner.
The story deals with a couple whose marriage is completely falling falling apart. Charles (Trent Haaga who wrote the recent indie hit DEADGIRL and has acted in tons of indie horror projects) and Deborah (Brandy Little, who replaced Debbie Rochon) have been together for a number of years - since they were teens in fact - but things are coming apart at the seams. She has severe anger issues and is a recovering alcoholic, but only after a car crash that almost killed their seven year old daughter. He's a condescending ass who has a habit of being passive-aggressive, belittling and cold. She is bi-sexual and clearly leaning more towards being an outright lesbian. He has a wondering eye towards the ladies (though, to be fair, is not a cheater). The only thing they still seem to share in common, and the big thing that bonded them in the first place, is that they are sadistic serial killers.
We meet them at this juncture of their lives at the crossroads, heading down the path to destruction. The movie starts with the penultimate argument that couples have where things are clearly not going to get any better. That simple, quiet argument that seems like it's about nothing, but is about everything. In this situation, the argument is about how she went to the store to get groceries. took too long to get back, and forgot the whole reason she went was because they were having guests over for dinner. Of course, these guests were going to end up dead before the night is through, but that's beside the point, the argument is just a catalyst. Then while Deborah is checking on their daughter who is sick and sleeping, Charles kills the couple without her, setting off her anger and jealously. It all just builds from there.
Basically the first half of the movie is a Cassavette's style relationship drama that happens to be about killers. There's no gore in the first half of the movie.since the killings are off screen as the movie is focused on the dynamic between the characters. It really doesn't have to be about them being killers at all. The only real element in the first half about that is that Deborah is keeping a hostage in the basement that she abuses when her rage builds up. This woman is her bottom in a twisted side relationship. There is mention of another hostage, but we are told that Charles cooked her and they all ate her during dinner.
What the movie really becomes about is how relationships turn sour. How people can become bored, distracted and envious of each other to the point that it can destroy them and their once very strong bonds they had. We see these two in flashbacks and see how they are very much in love and care about each other, but as the movie goes along we see how details are moved into the light that affect their future. A scene on her birthday, for instance, where they discuss the day and her presents. She goes on about how wonderful everything was, how the presents were great and meant a lot, but how Charles didn't give her the one thing she asked for, the one piece of jewelry that would have said he loved her specifically. And how it wasn't the jewelry that mattered but the fact that he clearly wasn't listening to her. She says she's a selfish bitch for even saying it means so much for her. He allows her to get upset and angry, then opens a drawer and pulls out a small box with a locket in it, engraved to her, asking if this necklace she was talking about? She begins to cry and say she was indeed being a selfish bitch, and he comforts her and says she wasn't, and they embrace and say they love each other. It's a complex scene that shows her emotional fragility, a healthy dose of self-loathing and insecurity, and that she is indeed a little bit selfish. But, on the other hand, it shows that Charles is more than a bit manipulative, a little sadistic and very controlling. On the surface it's a sweet and romantic scene, but it carries the seeds of the damage that are to come for them. Later we see a flashback when she asks Charles if they can bring a woman into their bed because she is curious about having sex with women. She uses the old male ego bugaboo to lure him into agreeing to it, but then quickly makes several rules to the situation that make the whole thing advantageous to pretty much only her. She makes him promise that he will not fuck the other woman, and to promise that he will not find the other woman more attractive than her. When she rolls back over in bed the look on her face is one of worry and insecurity again, betraying that there is a lot more on her mind that simply sex. But Charles actually doesn't jump right away at the idea of a threesome, he actually seems to be a little taken aback by it and only agrees when reassured it's what she wants to do, an interesting turnabout to the standard expectation of what a man would do in that situation.
So the first half is pretty much all about character/relationship dynamic. There are the occasional horror situation in there, but for the most part this is what it is, and it works really well. But as the situation progresses it becomes more of a WAR OF THE ROSES style game of oneupmanship with serious horror overtones as the relationship disintegrates and they begin to actually try to at first physically hurt one another, and then to try to kill each other. This for me is when the movie jumps the rails a bit, since the strength of the movie had been in the really well developed script and characters up until that point. But once it starts becoming more of a conventional horror movie, it inevitably becomes about plot mechanics to get things moving. A smart movie moves down a few notches to try to deliver the expected genre goods, if you will. As they begin to battle each other situations are set up, just to make situations later possible or make sense. For example, in Deborah's rush to kill Charles the first time, she tapes kitchen knives under the table, even though she is attempting to poison him. When comes home he manages to get her tied up on the table, but leaves enough slack in the ropes that she can reach the knives. The whole thing becomes about convenience - the knives are there so she can get them, not for any other reason. Her ropes are loose, so she can get to the knives, not because his character would do that crappy of a job tying her, because we pretty much have established he is not that sloppy about his work. These kind of details become difficult to overlook.
There are also a few too many unnecessary red herrings in the mix too. (SPOILER AHEAD) At one point the daughter tells Deborah that Charles has been touching her and he hurt her while doing it, thus setting Deborah into a rage that gets her moving enough to confront him, thus propelling the movie into the last part of the second act. But then just as they get into the action, this detail is forgotten as they discuss his perhaps cheating on her and the whole child molesting thing is forgotten until much later, when it's revealed to have never happened. This whole scenario is designed to momentarily make you hate Charles, but is so promptly forgotten that is doesn't matte and ultimately there is not purpose for it at all. The movie would have been better served to have either not had it in there , or to went full ahead and had him done it and dealt with the fall out. In the final act there is a reveal about the daughter that brings some things full circle, though it is not a clearly handled as it should be (though to be fair it is pretty obvious from early on). Then it gets back into the business of them trying to kill each other before a really very moving and depressing climax.
What hangs the movie together is the impressive and strong performances of the two leads. This is the kind of chamber piece movie that could work just as well as a play or stage performance. The whole thing is up to the leads to carry off, and if they aren't up to the job than it's sunk. Ive liked Trent Haaga since he debuted in Troma's TERROR FIRMER but he has pretty much done only comedy roles. It's really good to see him bite off something more meaty and serious here and really rock it. His screen writing shows someone very thoughtful, so it's great to see him deliver a performance in that same realm. Brandy Little stepped into a hard situation by replacing Debbie Rochon, who is much adored by her fans and critics alike. So Little was kind of in a position to fail in a lot of ways. Instead she ends up doing the opposite by taking the bull by the horns and turning in an incredible performance that's pretty amazing. Outside of a couple of places where it becomes clear that director Keeyes obviously let her ad lib too much (she relentlessly says the word "fuck" when at a loss for something else to say. A common ad lib mistake that I've allowed to happen on my own sets), she is otherwise a powerhouse. Looking at her IMDB page, I am disappointed to see she hasn't done anything in two years. She is phenomenal. Her and Haaga work really well together, too. Their scene where he has a gun on her, where she has hit the breaking point saying she doesn't love him anymore and he's telling her he'll kill her if she leaves, is amazing. There are huge budgeted movies that win awards that are no where nearly as well acted as this scene.
Ultimately as a critic it isn't fair to criticize a movie on what's not on screen as opposed to what is. But while watching SUBURBAN NIGHTMARE, I couldn't help but to think to myself that in a lot of ways this would have been just as good, if not even better, not being a horror film at all. Just to have let it play out as a twisted domestic drama ala something like John McNaughten's NORMAL LIFE or some Fassbinder movie, where we see them disintegrate until the inevitable end. It could have included the more twisted elements, including the threesome stuff and even the unwilling sex slaves, and just stayed away from the serial killing angle. Then I think been a better film, because it would have not gotten side tracked in genre plot mechanics. But even as it stands, the film is an impressive piece of work, with some super well done direction, great writing, and two lead knock out performances to be reckoned with.
I am not crazy about this trailer as it sells it as more of a sexy black comedy, which it really isn't. There are touches of both, but the movie is darker and weirder than this makes it look.
Reviews © Andy Copp