Thrillers Are Not What They Used To Be

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LOGOIt’s movie trivia time! What do the following film characters have in common? Alex Forrest, Evelyn Draper, Max Cady, and Harry Powell. You have the answer? Each one of them is a terrifying stalker in a classic thriller.

Let’s review for a moment. Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) was the wacko obsessed with Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) in “Fatal Attraction,” and Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) is the nut who terrorized a late-night disc jockey (Clint Eastwood) in Carmel, Calif. In “Cape Fear” Max Cady (Robert Mitchum in the 1962 version and Robert De Niro in 1991) was the mean ass who stalked the lawyer (Gregory Peck – 1962, and Nick Nolte – 1991) responsible for sending him to prison. And of course Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum again) was the religious fanatic on the trail of those two children along the banks of the Ohio River.

All of these chillers were terrifically effective because the stalkers were so depraved that they scared the living hell out of viewers. We’re talking about seriously demented nut jobs here, dear readers, and without them the films would have fallen flat. “The Boy Next Door” starring Jennifer Lopez, John Corbett, and Ryan Guzman is a stellar example of exactly what I mean. This pathetic excuse for a stalker thriller has about as much fright power as walk through the floral department at Kroger.

Lopez plays Claire Peterson, a high school English teacher recently separated from her husband, Garrett (Corbett), who has been having an affair with his secretary. (Isn’t that original?) The two of them have a 17-year-old son, Kevin (Ian Nelson), who is very upset by his parents’ separation. Claire lives next to a guy confined to a wheelchair, and his 20-year-old grandnephew, Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman), has just moved in to help the poor fellow get along.

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Of course Noah is a hunk. Of course Noah befriends Kevin. Of course Noah fixes Claire’s garage door for her. Of course Kevin’s dad takes him on a weekend fishing trip. Of course that night Claire looks out her window and sees the naked Noah in his room. Of course Noah sees Claire watching him. Of course the next evening Noah has trouble thawing a chicken. Of course he calls Claire to come over and help him. Of course she goes. Of course they have sex. Of course she thinks it’s a mistake. Of course he doesn’t. Of course he wants more. Of course she doesn’t. The stalking game now on, of course.

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At first, Noah’s attempts to lure Claire into a full-blown affair are rather tame. He even enrolls in her class at school so that he can convince how much he loves Homer’s “Iliad,” but when Claire continues to reject his advances, Noah turns his aggression up a notch at a time until it becomes very nasty indeed. But everything he does from writing profane messages on walls to filling her classroom with suggestive photographs completely lacks any originality, and the result is a movie that’s a giant cliché for every stalker film ever made. The script was written by Barbara Curry, and in the production notes she explained what she was trying to accomplish with the character of Claire.

“I wanted Claire to be a strong character who is deeply flawed. But Claire’s flaw is not that she succumbs to temptation by sleeping with this young man. Her real flaw is that she can’t forgive her husband for his infidelity. It’s a flaw of pride, really. I thought it would be interesting to have this strong, proud woman make a mistake that’s equal to her husband’s, so she would finally understand how he could have made his mistake and be deserving of forgiveness. That’s the moral of this story. We can’t be so strong that we are unable to forgive.”

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Curry’s intention with her first screenplay is both admirable and ambitious, but I think the problem with the film is in its casting. Let’s face it. Lopez’s acting skills may be adequate, but they certainly aren’t outstanding. With the exception of a Golden Globe Nomination for best actress back in 1998 for her performance in “Selena,” her acting resume has the dubious distinction of including seven Razzie nominations, and one of those was for the worst actress of the decade in 2010.

But this film’s failure as a bona fide terrifying story doesn’t rest with Lopez alone. As lackluster as her performance is, Guzman is simply pathetic as the fear-inducing agent. If you think of the films I mentioned earlier, you’ll recall just how frightening the villains in those were. Both Close and Walter imbued their characters with a maniacal gleam in their eyes that made your skin crawl, and in the “Cape Fear” films Mitchum and De Niro’s demeanors were enough to make you seek refuge in a nearby hole in the ground. And with his portrayal of Harry Powell in “Night of the Hunter,” Mitchum elevated religious fanaticism into monomania of the highest order.

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Unfortunately Guzman just doesn’t have the ability to transform himself into a convincing psycho. In fact he is so bad that Noah at times almost seems like a parody of a villain. Maybe Guzman is just too pretty to be a scumbag, or maybe his acting range is too limited for a part like this. Whatever it is, he simply doesn’t get the job done, and thus this “thriller” fails miserably.

And so the hunt for a good film this time of year continues. Last week we looked at an inferior comedy (“The Wedding Ringer”), and this week we have a thriller without thrills, a horror film without horror, and a suspense movie without suspense. If you go to see “The Boy Next Door” hoping to be frightened, forget it. We might as well have Fonzie playing the sociopath.

It’s time for the moment of truth. “The Boy Next Door” has been billed as “an erotic thriller,” but because it doesn’t even approach that and because it embarrasses that whole genre by being so bad, it earns the final score of a deservedly dismal three. Skip it and rent “Fatal Attraction.”

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