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FANTASTICA Presents: The Killer At Your Doorstep, or Courting the Domestic Thriller

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One of the scariest positions a person can find themselves in is one of vulnerability. To let someone into your heart, head, or home is an unnerving proposition, and one that can get very tragic very quickly. For every good thing that could come of such interpersonal exchanges, there are millions of horrible things that can occur as well. And it seems now more than ever we live in a state of constantly being on-guard and reluctant to all the messiness of human interaction; we text our friends and loved ones instead of calling them due to a fear of awkward pauses ,and place tape over the cameras on our computers because “you never know who’s watching.”

With this heightened level of social paranoia, it’s no surprise that a recent trend has emerged at theaters around the country: the resurgence of the domestic thriller, or as I like to call it, “stalker porn.” In this subgenre, violent obsession is the name of the game, as the protagonists of these stories find themselves fighting to survive the sinister agenda of the person who has managed to infiltrate their lives, either by seducing them until their true nature is revealed or simply by breaking into their house and wreaking havoc. They often happen in suburban landscapes (although not always), and usually the film will have a heavy dose of drama before the genre elements kick in, but nevertheless, they’re almost unmistakable in thematic similarities and presentation.

These films enjoyed their first bout of popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, with films such as THE STEPFATHER, FATAL ATTRACTION, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE and BASIC INSTINCT charging to box office success and cultural fascination while teaching a whole generation of moviegoers not trust step-parents (besides all the other reasons they usually don’t), not too fool around, and just not to get involved with any ethically dubious people/situations in general. And as with any cinematic trend, then came the hosts of imitators that persisted throughout the remainder of the 1990s, from THE CRUSH, which featured a young Alicia Silverstone, to the Marky Mark Wahlberg/ Reese Witherspoon vehicle FEAR, as well as the POISON IVY franchise, which offered continuous tales of devious femme fatales and psychotic boyfriends with diminishing returns.

For a short while, the domestic thriller came back in vogue with occasional entries that popped up throughout the 2000s: SWIMFAN, OBSESSED, and of course DISTURBIA, which played almost like a teenage remake of REAR WINDOW, which all did their own riffing on the angles they were given, i.e. OBSESSED was a “cheater’s justice” story about a woman being obsessed over a man she didn’t actually have an affair with! Subversion, sort of! However, even the most successful of these titles were, at best, considered a sleeper hit, and in a post-FUNNY GAMES era, there was few critics who would give these often formulaic a pass.

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However, the tide began to change slightly in 2013, when Brad Anderson’s THE CALL took the domestic thriller outside of the home, crafting a suspenseful and, at times, disturbing abduction picture from the film. That film grossed nearly $70 million on a $13 million budget; not blockbuster numbers, but it briefly rejuvenated star Halle Berry’s career and even pulled in good notes from critics. A year later, NO GOOD DEED, starring Taraji P. Henson and Idris Elba, and also pulled in better-than-expected numbers, even if it didn’t win over critics. But a trend wasn’t necessarily noticed until almost six months later, when a little picture titled THE BOY NEXT DOOR hit screens in January 2015.

In spite of receiving a myriad of negative notices and opening on a weekend in a box office dumpster month, the Jennifer Lopez vehicle about an obsessive one-night stand managed to pull in $14.9 million on its opening weekend. Produced on the cheap by Blumhouse for a reported $4 million, the film (directed by THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS helmer Rob Cohen) grossed over $50 million dollars and re-established Lopez as an on-screen box office winner.

Eight months later, Blumhouse Productions returned with another domestic thriller, THE GIFT, which focused about a man’s past catching up with him. Despite an odd marketing campaign that stressed real life crimes of passion following schoolhouse transgressions, the Joel Edgerton-directed flick was a critical darling and managed to ride word-of-mouth box office business deep into the summer, pulling in over $33 million on a $5 million budget. 

With a third domestic thriller, the Michael Ealy-starring stalker film THE PERFECT GUY, set to open up on September 11th, it does appear that tense tales of one-sided psychotic passions and decades-old grudges are making a comeback in mainstream cinema. But no film, or filmic trend, happens in a vacuum. What is it about the current culture that is incubating this resurgence?

The aforementioned influence of technology is one aspect for sure; living in a world where all of your life choices (good and bad) are documented forever makes it easy for stories of past sins coming back to haunt us more relevant than ever; it isn’t as though we aren’t living in a world where entire lives and careers can be ruined by a damning viral video. And considering that part of our culture is becoming so regular, it’s almost as double lives are ripe for examination in these types of character-driven mysteries.

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Perhaps it’s our recent and long-overdue examination of rape culture that has led to stories about predatory men who won’t take no for an answer invading someone’s life and repeatedly coming back. The stakes for a woman in the dating world- Hell, in the world period- are much higher, so such stories are certainly geared to speak to their fears of dealing with real life creeps. And with the days of urban swell horror long gone, the fact that these persistent sociopaths can monitor and reach them at their homes provides a cautionary tale that is unfortunately relevant to so many women today.

Conversely, there’s also a bit of a dark fantasy element going on here, as the actors portraying these wolves in sheep’s clothing are often charming and incredibly handsome. There is always a thrilling element to the idea of surrendering control and giving into desire, even if the movie’s remaining runtime focuses on the potentially disastrous consequences of it. 50 SHADES OF GREY was a box office smash in February, and any fans of that film and its source novels would list that idea of seduction and domination as its main appeal. It should surprise no one that the audiences that turned up for THE BOY NEXT DOOR were predominantly female. And even the actors get in on the fun as well; lord knows performers like Michael Ealy, Jason Bateman and Idris Elba leap at the opportunity to play characters with dark sides and mean streaks as opposed to the traditional leading man role.

And then there’s the fact that these films are often marketed to audiences that are rarely catered to in the theatrical box office market. NO GOOD DEED, THE PERFECT GUY, THE BOY NEXT DOOR and THE CALL sport diverse casts with female, African American and Latin-American audiences, while THE GIFT also found itself to be a sleeper thriller that appealed to couples in a time loaded with superhero and sci-fi films. And for those looking for a correlation between the audiences and the material need to look no further than THE LOFT, a domestic thriller about adultery and murder that was aimed at a white male audience and couldn’t even recoup its $14 million budget. These underserved demographics are looking for accessible content that doesn’t feel pandering or typical, and the domestic thriller revival has offered just that.

Whatever the reason may be, the domestic thriller has returned for our attention and our money. And with the recent Ashley Madison hack already sporting fatal repercussions, one knows that such sordid material isn’t above inspiration for a Hollywood screenwriter. No one quite knows if 2016 will further the trend of the domestic thriller, but with ghosts and demons losing their pull on Hollywood horror, there’s a good chance the creeps of everyday life may be around on the big screen for some time.

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About the author
Christopher La Vigna
Christopher La Vigna is a writer, filmmaker, and the newest batch of blood to be welcomed into the haunted halls of FANGORIA. He’s a graduate of Hunter College*, and can be found lurking around any movie theater or comic shop near his person. You can argue about movies with him on Twitter: @Chris_LaVigna
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