The 1970s might have been known for its warm embrace of exploitation films, but the ’80s and ’90s saw an enormous amount of films exploiting something very different than race and gender: Suburban Paranoia.
For those who might be unaware of that term’s meaning, it refers to the concept that people dwelling in the suburbs tend to have an innate fear of having their lives disrupted by hostile outsiders i.e. “urban dwellers” or infiltrators who appear just like them but hide deep, dark secrets. It is, after all, the history of the suburbs in the United States that they were formed to create separate lives from the ones being lived in the city. And as suburbs developed the illusion of being self-sufficient, the prevailing attitude seemed to become one of inherent superiority over those ravenous masses “over there” in the cities.
Hollywood has never been remiss in its collective response to capitalizing on the national mood, so it comes as no surprise that so many films feeding into suburban paranoia were filmed in the two decades mentioned above. Sure there are still movies like that being made, but the seminal ones came out then. Sadly, most of them were alarmist crap that hasn’t aged well at all. Below, however, it are five films that are still surprisingly good, despite their overall themes:
Breakdown– Starring Kurt Russell in an atypical non-tough guy role, this is one of the better thrillers of its kind to come out in the Nineties. Plus, it has all the prerequisites for suburban paranoia; Middle class couple winds up stranded in the Southwestern desert just long enough for a well-meaning trucker to offer them a ride into town. Russell decides to stay with his car, which he soon discovers was sabotaged,, and his wife accepts the ride. What happens next is an intense study of class warfare as three good ol’ boys kidnap her based on the wrong assumption that the couple is well off, and Russell finds himself at their mercy until he turns the tables. What distinguishes this film from many others is its setting. Most films of this type deal with either home invasions or deposit the protagonist in some inner city wasteland. Instead, this takes place in a small town with refreshingly intelligent “redneck” bad guys and a race against time plot. Naturally, the lilywhite suburbanites are portrayed as squeaky clean (the only time they’re not is when infidelity is involved) but as an edge-of-your-seat thriller, this one delivers.
Seven– Perhaps the most disturbing serial killer film made due to its methodical, everyday tone, this is the one that put the cap on the genre, rendering every film since a tired exercise in futility. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt have an utterly believable chemistry as two detectives in search of a serial killer who murders his victims based on perceived violations of the Seven Deadly Sins. What qualifies it as a suburban paranoia film is its revelation of the killer’s identity. Spoiler alert: He is someone who literally could be any guy next door to you in a quiet suburb. The concept of infiltration is a huge component of these films, and “Seven” turns it on its ear, showing us how helpless we truly are in the face of real horror and the normalcy it wears as a disguise.
Misery– One of Stephen King’s finest non-fantasy/supernatural horror oriented works, this is a simply tale of fangirl obsession and claustrophobia multiplied to intense, nail-biting levels. Anyone who read the novel knows that Kathie Bates absolutely nailed the Annie Wilkes character and, while the film softens some of her actions from the novel (for instance, she doesn’t actually cut off his feet in the film) the terror of knowing this seemingly nice single woman is capable of murder just so her favorite novel character won’t die in print speaks to a secret fear in so many of us. Once more, she is the “other” who can infiltrate the tranquility of privileged life, effectively taking full control of the successful novelist and forcing him to do what she wants.
The Jagged Edge- As far as I’m concerned, this film is far superior to the more famous “Fatal Attraction,” possibly because it isn’t as lurid and doesn’t feature a strong anti-feminist undercurrent. It’s a more intelligent, well-written thriller in every way. Featuring a mystery regarding whether or not Jeff Bridges’ character is guilty of murdering his wife and a severely compromised attorney portrayed by a much more dignified Glenn Close, this was the quintessential Eighties suburban paranoia flick. The performances are subdued yet powerful and the story feels real. If Bridges is guilty, he defies the expectations of evil criminals by being a WASPy rich white guy with a charming smile. If he’s innocent, some evil outsider must have framed him. That particular mystery is handled with deftness and a high level of skill, the final revelation coming in such a way as to send chills up the viewer’s spine.
Unlawful Entry– This second Kurt Russell entry falls more under the “so over the top it’s too fun not to like” category. Watching Ray Liotta’s obsessed police officer chew scenery for almost two hours is its own special kind of delightfulness. On the story end of things, there is something rather intriguing about a crazy police officer menacing the requisite peaceful lilywhite couple in their own home. Suburban Paranoia is ratcheted up to its highest level this time, as the Man in Blue so many are taught to trust is the very threat the loving couple must face. Instead of dealing with a serial killer or deranged ex-lover, this time it’s a respected member of the community. Who would believe it? Well, probably not many living in the suburbs, and that’s where the real conflict of the film lies.