The Right Ones Will Get 'Destroy All Neighbors'
A new gonzo midnight movie that isn't just an acquired taste.
Alex Winter is best known for being Bill in the Bill & Ted movies, but he’s also enjoyed a successful career as a documentarian. His first directing effort (alongside Tom Stern), however, was called Freaked (1993), and was most definitely NOT a documentary: it’s about a self-centered movie star (Winter) who gets kidnapped and experimented upon by a mad scientist (Randy Quaid), thus turning him into a gross monster - kinda like a gonzo comedy version of The Human Centipede (assuming you don’t already consider The Human Centipede to be a gonzo comedy). With a supporting cast that also includes Mr. T as the Bearded Lady, Bobcat Goldthwait as a dude with a sock puppet for a head, John Hawkes as a bovine/human hybrid named Cowboy, Brooke Shields as a Ricki Lake-esque talkshow host, and an uncredited Reeves as as dog-man, Freaked is a bizarre, cartoonish, adolescent film full of gross practical effects, the kind of midnight movie seemingly designed to be a cult classic. Freaked’s brand of humor is not an “acquired taste” - either the idea of a effete British human worm whose only desire is to be able to wipe his own ass again sounds funny to you or it doesn’t.
Alex Winter didn’t write or direct Destroy All Neighbors, which is now streaming on Shudder, but he is a co-star and producer of the picture, and being intimately familiar with Freaked, I am not at all surprised that this project appealed to him. All of the adjectives I used to describe Freaked are also true of Destroy All Neighbors. You’re either REALLY gonna enjoy this movie, or it was never for you, ever, and it never will be, ever.
The protagonist of Destroy All Neighbors is William (Jonah Ray from Mystery Science Theater 3000), a prog rock musician who is now in his third year of working on his masterpiece (entitled Calamities of Castles), living with his girlfriend, Emily (Kiran Deol), kindly helping his negligent landlady (Randee Heller, who you know as the mom from The Karate Kid), making ends meet working as an engineer for the clueless owner of a local recording studio (Reno 911’s Thomas Lennon), and obsessively watching old instructional videos made by his hero, a pompous bass player named Swig (Jon Daly).
One day, William and Emily get a new neighbor, Vlad (a completely-unrecognizable Winter), a physically-repellent, EDM-obsessed man of indeterminate national origin. This is when William’s waking nightmare begins: he finds Vlad to be repulsive and scary, whereas Emily, and everyone else, seems to think the guy is a sweetheart.
Attempting to man up and assert himself, William goes over to Vlad’s apartment one night to demand his turn his music down. One thing leads to another, the conflict becomes physical, and Vlad winds up being accidentally impaled and decapitated.
Then things gets really nutty.
Destroy All Neighbors wears its influences, which range from After Hours to An American Werewolf in London to Shallow Grave, on its sleeve, and like a lot of tonally-similar movies and television shows, it often disdainfully parodies the clichéd beats of your average Hollywood movie. The fun it offers derives not from the plot, which hinges on a kind of dream logic that wouldn’t make any real sense even if it was wholly original, but from the complete insanity cooked up by director Josh Forbes and screenwriters Mike Benner, Jared Logan, and Charles A. Pieper: a sentient severed leg tripping a fleeing adversary, a pair of disfigured corpses making out, endless gags that acknowledge both the ridiculous and awesome qualities of prog. That kind of thing.
Perhaps best of all, the movie is devoid of obvious CGI (I’m sure some wires and puppeteers were made invisible), and the effects work here is just, m’wah!, wonderful. Pixels configured to resemble a self-aware intestines playing a drum kit may move more smoothly, but they can never offer the tactile joy of an authentic puppet, to say nothing of the admiration inspired by the thought that someone had to figure out a way to do that. It may not look real, but it is, undeniably, true “movie magic,” a testament to creativity and ingenuity that CGI can never be.
There’s a running gag throughout the movie about William’s music, where he keeps insisting that “Not everyone will get it, but the right ones will.” The filmmakers, I assume, are aware that this is also a fair description of Destroy All Neighbors. “The right ones” may be a small group, but they’ll see Destroy All Neighbors as an instant classic. It was never for everybody anyway.