The Other ‘Neighbors’ – Revisiting the Disastrous and Tragic Belushi and Aykroyd Comedy
It’s a little surprising that, with a huge summer-movie-season-comedy like ‘Neighbors’ opening in theaters this weekend, there hasn’t been more talk about the other movie titled ‘Neighbors,’ even in passing. Well, that’s not entirely true, because I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in conversation and the response has been usually some sort of version of a blank stare.
Maybe the people who are old enough to remember 1981’s 'Neighbors' don’t want to remember 'Neighbors,' for a plethora of reasons. The most obvious: It was John Belushi’s last film before dying of a speedball overdose.
Certainly the people involved with the film don’t want much to do with it these days (I reached out to Dan Aykroyd’s publicist, who never responded, and Aykroyd will talk to pretty much everyone these days if the topic happens to be ‘Ghostbusters 3’ or his tequila), because it a) carries a lot of baggage after Belushi’s death, and b) it’s a really oddball movie. It’s certainly not a fitting tribute to the team of Belushi and Aykroyd like, say, ‘The Blues Brothers’ is (a messy film in its own right, but also one with charm and great music), but it also shouldn’t be forgotten to the point that another movie moves in on its title and no one even notices.
And, boy, ‘Neighbors’ is weird.
It’s a strange movie to watch today because it’s completely understandable why the movie was devastatingly panned by critics on its release, but watched through the lens of what we know today about the circumstances surrounding its production and aftermath, it becomes fascinating.
'Neighbors' was the third and final collaboration between Aykroyd and Belushi, following '1941' and 'The Blues Brothers.' Based on the popular novel by Thomas Berger with a screenplay written by comedy legend Larry Gelbart, ‘Neighbors’ is the story of a middle-aged dud of a man named Earl Keese (played by a 32-year-old Belushi with white powder on his temples) whose life is upended when a rambunctious, bizarre couple named Vic (Aykroyd) and Ramona (Cathy Moriarty) move in next door. The role of Earl was supposed to have been played by Aykroyd while Belushi would obviously play the out-of-control monstrosity, Vic. Before filming started, director John G. Avildsen (best known for directing ‘Rocky’) suggested that Belushi and Aykroyd switch roles, essentially forcing both of them to act against type. In addition, Belushi and Aykroyd did some major re-writes to Gelbart’s script – so much so that Gelbart considered pulling his name off of the final screenplay.
From most reports, Belushi clashed with Avildsen, to the point Belushi attempted to get Avildsen thrown off the movie, replaced by ‘Blues Brothers’ director John Landis. (Landis refused to get involved.) As detailed in Bob Woodward’s controversial book, ‘Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi,’ Belushi’s substance abuse problems were negatively affecting production:
When John emerged from his trailer, he could hardly talk. […] It wasn’t simply that John didn’t know his lines, or that he had a few drinks; he was blitzed. Everyone stood around looking at one another. John aware that he was not making sense, finally stumbled back to his trailer. There was silence on the set, and Avildsen announced they would wait.
Without that lens of historical significance, ‘Neighbors’ is an incredibly frustrating movie to watch. Aykroyd’s Vic and Belushi’s Earl hate each other, but it’s not entirely clear why. Inexplicably, Earl’s wife, Enid (Kathryn Walker), and his daughter, Elaine (Lauren-Marie Taylor), love Vic and Ramona, even though Vic and Ramona seem like sleazy people.
At one point, Vic accepts $32 from Earl that is supposed to be used for take-out food, but, instead, Vic pockets the money and cooks the meal himself. Okay, that’s certainly a weird thing to do. But, the escalation of tension over this – shots are fired at one point and both characters nearly drown in quicksand – seems excessive. And then, without explanation, the characters become friends. Then they're enemies again. Then they become friends again. Out of nowhere, Ramona performs oral sex on Earl while Vic plays with a remote control airplane outside of the bedroom window.
The movie ends with Earl leaving his wife – and burning down his house in the process – to go on a road adventure with Vic and Ramona. This is a perfect ending to a movie in which there is no rhyme or reason as to why characters make the decisions that they make. Also, somehow, the events of this movie take place over 24 hours, though it feels like it takes place over the course of months.
Again, as told in ‘Wired,’ Columbia Pictures knew they had a bad movie on their hands. Belushi, who wanted Avildsen off the film from the first day of shooting, may have had a point. The comedic beats are all wrong and the stronger takes on some scenes were inexplicably not used, to the dismay of Belushi and Columbia executives. A story is shared in which Belushi, at an early private screening, was physically beating the side of his chair with a shoe over his anger at the cut Avildsen had assembled. (After this, Belushi was banned from future public screenings.)
Test screenings were a disaster – even test screenings specifically filled with Belushi and Aykroyd fans. As documented in ‘Wired,’ “It was worse than expected – the worst screening results that he [Columbia Pictures President Frank Price] or any other Columbia executive had ever seen.”
What’s odd is, after all this, ‘Neighbors’ made money. Filmed on a budget of a little over $8 million, the film grossed just under $29 million. The strategy was called the "hit and run." Before the test screenings, ‘Neighbors’ had a December 4 release date. In this pre-Internet model, Columbia didn’t want bad word-of-mouth to spread before the Christmas holiday, so, instead, they moved the film to December 18 in the hopes that they could still cash in on the holiday season before audiences got wise to the fact that ‘Neighbors’ wasn’t a very good movie. (A strategy that would almost be impossible today with the instantaneous reactions on the Internet.)
Less than three months after the release of ‘Neighbors,’ Belushi was dead.
After all of this, it’s kind of remarkable that anyone would ever want to make another film titled ‘Neighbors.’ But, yet, here we are. The new ‘Neighbors’ was originally titled ‘Townies’ (thankfully that was changed, or perhaps I’d be writing about the short-lived 1996 ABC sitcom starring Molly Ringwald) and has absolutely nothing in common with the 1981 version other than the shared title and that houses that are within proximity to each other are involved. And, with this new ‘Neighbors’ poised to be a huge hit, it will only further cement the now almost forgotten fate of the 1981 version of ‘Neighbors’ – and, you know, maybe that’s a good thing.
Mike Ryan is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.