In the R-rated sci-fi comedy The Watch, which opens in theaters today, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade play a group of suburban neighbors that piece together a neighborhood-watch program as a little escape from their families and humdrum lives. What they find instead is an alien plot that threatens the entire world, forcing the foursome to confront the ultimate suburban threat.
What is it about the suburbs—those mostly quiet residential areas outside cities with houses lined up in neat rows—that taps into filmmakers' darkest impulses? The pastel-colored houses in Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands at first seem cute, and the residents initially warm up to Edward despite him having blades for fingers. Soon the ugly head of suburbia rears its head, though, and the villagers become fearful of the "monster" and drive him out of their neighborhood like Frankenstein.
If you're to believe Hollywood, suburbia is where marriages go to die. Look at the sad group of neighbors—including Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen and Jamey Sheridan—in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, set in 1973 when it must have seemed like a good idea to throw your keys in a bowl at the beginning of the party and pick a set at the end to go home with a random neighbor. Blame Nixon.
Also set in the '70s—this time outside Detroit—is Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, which, as the title suggests, is about what drove five sisters in the suburban community to kill themselves. Hint: it's not Nixon.
Best Picture Oscar winner American Beauty features Kevin Spacey as a broken-down man living with an icy, career-obsessed wife (Annette Bening) and a daughter (Thora Birch) who basically hates him for slobbering over her best friend (Mena Suvari). Throw in an unstable, homo-repressed military father next door who knocks around his pot-dealing son (Wes Bentley)—a kid who weeps at the beauty of a plastic bag being caught in the wind—and you've got a neighborhood that is anything but sleepy.
No examination of suburban hell would be complete without a mention of 1975's The Stepford Wives. Katharine Ross plays a young wife who moves from New York City to the Connecticut suburb of Stepford only to find that the women in the community are all docile, subservient robots programmed to complete mundane gender-assigned chores without complaint and exhibit no signs of individuality. Basically, it's what you see going on in any indoor shopping mall.
Speaking of Stepford wives, Kate Winslet just can't fit in with the ones she encounters in the boring upper-middle class suburb of Boston in Little Children, and—coupled with the fact that she's married to an emotionally distant husband—she throws responsibility out the window and explores a late adolescence by having an affair with a neighbor (Patrick Wilson).
In 1984's cult classic Suburbia, a group of suburban punks run away and start squatting in abandoned tract homes. If you ever wondered what drives teens to rebel against their parents and society, take a long, hard look at the dead-end, depressing lives these punks leave behind.
The most frightening view of suburbia has to be David Lynch's Blue Velvet. The sleepy small town of Lumberton seems idyllic until Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) returns home from college and finds a severed ear in a field. This prompts him to play amateur detective, and Jeffrey brings the police chief's wholesome daughter (Laura Dern) along for the ride as they discover a psychopathic thug, Frank (Dennis Hopper), who has kidnapped the son of a local lounge singer (Isabella Rossellini). As Jeffrey sinks deeper into Frank's deranged world on the outskirts of town, what once seemed a picturesque community on the surface now appears quietly sinister—burning from the inside.