The guy next door

Bill Engvall on swapping comedy for horror in The Neighbour.

by Jennie Kermode

Bill Engvall in The Neighbour
Bill Engvall in The Neighbour

Marcus Dunstan's The Neighbour, which screened at Frightfest and opens in the UK this weekend, is a dark horror tale which will make you question how much you know about the people next door. What will shock some viewers more than the horrors in the basement is the fact that it stars popular US comedian Bill Engvall, better known for films like Delta Farce and Catching Faith. Let's just say that his performance here is a little bit different.

Bill was keen to talk about the film but, somewhere in the chain of people making the arrangements, there was confusion about time zone conversion. We ended up speaking just after 7am. Knowing that many actors are night owls, I apologised, but he laughed. "Honey, when you get to my age, this is sleeping in." He told me that he's really excited about this film because the role is such a departure for him.

"When Marcus called me about this role I thought he'd made a mistake. I said, 'You know who I am, right? I'm the sitcom dad,' and he said 'Yes, I know exact what you are and that’s what’s going to be great about this, because when you walk on screen the audience will think they’re going to get something funny and then we’ll scare the hell out of them!'"

Bill as he is better know to fans
Bill as he is better know to fans

The two clicked straight away, with Bill relishing this idea - but as horror was new territory he had fears of his own.

"I was really scared to death. I don’t know that I had any expectations but I felt I had to earn my place alongside the other cast members. I didn’t want to be the guy that had to be carried, you know? I wanted to be able to keep up with everybody. So I really put everything I had into this role and I’m actually really pleased with how it turned out."

How much of it was his own creation, I ask, and how much came from Marcus (who wrote the film as well as directing it)?

"He let me develop the character," Bill says. "It was funny because I based him [Troy, the character] on when I grew up, as a little kid - it’s probably the same in the UK - you know how there’s always that one neighbour who, you know, his yard is not kept neat and his house is a mess and he’s probably a nice guy but the kids create this whole story about him? Like if there’s any missing bodies then that’s where they’re buried, you know? So I kind of baaed him on this guy out of my old neighbourhood where I grew up. I never met the guy but I conjured up this whole, complete back story for him."

Support from his fellow actors contributed to a really positive experience on set. He's particularly grateful to Josh Stewart, who plays the film's troubled hero, John.

"Josh was phenomenal. He's a great actor and he was really supportive. It’s kind of like when a new prisoner shows up and everybody already knows their story." He laughs. "He was really easy to work off of, really giving. Like, he stayed there when his lines were done, he stayed with you so you had an eyeline to work with, and little things like that really mean a lot."

After having such a good time on set and so much fun developing the character, he'd love the chance to take on more work that pushes the boundaries of what he's known for.

"I really hope I can get more parts like this. I love comedy but I think of people like Robin Williams and Martin Short – Robin Williams, you know, when he did One Hour Photo I was enthralled. I’d really like to do things like that, things that stretch both me and my fans. I want, for want of a better phrase, to be water cooler talk, so people can meet at the water cooler and they can say, you know, 'I saw this horror movie at the weekend and I can’t believe who was in it!'"

So he wants to give his existing fans a good scare too?

"Oh yes!" he exclaims.

I tell him that what interested me about his character was that he's more complex than the average horror bad guy. One scene in particular stood out to me, in which Troy comforts his younger son, Cooper (played by Luke Edwards, with a remarkable resemblance to a young Christian Bale). It creates a parallel between Troy's violent family and the film's heroes, who are only slightly less shady themselves.

The Neighbour poster
The Neighbour poster

"Thank you," says Bill, agreeing. "There’s soft side of him. He knows Cooper is more sensitive than Harley [Ronnie Gene Blevins] was. I looked at that through me as a father. Even though what they're doing is horrific and that's not how to make money, there's part of Troy that you want to feel for. He loves his sons. I thought about my boy. In that scene his tough veneer is shattered and we see that he has a heart... he doesn’t view this as bad. That's why we can feel sorry for him. I just loved the role."

And was he pleased that the film found its way to Frightfest?

"I’m thrilled! Are you kidding me? That’s, like, the biggest and best horror festival on the planet isn’t it?" His excitement is tangible. "And I want to expand my cloak over there. I know that some people there have never head of me and I know that, especially in England, you guys love comedy, and I’d love to come and over perform over there. I did once, actually, years ago in a show called London Underground. So there’s a selfish part of this where I’d like to get more fans and I’ll be pleased if it can open that door. I’d love do a British film sometime."

Some Frightfest attendees might have seen him in [film]Sharknado 3[film], I suggest, and he laughs.

"I don’t know if call acting! You know, when they called me about that I said 'I'll only do it if I get eaten by a shark,' and of course he said yes and I didn’t know it would be before the opening credits!"

After the sharks and The Neighbour, Bill is going back to more familiar territory - starring as Santa Claus in Wish For Christmas. It's a juxtaposition that amuses him.

"That’s what's so weird," he says. "I'm going from horror to a Christian, family, faith-based movie. But that’s what I love - as wide a range as possible."

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