Originally published on October 13, 2013 at 6:56 pm
In the first part of this article (which can be read here if you missed it http://talkbacker.com/?p=8948), I talked about Offspring and how the horror and scares were initiated by the bottomless buck of blood and gore. In the Girl Next Door, blood is virtually nonexistent. What little there is, is relegated to cuts, abrasions etc. No, what this film relies on, is how utterly monstrous we’re all capable of becoming, under the right circumstances.
To be honest, I’d hesitate to even it a horror movie. Certainly there are horrific moments (a beating with a brush, administered to a polio stricken girl in leg braces among them while the neighborhood boys watch s among them), but it’s not filled with the typical horror movie tropes. Perhaps the most terrifying thing of all is it offers no answers, no motivation, for anyone’s behavior. It’s all shades and degrees of evil.
The Girl Next Door is loosely based on the true story of Sylvia Lykens and her sister Jenny who were left in the care of single mother Gertrude Baniszewki (who had seven children herself), due to their parents being traveling carnival workers. As the months passed, Sylvia became the target of horrendous abuse at the hands of Baniszewski, who not only senselessly beat the young girl, but allowed her children to do so, as well as the neighborhood children who frequently visited the household. The final days of young Sylvia’s life were spent locked in the basement of the home, where she was tied up, starved, beaten, burnt and tortured.
While the screenplay by Daniel Farrands and the late Phil Nutman sticks very close to Ketchum’s source novel, it does little to bring in some of the back story for Aunt Ruth (the character based on Gertrude). You have no idea why she behaves as she does, and to an extent, it makes her a bit one dimensional for the movie. You also never really understand why no one says anything.
As the movie opens, an adult David, witnesses a hit and run accident, he leaps into action to save the homeless man, and in doing so, it later brings back memories of that summer in 1958 when he meets the doomed Meg. William Atherton as the older David has perhaps 5 minutes of screen time at most, but manages to bring the haunted gravitas his character needs. We see David as a young boy catching crayfish at a watering hole, when Meg comes by. Instantly smitten with the pretty young girl, he becomes elated to find out they’ll be neighbors. Later that day (or week, not sure which), he runs into her at a carnival, and asks her with all the awkwardness a 14 year old virgin can muster if she wants to go on the Ferris Wheel with him. She agrees, and not only is this one of the sweetest moments in the story; it’s also one of the last for the both of them.
He soon meets Aunt Ruth, who allows her sons and other neighborhood children to drink beer, smokes cigarettes and carry on, while she demonstrates what a hoochie dancer is. From her first moment onscreen you know she’s not all there. Her madness is shown little by little, until her full face of horror is unveiled as she gives the nearly dead Meg a clitorectomy using a blow torch. What happens in between is so gut wrenching, so raw, so goddamned visceral and painful to watch, you simply want to give up on humanity. It is unrelenting in its unpleasantness, but never, not once does it venture into exploitation.
Of course a movie with this type of narrative would be worthless if the acting were less than anything but top notch. I heavily criticized Offspring for its stunning lack of this component, and here, we have it in spades. This film succeeds as much as it does due to the three leads: Blanche Baker (daughter of pinup actress Carroll Baker who gets her own mention in the film) as Aunt Ruth is riveting. Her psychosis is made all the more harrowing by her ability to simply talk-to not raise her voice or chew the scenery. When she explains to the sister with polio why she’s going to get beaten it sends chills down your spine. A slight raise of the eyebrow says more from her than 90 minutes of dialog ever could.
Blythe Auffarth as the abused Meg is wonderful, and even when she’s half unconscious and beaten, raped and tortured, she’s able to command the screen. She is the heart of the movie and beats very strongly.
Perhaps the best performance comes from then fourteen year old Daniel Manche as David. His subtle transformation as the film progresses and his inner torment of wanting to say something to help the girl he loves is nothing short of amazing. The fact he devises a way to finally help though it’s too late only adds to the tragedy. His is one of the best performances by a child actor I think I’ve ever seen.
Even the actors portraying the neighborhood kids give riveting and believable performances. There’s not one false note in the movie.
Except for the ending. The climax is so different from the book, and the one thing that keeps The Girl Next Door from being a classic. Up to that point, it was the most unHollywood movie I’d seen in years. And whether due to time/budget restraints or something else entirely (the commentary never makes it clear), how things wrap up seems like a cheat. While it does offer a smidgen of closure, its forced nature pretty much erases that feeling.
Yet, in spite of that, I can’t recommend this movie enough. It deserves to be seen at least once. I bought the DVD shortly after it was released in 2007, and I’ve watched it three times (including once for the review). It’s not a movie that bears repeated viewings.
Jack Ketchum, in both books and movies, manages to capture the underside of America in a way that few writers can. His unblinking eye, and refusal to flinch away from that which repels is a testament to his talent, and makes me grateful there are filmmakers who share that vision, even if they aren’t always successful.