From one of the roughest, most uncompromising horror novels ever comes a profoundly graphic and disturbing film. No, it doesn’t entirely do the novel (which on the whole is probably unfilmable) justice, but what the filmmakers have accomplished is still fairly remarkable.
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR by Jack Ketchum was initially published as a paperback original back in 1989. It was loosely based on the torture-murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Lykens, who in Indiana of 1961 was abused over a period of several months by her guardian Gertrude and the latter’s sons. Ketchum’s genius was in relating his story from the point of view of a fictional character who witnesses but doesn’t take part in the abuse, and in the way the author imbued the case with his own late fifties childhood memories, giving it both a nostalgic overlay and a slyly subversive political angle. Yet despite its brilliance the book appeared with little-to-no fanfare, and only really took off upon its 1996 hardback reissue by Overlook Press (with a lengthy introduction by Stephen King). Since then it’s gone through several printings, including a new mass market paperback edition, and been adapted for the movies.
The screenplay for THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, written by Daniel Farrands and Philip Nutman, spent over seven years bouncing around Hollywood; Ketchum liked the script so much he made it a requirement that any potential filmmakers use it. As it happened, the indie outfit Moderncine brought this project to the screen and managed to (mostly) do it justice. Even more impressive is the mind-boggling fact that the film somehow got an R rating from the MPAA without any recutting.
Yet the film, in common with book, was given scant reception. Anchor Bay Entertainment secured distribution rights, and gave it a straight-to-DVD release in December of 2007. Much of its thunder appears to have been stolen by the release of AN AMERICAN CRIME, a more straightforward recounting of the Sylvia Lykens case starring JUNO’S Ellen Page. But keep an eye out for THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. It may not have received the attention (or controversy) it deserves, but I predict the film, like the novel that inspired it, will grow in popularity, and be with us for a long time to come.
David is a fiftyish man haunted by horrific memories about what occurred during the summer of 1958. 12 years old at the time, David was smitten with Meg, a pretty girl who moved in next door together with her younger sister Susan.
Meg and Susan’s parents were killed in a car accident, leaving them in the hands of their only viable guardian Ruth. A recent divorcee with three rambunctious sons, Ruth is viewed as “one of the guys” by the neighborhood kids, being a fun gal with no compunctions about letting the boys smoke and drink beer. But Ruth is also a bitter woman whose already-tenuous mental state is beginning to deteriorate.
One day at the town fairground Meg reveals to David that Ruth is abusing her. Beatings and starvation are the order of the day at Ruth’s place, and before long David gets a firsthand glimpse of both. He does his best to pretend things are proceeding normally, but that becomes impossible when Meg tells a policeman about the abuse…and Ruth responds by confining her to the cellar.
From there the torture steadily escalates, with Ruth’s boys meting out increasingly depraved punishments that Ruth believes are for Meg’s “own good”. David for his part is horrified, but does nothing to stop the madness. He eventually makes a concerted effort to help Meg, but the attempt fails and David ends up locked in the cellar with her, leading to an apocalyptic final showdown with Ruth and her demented brood.
What distinguishes this film from most other horror movies is the simple fact that it doesn’t play like one. From the start director Gregory M. Wilson establishes a quiet, languid atmosphere that seems entirely appropriate to the time and setting: late-fifties suburbia. The period details are quite convincing given the low budget, and the New Jersey locations extremely well chosen.
A straight transcription of the novel would be inadvisable, to say the least—such an approach might very likely land the moviemakers in prison—but Jack Ketchum’s twisted narrative has made it to the screen virtually intact. This includes the book’s trickiest element, the almost imperceptible shift from charming (if dark-hued) nostalgia to out-and-out horror, which Wilson pulls off with real skill.
The film is also impeccably cast. While the performance of young Daniel Manche in lead role is a bit one note, the rest of the actors are top-notch. This is particularly true of the leading ladies, led by the amazing Blanche Baker, who delivers a virtual case study in pure evil as the psychotic Ruth (a far cry from Baker’s best-known role, as the older sister in SIXTEEN CANDLES). The doe-eyed Blythe Auffarth is also quite memorable as Meg, both the victim and hero of the piece, and first-time actress Madeline Taylor, as Meg’s younger sister, communicates volumes in a largely non-verbal role.
If only the film overall were as fine as its performers. Wilson and his collaborators command attention and build suspense expertly, but loose their footing in the climax, which collapses the novel’s nail-biting final third into an overly abrupt wrap-up. In just about any other movie such a conclusion might be acceptable, but I think material this fine deserves better.
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
Director: Gregory M. Wilson
Producers: William M. Miller, Andrew Van Den Houten
Screenplay: Daniel Farrands, Philip Nutman
(Based on a novel by Jack Ketchum)
Cinematography: William M. Miller
Editing: M.J. Fiore
Cast: Blanche Baker, Daniel Manche, Blythe Auffarth, William Atherton, Grant Show, Catherine Mary Stewart, Madeline Taylor, Graham Patrick Martin, Benjamin Ross Kaplan, Austin Williams, Kevin Chamberlin, Dean Faulkenberry, Gabrielle Howarth