Think you know pain? You don’t know shit. Sylvia Likens knew pain. In 1958 she was locked in the basement of her foster home, and tortured for weeks and weeks, until she was dead. She was starved, denied the use of a bathroom, forced to eat her own excrements, raped, and beaten by the kids of the neighborhood. Her foster family would invite kids over from the neighborhood to drink beers, smoke cigarettes, burn and penetrate a tied up 13 year old girl in the cellar, as long as they didn’t tell anyone. It went on for around three months, until poor Sylvia Likens died. It was, as someone at the actual trial had stated, “the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana”.
Jack Ketchum took that actual event and tweaked it into The Girl Next Door, a novel that puts you through what Sylvia Likens went through in the form of a sweet young girl named Meg. Anyone who has read Ketchum knows that Stephen King praises his work, and that once he has a hold on your gut, he doesn’t let go – he takes things in his writing to realms very few have ever gone – where most people do not want to look. When producer Andrew van den Houten (director of Headspace and president of ModernCine) informed me that they were going to shoot The Girl Next Door, I couldn’t help but ask. “How are you going to get the elements of what made Ketchum’s novel so assaulting onto film and still get an R rating? To water it down drains it of its lifeforce, and to reflect it is absolutely taboo and has to be too offensive for the MPAA…” Houten assured me that they had captured the elements of the novel and was faithful that although it was a drama of sorts, it would definitely appeal to horror fans, as did the book. “Its human horror,” he said. “Ill be pushing the envelope – because I think this movie deserves to be as edgy as possible.”
I was doubtful heading into the premiere in New York City, where Jack Ketchum, cast and crew, and press alike, were all in attendance for its first ever showing. Houten gave a brief introduction, and it began. Halfway through, a few people walked out of the theater. I don’t know who they were, or what they were expecting, but it offended them deeply. Couldn’t help but like that. At a very gut-wrenching point near the end of the film, the woman next to me muttered something in a disheveled, upset stammer. She said, “Oh Lord, please kill that poor child.” She was fighting back tears. My mouth was agape at what they were showing, or implying. I remembered Houten saying in an interview some months back, “The State of New Jersey thought that we were using like a 13 year old girl to play Meg (who in the film is raped and nude in some scenes). They were ready to shut us down when they read the screenplay. They thought that we were gonna have a naked 13 year old being tortured in the basement.” Well, it may not be, but that’s how it looks. Upon walking out of the theater at the end, I have to say, having read the book, it’s a near dead on adaptation that will bring the book to life for those that have read it as well. The in-your-face power of GND will take many aback, and taboo-wise, I’m absolutely shocked with what they managed to get past an R rating.
Greg Wilson’s direction and William Miller’s cinematography were both effective and key to the contrast of good and evil in Ketchum’s Girl Next Door – reminiscent of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. The contrast in that film of good people to bad was so differential that it made each other just seem that much more deeply planted on either side of the fence. In GND, the sunny, bright, innocent 1950’s summer days are chock full of ice cream and carnival – everyone glowing under the sun in their youth. Then the scenes in the basement, surrounded by grey, featureless cold stone, in the dank darkness of Ruth’s cellar. The beers and the smoking – as children from 8-18 are lined up for a cold hearted, dysfunctional mind’s carnival of sin and evil – these same boys find themselves frenzied like cats with injured birds – sharks at the scent of blood – partaking more than willingly in the tragedy at hand. Blythe Auffarth comes across on film exactly as she was supposed to, and then some. She glows with such an innocence and overwhelming, good hearted charm that it latches onto you in a way that lesser characterized stories fail – which is what makes this movie different than those like Hostel or Imprint. Whether it’s your thing or not, this film has heart.
For three months, Meg is locked down in the basement of Ruth’s suburban home. Tied by her thumbs, hanging from a beam in the basement, she is starved, slapped, mentally abused, kicked, punched, cut, violated, beaten, has words burned into her, and is seared with a white hot blow torch in a way that will blow your mind. Women got up and walked out of the theater. Who could blame them? Jack Ketchum stories are like nightmares you can’t wake up from. It keeps going and going when it should have already stopped, but it doesn’t, and soon your stomach is twisting and your mouth is agape. The gore is minimal. Very little is actually shown, which is why GND leans more towards being a drama. It’s a family story gone sickly, sickly wrong – as did the lives of Sylvia and Jenny Likens. But even though it’s light of red syrup and open wounds – it will brutally assault your mind. The fact that it’s based on a true story, mixed with half awkwardly witnessing six young boys poke and prod at a fellow, barely teenage girl, to the point of absolute torture and rape, is, I think, what had that woman next to me sobbing. Blythe Auffarth owns the role and you can feel in your guts how wrong it all is – how she more than most just doesn’t deserve what happens to her, and you partially ache wishing you could do something to make it stop.
Such is the dilemma of Davey, played by Daniel Manche, who put on a subtle but emotionally hardcore performance that glues this film together and keeps it real. He has a sort of self-unadmitted liking for Meg, and has her in his thoughts as well as the corner of his eye. Then the signs begin. Meg soon seems unhappy, then hungry, and it’s not long before Davey witnesses her and her crippled sister slapped around – not just by his friends’ mom Ruth, but by his friends as well. After a while Meg disappears, and Davey soon discovers that she’s been tied up in the basement, and they’re playing “The Game” with her. You go in and out of this basement with Davey, and back home, as he tries to tell his ignorant parents, and then struggles between curiosity, loyalty to lifelong friends, and the twisted mind games of Ruth, trying to decide what to do. Each time he returns, he is appalled by what he sees, as we, the viewers, see as well. Each time its worse, and your senses begin to “dread”. Dread of what you have to go back and see they’ve done or are doing to Meg in that basement.
Much of it is spun by Ruth, played by Blanche Baker. She puts the whole kit and caboodle behind the words “absolute BITCH”. From her sunken in and wrinkled, cigarette shriveled appearance – to her twisted, shitty mind – it’s been a long time since we’ve seen such a despicable character on screen. Peeling strips of skin from her body with a set of pliers until she was dead wouldn’t be justice for this woman. Blanche Baker is another acting pillar in this film, and though somehow off at some points in a way I can’t put my finger on, her performance absolutely injects you with massive, bowel churning irritation. The one problem with Jack Ketchum’s Girl Next Door – as it applies to horror fans in particular – sort of exists as a result of all the powerful acting in this movie. You end up hating this scumbag of a witch so much that the ending is just a bit too soft for some of us. GND sort of leaves true horror fans with blueballs. You want to see Ruth gets hers SO BADLY and SO VIOLENTLY that when it finally does happen, you’re left with a clunk on the head and a pent up frustration. Aside from this blemish, GND is excellently disturbing. It puts dreadful, angry, and uncomfortable energy into you, and toys with your emotions in dark ways, and in that respect, horror fans will find vitamins in this film – but I still hope for an alternate ending in the future where we can view it with the skull cracking, brain sac spilling finale a lot of us wished for in the corner of our minds.
Final Analysis: It’s a drama, but it will twist your stomach and turn sunshine to gloom, so I can confidently say that horror fans will find value in this excellently produced indie film. It looks Hollywood, but goes places no MGM movie ever will. Jack Ketchum is a sick bastard, and the darkness of his novel comes through the film like a black hole, sucking the light out of your heart under the camouflage of a 1950’s Stand By Me story of the days of innocence. Quite opposite, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a domestic hell, depicted in the 1950’s, since perhaps Lynch and Blue Velvet. A lot of people who watch this will drop their jaws. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is powerful, dark, and ugly, disguising itself as a sweet family drama just down the street from Richie Cunningham and the rest of the Happy Days gang. Young nudity, young rape, Hostel for kids – this film breaks a lot of art taboos – depicting the extreme abuse of a young girl and the hands of some sick, lustful, abusive kids, and their sick, demented mom, who orchestrates the whole thing. It’s a gritty, unadulterated peer into a true story, and the filthy underbelly of a beast in America called child abuse. There are a lot of sparkling facets on this horror gem to indulge upon – for the intellectual and heartfelt to the perverted and mean – Greg Wilson’s film manages to reflect appalling images and horror elements beyond belief by framing it in a fancy, art like 1950’s film that infers more than it FX’s. It brings messages to those who are conscious of the true evil of child abuse, chilling hearts along the way like a powerful negative horror-drama. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door possesses professionalism and the power of stunning kick in the nuts, which may just be enough to earn it a run on the silver screen.