Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Girl Next Door (2007)

Based on the Jack Ketchum book of the same name, The Girl Next Door tells of the horrors hidden behind white picket fence suburbia in the 1950’s. It is an unflinchingly brutal and heartbreaking film that stays true to the book’s narrative and manages to bring the book’s disturbing scenes to shocking life.

The film begins with every kid’s favorite time of year…summertime! A time of freedom, hanging out with friends and long summer days to do whatever you want. On a dead end street in suburbia, though, the summer of ‘58 will forever change the life of a young boy. David (Daniel Manche) lives next door to the Chandlers. The Chandlers consist of single mom Ruth (Blanche Baker), whose husband ran off with another woman years ago, and her three sons, Woofer (Austin Williams), Donny (Benjamin Ross Kaplan) and Willy Jr (Graham Patrick Martin). They have just adopted their two cousins, Meg (Blythe Auffarth) and Susan (Madeline Taylor), whose parents died in a car accident. Both girls were involved in the crash, and while Meg escaped with only a few scars, younger Susan has to now walk with leg braces and crutches. David and the other boys spend their days lounging around the Chandler house (Ruth has always been a cool mom and lets them drink and smoke). David gets a crush on Meg, but begins to notice how poorly Ruth treats the girls. She verbally abuses them, and things quickly escalate to physical abuse. Woofer, Donny and Willy Jr. quickly join in, and soon even other neighborhood kids are joining in to torment the girls. David seems powerless to do anything, even when things get so bad that Ruth has Meg strung up in the basement, blindfolded and just hanging by her arms. Meg’s torture only gets more and more sadistic and brutal at the hands of Ruth, her sons and the neighborhood kids. Can David do something to help or will he too fall victim to Ruth’s insanity and cruelty?

Book adaptations are tricky to pull off, but The Girl Next Door manages to recreate the intensity and horror of Jack Ketchum’s book. The horrifying events that take place in the Chandler household feel very real and watching the film you are very aware that this could possibly be happening right next door to you. It is, in fact, based on the shocking true story of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens, who was beaten, raped and tortured until her death by an adoptive family and the neighborhood kids in Indiana in 1965.

The real crime that was committed, along with the book that was inspired by it and this film are all examples of how vile, cruel and evil some people can be. The depravity in the film is shocking, and not just because it graphically shows the torture (it doesn’t). It’s the emotion (or lack of emotion) and mob mentality behind the actions of the Chandlers and all who joined in that will really chill your bones. I run a horror review site and I’ve seen some pretty messed up stuff in my day, but the cruelty portrayed in this movie actually brought tears to my eyes.

Director Gregory Wilson films unobtrusively and lets the film unfold before our eyes. The audience is treated as a voyeur, and like David, there is nothing we can do to stop the evil occurring right before our eyes. We are stuck just watching the shocking torture that is happening to Meg and Susan. The direction is so unobtrusive that you actually feel that you are there, a trick that Jack Ketchum also pulls off in the novel.
Speaking of the novel, screenwriters Daniel Farrands and Philip Nutman did a fine job adapting the book and showing the heartbreaking emotions that Meg, Susan and David go through, as well as the hate that Ruth feels towards the younger girls. The confusion and conflict David goes through feels very real and is portrayed quite well by Daniel Manche. Blythe Auffarth does an amazing job in her portrayal of Meg. Meg’s strong will, even through extreme pain, is shown very well by Auffarth. I expect to see great things from this young actress in the future. Blanche Baker also does a great job as Ruth, really making the audience hate her.

My only complaint with the characters is that there wasn’t enough time spent on Woofer, Donny and Willy Jr. Their characters just weren’t fleshed out enough to truly buy their horrific actions. The book paints a much clearer picture as to who each one really is and what drives them to engage in such deviant and disturbing behavior. Still, with the time constraints of a film, I understand that some things needed to be trimmed down and the overall feeling of the book remains intact.

The Girl Next Door is definitely not a film for everyone. When faced with the true horrors of this world as opposed to the cartoonish and larger-than-life slashers and serial killers, most people will wet their pants after watching this film. It is a heartbreakingly brutal look at the vile nature of some humans and is packed with sincere emotion.

It’s also a film that must be seen.

Available from Amazon!

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