Judge Paul Pritchard settled down to watch Elisha Cuthbert show some flesh, then to his horror realized this is a completely different The Girl Next Door.
"We got permission."
In 1965 Sylvia Likens, along with her disabled sister Jenny, was sent to board with Gertrude Baniszweski when Sylvia and Jenny's mother was arrested for shoplifting. When their parent's payments failed to come in on time, Gertrude began punishing the girls in increasingly violent and humiliating ways, with Sylvia, the elder of the two, taking the brunt of the abuse.
These tragic events have been recounted in a number of books and more recently film. Jack Ketchum's novel, The Girl Next Door was based on these events; it has itself now been adapted into a film of the same name.
Facts of the Case
Ruth Chandler has attained a strange power over the children of her neighborhood. By allowing them to lounge around her house, doing as they please and having the occasional beer, she is able to instill in them her warped sense of right and wrong.
Things escalate viciously when Ruth's nieces, Meg and Susan Loughlin, are sent to live with her following the death of their parents. Taking what seems to be an instant dislike to the girls, Ruth begins abusing them. Initially this takes the form of verbal humiliation, often in front of the other children. She soon has them all convinced Meg and Susan are in the wrong and that Meg in particular is nothing but a whore. Before long the abuse becomes physical and due to the control she has, not only over her own children but also the neighborhood kids, Ruth has herself a number of young accomplices.
Witnessing all this is young David, who had befriended Meg when she first moved in next door. Never compliant in the abuse, David is obviously troubled by the events, but can he do anything to stop it?
How true to the real-life events it bases itself upon is up for question, but what is beyond doubt is that The Girl Next Door is one of the most shocking movies I've seen in recent years. Sure, movie franchises such as Saw and Hostel have reveled in being labeled "torture porn," with more and more elaborate and sick ways of offing their victims. But those films are set in some form of a twisted, heightened reality, where the consequences of the actions are irrelevant and the viewer keeps watching to see what the next poor sap is going to be subjected to. What we have here is a film set very much in the world we all inhabit. Despite never coming near the outrageous, blood-soaked extremes of, say, Hostel: Part 2, the scenes of torture we are witness to and those that are implied are far more shocking and, at times, near impossible to watch.
Beginning, as Stephen King himself points out on the blurb he provides on the back of the box, very much like Stand By Me, The Girl Next Door takes us back to the 1950s with a much older David, who begins recounting the summer he met Meg Loughlin and how everything changed afterwards. Initially all seems well; David and his friends hang out, play games, and talk trash to each other. It is with the introduction of Aunt Ruth that the film begins to take a darker path, one that quickly becomes harder and harder to follow.
Ruth is a single mother who has become popular with the local boys as she allows them to do as they please when at her house. In exchange for her relaxed attitude, Ruth finds an audience for her hate-fueled speeches on the evil of young girls and fills their young minds with her warped logic. Even before the abuse begins, we can see glimmers of the hatred that lies beneath her everyday persona, and the effect it is having not only on her sons, but also their friends. An innocent game in the woods soon takes a disturbing sexual turn that only hints at what is to come.
Gregory Wilson's direction draws the best from his cast and effortlessly shifts the focus from sunny, fun-filled days where the kids enjoy time at the lake or the fair to scenes set in Ruth's basement where young Meg finds herself held captive. Gradually, the innocence that initially reminded us of Stand By Me is replaced by real horror—the type of horror that requires no supernatural bogeyman, the type that we read about in the newspapers then try to forget. When the time comes for the film to reach the darker places of its excellent screenplay, when Meg is subjected to truly some of the most horrific scenes I have ever witnessed, the director does not, not even once, flinch.
Having done a little reading up on the real-life case on the Internet I found myself constantly stunned at the evil that possesses Ruth, the same evil that is passed onto her own children and a number of their friends. After an admittedly short and thankfully mostly off-screen rape scene I was left numb. The callous attitude of the attacker; that he looked at his victim with such derision after the act; that his brother was upset only because his mom wouldn't allow him to have the next turn. It turned my stomach and filled me with a deep anger. They see no wrong in what they are doing simply because an adult told them it was okay.
The performances of all involved are excellent but the central trio of Meg (Blythe Auffarth), David (Daniel Manche) and Aunt Ruth (Blanche Baker) are outstanding and ensure the viewer is fully invested in the movie for its duration. Blythe Auffarth offers up a performance beyond her years. She portrays Meg as a bright, bubbly young girl who is thrown into an incomprehensible nightmare yet never thinks of herself, only her younger sister. Similarly, Blanche Baker as Ruth provides the viewer with a real cinematic villain, except she's grounded in reality, never once resorting to over-the-top delivery; she takes a role that only hints at the reasoning behind Ruth's viciousness and unsettles us with the reminder that society is littered with people like her, that evil people require no real reason to justify their actions.
The DVD offers up a decent set of extras, though nothing stunning, the audio commentary with Jack Ketchum, who wrote the book the film is based on, is especially worth playing, offering an interesting and informative track. The making-of is pretty standard stuff but perhaps worth watching after the movie to help you remember it is only a film after all, albeit based on real events.
The DVD offers an impressive transfer, especially considering the film's relatively low budget. Though fine details are rarely evident the image is clean with excellent color reproduction.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I can see three things that will grate with some viewers. Firstly, as previously stated, the reason for Ruth's abuse of Meg is only hinted at. We get the notion that a number of bad choices and perhaps a hard upbringing have led to Ruth's twisted psyche, that she is jealous perhaps of Meg's innocence and popularity with the young boys, but no definitive answers are given. While I applaud the vagueness (no reason also means our sympathies never once belong to Ruth), I can understand the need some will have to understand Ruth's character a little more.
The next thing I feel people will question is the role of David. Daniel Manche gives a fine performance as the young man who witnesses the horror going on—but does nothing. There's a halfhearted attempt to tell his mom and he does, admittedly, try and heal the relationship between Meg and Ruth before the torture starts. But beyond that, nothing. I personally see the character as a cipher through whose eyes we see and thus draw us deeper into the film.
Finally there is the question of what purpose the film serves. Other than demonstrating the influence parents and guardians have over their young, the film has no message, no hidden subtext. It serves only to recount the events that took place and as such may result in some viewers dismissing the film as purely an exercise in brutality.
Despite a somewhat questionable reason for existing, this is powerful filmmaking, full of strong performances all round, that is hard to forget. While I rate the film highly, there was not one moment where I can say I enjoyed the film. I also question whether I will watch it again, simply because this is not entertainment; The Girl Next Door tells a heartbreaking and horrific story that had me emotionally invested from the opening scene to its crushing denouement.
Unlike those who committed the vile crimes seen in the film, the Judge finds The Girl Next Door not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary with Director Gregory M.Wilson, Producer Andrew van den Houten, and Cinematographer/Producer William M. Miller.
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