(Anchor Bay, 2007) D: Gregory Wilson, w/ Daniel Manche, Blanche Baker. Rating: NNNN; DVD package: NNNN
In over four decades of screening and thinking about movies, this is the first time I’ve felt strongly compelled to praise a film and equally compelled not to recommend it.
That conflict stems entirely from The Girl Next Door’s relentlessly grim and hopeless story, based on the Jack Ketchum novel. It’s a fictional account of the true crime of Gertrude Baniszewski, who, over the course of the summer of 1965 in Indiana, tortured her niece Sylvia Likens to death, with the help of neighbourhood children.
There’s no hero. We are with 12-year-old David (Daniel Manche) from beginning to end, whose unrequited love story and coming-of-age story only make things worse. A decent kid who knows he faces moral choices, he’s afraid to do anything and ineffective when he tries. That makes him complicit, and, since he’s the viewpoint character, it makes us complicit, too.
So the torture of one child and the corruption of others evoke mounting horror and frustration and none of the sleazy pleasures of exploitation movies. This isn’t horror, it’s naturalistic drama, and director Gregory Wilson wisely avoids the special-effects money shots beloved by torture porn fans.
The climax is too clearly contrived to provide any catharsis, and the wraparound story featuring David as a middle-aged man only extends the misery. The movie raises many questions and answers none.
Manche, Blanche Baker as Ruth, the torturer, and Blythe Auffarth as Meg, the victim, are all excellent actors whose nuanced performances draw us ever closer to the story. Baker, whose low-key reasonableness is betrayed by only the smallest smug gleam, is utterly, repellently true to life. I remember adults just like her.
It’s a hard movie to watch. Even the screenwriters and Ketchum have trouble with certain scenes. Their commentary is the best part of the extras; they’re not afraid to speak up when they think the production made some wrong choices.
Should you check it out? It’s a thoroughly ugly story and a thoroughly honest one. Stories are a core part of what it means to be human. We need all kinds of them, even those that fill us with despair.
The DVD hits stores January 15, but Anchor Bay has a screening at the Royal (608 College) Sunday -(January 6) with Ketchum in attendance.
EXTRAS Director and producers commentary, writers and novelist commentary, cast and crew interviews, making-of doc. Widescreen.