There aren’t many movies that I’ve seen that have made me want to turn away or jump through the screen to change the outcome. I knew after reading the synopsis of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, this was going to be one of those films – after all, nothing spells heartbreak and brutality like suburban dementia.
As the title eludes to, the movie is based on a novel of the same name written by Jack Ketchum. This story itself is loosely based on the events that occurred to a young girl named Sylvia Likens in 1960’s Indiana. She was humiliated, tortured and ultimately killed by the hands of neighborhood kids all while under the watchful eye of her foster mother. And while Ketchum took a few creative liberties (names and dates were changed, and several scenes were embellished), I think it is safe to say he captured the horror faithfully.
That horror is told from the retrospective point of view of David Moran (Daniel Manche), a young boy who lived next door to Ruth Chandler (Blanche Baker) and her boys Willie, Donny and Ralphie. He notes, problems didn’t arise until Meg (Blythe Auffarth) and Susan (Madeline Taylor) come to live with the Chandlers, since prior to their arrival Ruth was friendly – she routinely offered alcohol, cigarettes and a forum to talk freely for the boys in the neighborhood. What changed, no one can be sure. Perhaps she wanted to toughen the girls up (she mentions something to the like during a beating) or maybe she was jealous and/or angry that a pretty girl was now living in the house (too prissy to get her hands dirty) alongside a crippled girl (can’t do a damn thing). Whatever the reasoning, the situation grew grim, very quickly for the girls.
What happens is a psychiatrists wet dream and a nightmare to every person with an ounce of decency. The descent into madness for Ruth becomes more profound as each day passes. What starts as simple lashings quickly turns into all out beatings involving fists and knives, and disfigurements with blowtorches. Director, Gregory Wilson captures this escalation in violence deftly, making the clear choice to not film the bulk of the torture (Eli Roth take notes). Not actually seeing the pain infliction, but knowing it is happening by the hands of teenage boys is more than enough to make a lasting impression. I should also note seeing mob mentality take over impressionable kids is troubling to comprehend. The look on each of their faces slowly hardens as the days and beatings progress until they finally appear to be soulless savages. Meg never had a chance.
Only David maintains his civility throughout Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. He tries to stop what he knows is wrong but runs headlong into what was a sign of the times – children were seen and not heard, and an adults word was considered before all else. His actions though, were like a ray of sunshine breaking through rain clouds (Meg even remarks that she saw him as a dream throughout her nightmare). Daniel Manche skillfully captures the hopelessness and selflessness that David experiences as he tries again and again to save the sisters from certain death.
Thankfully, in the states nowadays, a childs voice is heard loud and clear (sometimes, dare I say too clearly). That unto itself sure as hell wont stop cruel people from doing inhumane deeds, but it may at least stop some of them before they reach such barbaric levels. Most individuals won’t want to or be able to stomach the theme of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. That doesn’t change the fact that it is something to be very aware of. Watch your neighbors closely and watch your children even closer – you never know where the devil resides.