October 14, 2012

Reviewing Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door


To scream without a voice - a film in review

CAUTION:  Readers may find some of the following pics disturbing in their depictions of child abuse from within the film which some may find offensive.  You've been warned.

To steal the rhetorical question from the opening line of the book, “you think you know pain?” Well, until you’ve seen this movie, you don’t know shit about pain.

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR offers a rare and sobering experience that is not built for the sole intention to entertain you. Sure, you’ll enjoy watching these young and veteran actors alike pour their talents into an important body of work and you’ll be moved to tears by the effectiveness of their performances even before the rage sets in. You should also be sure to appreciate the beautiful imagery captured in the opening sequences as there is beauty aplenty to enjoy. That said, to consider this film entertainment value alone, the creators would have had to be more than a little mentally unstable which, as it turns out, they’re not. Instead, we're treated to a hellish experience not unlike watching a slow motion train wreck where we’re both passenger and observer, screaming in silence, unable to move. It’s a ride that will leave you feeling half guilty for watching it unfold as it pins you to your seat. Except that you can’t help but be invested with these characters if only to see how they’re all going to fare once the movie stops and nothing but the shattered pieces remain.

Set in 1958, the story begins with the narrative voice-over of author, Jack Ketchum, the man responsible for the source material of the novel. Ketchum speaks as adult David (played by William Atherton of various television roles) to provide an eloquent richness I found to exemplify the diary aspect of the story telling. Ketchum narrates with dialogue taken straight from his original novel which should please Ketchum fans looking for a close adaptation. (An interesting side note: Ketchum allowed Phil Nutman and Daniel Farrands to write the original script because he didn’t think anyone would pull it off and if Phil and Dan screwed up the story, then at least they’d screw it up well. Turned out, Ketchum was so blown away by what the screenwriters had come up with that he made using the script part of the deal breaker when optioning the film to Moderncine who, as it turned out, where more than happy to oblige.)

Following adult David’s narrative intro, we’re transferred back to a time in his life that will haunt him forever. We are introduced to young David (played by Danial Manche' of HEADSPACE, I SELL THE DEAD and various television roles), by a wonderful scene in which we see him catching crayfish by a sparkling river’s edge when a young girl spots him and introducing herself as Meg Laughlin (played by Blythe Auffarth of various television roles and the play HOLLYWOOD ARMS). Meg and her younger sister, Jenny, just moved in with their aunt Ruth (played by Blanche Baker of RAW DEAL, SIXTEEN CANDLES) which, as it turns out, is right next door to David’s. David questions a terrible scar on Meg’s wrist and learns her parents were killed in a car crash and that she was to stay with her aunt now. David invites the pretty girl to join him for a lesson in catching some crayfish and discovers she’s quite good at it, thus throwing his fondness for her into overdrive. It would prove to be a fondness that would test him beyond his imagination.

An interesting aspect of the film which helps to separate it from others of such a dark and sensitive nature is that beyond the violent abuse and beneath the surface of horrific situations brimming with hatred and fear, is an innocent romance between Meg and David. This childhood crush comes across as a sort of saving grace that goes beyond hope. It’s this simple human element that lifts a beautiful shard of humanity from a place otherwise lacking in anything worth saving. Without this touch of humanity – this hope – why should we believe that Meg would have the strength to battle through even half of what is forced upon her without giving in and letting her life bleed out and succumb to her tormentors? To the very end, we see great strength in this poor girl that transcends all odds despite the unspeakable anguish she faces by her aunt and peers.

As David’s fondness and sympathy for Meg grows, so too does her Aunt’s distaste for her. One can never quite grasp exactly why Aunt Ruth feels so compelled to hate Meg or why she sees the young girl as nothing more than a dirty thing that must be cleansed and be taught the lessons her parents never taught her. The ease at which Ruth descends into madness is truly frightening if only for Blanche Baker’s well executed performance of this vile character. Working from the inside out, Ruth can be heard and seen by David who watches from a window in his own home as Ruth screams and slaps at Meg in the heat of argument. Not to be satiated by her private scorning towards Meg, Ruth is soon punishing her and Meg’s sister who has been rendered crippled by polio in front of David and the other kids. This only adds further insult to the humiliation and still nobody says a word. Even when Ruth’s own children sense their mother has gone too far, nobody says a word. In fact, the children seem to take on a sense of pride when given permission to participate in the abuse of Meg as her torment fast becomes their new secret game.

Only David attempts to speak out for help on Meg’s behalf, and at one point decides to confront his dad to ask him if it’s okay to hit girls. But instead of the inquisition he anticipates that any concerned parent should be expected to deliver, David is casually brushed off without further inquiry from his father. Around the dinner table David’s parents say how tough it must be for a single woman to raise a house full of children, that she must exorcise her right to discipline if she’s to have any control at all. As maddening as this exchange is to watch, perhaps the most gripping scene of all, aside from the actual scenes of torture, is when David completely breaks down as the full weight of his helplessness sets in and he’s confronted by the reality of how alone he truly is as a kid who can’t even get his parents to listen.  Never have I never seen a purer breakdown of one’s innocence, of a childhood so completely shattered, then what Daniel Manche’ delivers here.

Each actor brings nothing but quality to their characters and at least a few of them, particularly Blythe Aufarth who plays Meg, as well as young David played by Daniel Manche, are worth keeping an eye out for in the future. Austin Williams, who plays little “Woofer”, the youngest of the characters in the film, also gives an impeccable performance, albeit a chilling one. It’s a shame this film will likely keep under the Oscar radar because there is no doubt that a few names from this film would have ended up on the list of nominations in a number of categories.

As professional and effective as the cast is, much of the credit for making this such an emotionally challenging period piece goes to Greg Wilson, the director chosen from a long list of contenders. A major reason why Greg was chosen for the daunting task was his unique vision of how this project was so much more than just another horror film. Greg’s idea was that this movie also has a coming of age element not to mention a sweet romance at the core of it all. Seems like an unlikely perspective to have considering the brutal content of this project, but it’s this touch of humanity that Greg engaged the overall concept with. It obviously worked and no small detail was left untapped. Attention to costumes, cars, decor and lighting was given no chance to be overlooked and was fully utilized. In fact, the lighting influences the atmosphere throughout the entire film. In the beginning, the outside world is well lit - vibrant and alive – which contrasts greatly to the grayed out conditions of the basement which gets more washed out and bleak looking the closer to the end we get. Greg’s ability to coach the child actors while making them as comfortable as possible every step of the way helped afford them the ability of truly focusing on their characters with a clear mind for nothing but the task at hand.

As you can well imagine, a film like this doesn’t come without its lion’s share of controversy. Message boards quickly filled up with mixed sentiments regarding the film’s intent as they no doubt will for a long time to come. The point is that they are talking about it and to that degree the film is already a success. It was, after all, never meant to be a “silent” film, but rather one that would incite debate and conversations over its merits and values no matter how you might feel about this film being made, especially after experiencing it for yourself.

With outstanding performances to lead the way, this is a film with guts and heart, pain and horror, all in ample supply. Will it disturb you? Yes. Will it piss you off? Probably. Will it disgust you and frustrate you with the idea that something like this may actually be happening somewhere around you without you even knowing about it? Honestly, I hope it does because that’s the point of the film. Hell, if this film doesn’t stir up the urge to scream out in anger and frustration then perhaps it has failed you. Maybe you were like the scattered few who got up and walked away before the film was even through that’s okay, too. As long as you realize and remember why you walked away then this film can still work for you and for those that may come into your life asking for your help in ways you may not have given attention to before. To that end I say hats off to producing partners Andrew Van den Houten and Bill Miller of Moderncine’ for having the balls and ability for pulling this movie off with integrity and respect for those still suffering by the hands of abuse.

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR DVD is due out December 4th (2007) in the U.S.A. and January 15th (2007) in Canada by Starz (formerly Anchor Bay Studios.) and is packed with commentary, interviews, the screenplay (DVD-ROM) and more. To learn how to get your copy and to learn more about the film, visit the film’s official WEBSITE.