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Saturday, December 29, 2007

DVD Review: Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door

Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door
2007 Starz Home Entertainment / Modern Cine
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

There are some stories so horrific that to submit yourself to their brute impact is to strip yourself body and soul to it. The anguish and torture that some people in this life endure at the hands of barbaric, heartless creatures often goes untold, buried beneath the shattered psyches of the victims who are often left shelled in the aftermath of their dreadful experiences, assuming they've lived through them. Frequently the victims are children or preteens, which only increases the intensity of the crimes inflicted upon them. To beat a child is taboo; to mentally abuse a child is utterly wicked. To rape and sexually maim a child is, well...unspeakable.

Best-selling author Jack Ketchum turned the literary world on its ear with his brutally honest account The Girl Next Door, a guttural novel about extreme child abuse that is based on actual events, namely the 1965 rape, torture and murder case of Sylvia Likens. The filthy atrocities extolled upon a young girl in a house full of seemingly normal late-fifties suburbanites is outlined in controversial detail in the book, and brought to life now in daring fashion in this film adaptation.

Obviously not to be confused with the 2004 sex angst movie Girl Next Door starring Elisha Cuthbert, Jack Ketchum's story is a Lifetime network story devoid of the mush and the sap. The bad guys nearly get away with their sickening crimes, and there's no feelgood bird-chirping at the end. If you think you're pissed off at the stereotypical misogynism-brought-to-justice plots (not to make light of a sensile subject) of these bon bon teledramas, trust me, you're wholly unprepared for what you'll be submitted to with Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door.

I've frequently enjoyed conversations about having the fantastical opportunity to visit any place in yesteryear and often I've settled upon the 1950s. There's a certain glamour and appeal about Fifties America that's endeared to those who lived the times, and I've had my exposures through parents who were there and reflect fondly upon the good times and the bad, a time where where they carried switchblades in their pockets but almost always settled duels with their fists. The romantic picture of shiny chrome mags and sharp cut fins on the backs of sleek iron chariots driven by leather-clad stallions with Vitalis-slicked duck's ass pompadours often triggers a laissez-faire take-no-shit attitude that appeals to most men of any generation. Ditto for the bobbing ponytails and sleeve-rolled button down shirts and denim capris of the ladies found in the greaser lions' company. The sound of Bill Haley & The Comets, Larry Williams, Santo and Johnny, Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers... All part of the facade that creates a magicical mysticism of the Fabulous Fifties.

Stephen King through his horror stories has brought a more realistic window of the fifties in which he grew up, which makes room for the striped shirts, the pleated slacks, the Converse Chucks, the penny loafers and the cowlicks amongst the raging machismo and feministic rebellion. Be it Rob Reiner's beautiful interpretation of Stand By Me, Tommy Lee Wallace's edgy televised rendition of It or Mick Garris' sensitive take on Riding the Bullet, the message ushered by Stephen King in these vehicles of terror is that not everything was peachy keen and arrow straight in Pleasantville. For all of the idyllic status quo of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver, you still have to remember that the fifties had to confront the likes of Ed Gein and Charles Starkweather, the latter a 21-year-old spree killer who gave greasers at-large an extra bad rap.

Keep all of this mind as you watch The Girl Next Door, because there's no books of love or Mr. Bass Man driving a tuneful, idealistic harmony to keep you safe. No boy lollipops, no Peggy Sues, no teddy bears... The Girl Next Door is brute ugly in the same fashion that Last House On the Left was, or I Spit On Your Grave or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This is an emotional plunge into hell that possesses a base of truism to it, which makes it all the more shocking.

On the last throes of innocence, a group of kids turn on one of their own through the manipulation of a cold-hearted divorcee whose values and scruples are a twisted grab bag of World War II conversative and bluntly hedonistic. In Aunt Ruth's disgraceful microcosm, she disguises her shame at being rejected as a woman by inflicting callous punishment upon her orphaned neices Megan (Blythe Auffarth) and Susan (Madeline Taylor). Already a mother to a clan of boys, Ruth Chandler (Blanche Baker) is affectionate to them, but not the girls. She allows underaged drinking (the boys only, of course) to go on under her roof, which entreats her to the gang as "one of the guys." Still, the deeper we get into The Girl Next Door, the more of Aunt Ruth's deep-rooted hatred against her own gender unfolds, incorporating repulsively with each frame.

Like Stand By Me, the story is unfolded through the eyes of one of the witnesses to the tragic events of the story, David Moran (Daniel Manche). The older David sets up the drama with bookend narration dotted by deeply affecting prose, ushering the tale with the gloomy epithet that David's second wife who describes her pain knows nothing of the word compared to what he and his playground love Megan endured in 1958.

The despicable things that happen to Megan and her impaired sister define cruelty. As Megan is humiliated time and again by the Chandler family with painstaking measures, the story goes beyond rough disciplinarian actions and delves waist-deep into the revolting. Blindfolded and gagged with unsanitary rags, hung by the wrists, stripped bare naked, given water to drink that's been pissed in...this is--forgive the awful pun--child's play compared to the horrors poor Megan (and the viewer) is eventually forced to withstand. While director Gregory M. Wilson handles this delicate subject with class, the implications offscreen and the piercing screams of Megan is enough to make even a Hostel junkie squirm.

Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door is nearly unbearable, that's the ink-wet bottom line. For all the time period replication Wilson and his crew whirls together decently, the desire for an Elvis or Chuck Berry tune works on your nerves, anything to separate yourself from the lamentable plight of Megan. Pass us a Rolling Rock pony or at least an orange Nehi, please, for the love of God! A Sky Bar, maybe? Though the film only goes an hour and a half, the prevailing emotion is that you want time to speed this thing up as much as you want Megan and Susan to get out of that bomb shelter hellhole where at some points, most of the neighborhood kids have congregated to take their tolls out on a girl they briefly knew as the new kid in town, but nonetheless played friendly with before confronting and embracing evil in the Chandler house.

The exploration of how violent a turncoat society can get in this film is its loudest message. Despite having David as Megan's advocate, neither child will escape this ordeal unscarred. Neither will you once the film has ended...

Rating: ****

1 comment:

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