Some stories don't need to be told. Just because they play to an individual's sick sensibilities doesn't mean they make valid drama - or decent entertainment. It's a tough call, even among the most ardent and hardcore of horror fans. One genre maven's Hostel is another's Nekromantik. With DVD allowing heretofore unreleaseable material to make its way onto home theaters everywhere, it's no surprise that filmmakers push the boundaries of acceptability now and then. Take the Stephen King praised motion picture The Girl Next Door. Based on a fictional book by terror scribe Jack Ketchum (pseudonym for one Dallas Mayr) it uses a famous case of nauseating child abuse and sexual torture as the basis for a nostalgic look back at the conservative - and quite corrupt - 1950s. Yet what happens in the Chandler house is so disgusting, so inexcusable, that nothing the movie manages offers a sufficient rationale for why it needed to be made. It's just that despicable.
When their parents die in an unexplained accident, Meg Laughlin and her sister Susan end up living with their odd Aunt Ruth and her three towheaded boys. Next door neighbor David Moran loves to come over to the Chandler house and hang out. That's because Ruth lets the teens drink beer and smoke cigarettes. Even worse, she teases them with inappropriate stories about sex and female genitalia. At first, everything seems fine, if just slightly off kilter. Then Meg tells David of Ruth's abusive side - how she starves the girls, beating them for no good reason. One day, when Meg strikes one of her sons, Ruth flies into a rage. She takes her ward down into the basement, ties her up, and lets the neighborhood kids torture her. Soon, the perverted play goes from mean to miscreant, as the boys' raging hormones focus on Meg's frequently naked body. Though he tries to stop it, David is helpless against Ruth. She threatens him with the same kind of punishment she's metering out to Meg. And in 1950s suburbia, no one wants to get involved in other people's business. With his parents and the police willing to look the other way, David is convinced that The Girl Next Door is doomed.
The Girl Next Door is a frighteningly irredeemable film. It's light years beyond any so-called 'torture porn' and is so repugnant and reprehensible that Eli Roth would probably disown it outright. This doesn't make it an unprofessional or talent-free experience, just an excruciating, nauseating, and distasteful one. With its 'based on true events' motivation and exploitation like desire to investigate the most vile of human behaviors, this is a drama that gives off significantly mixed signals. It's like Stand by Me in a slaughterhouse, a retro coming of age where acts of inhuman brutality substitute for sipping beer and sneaking a peek at a girlie mag. There will be critics who compliment the 'brave' performances all around, who point to Blythe Auffarth's hapless heroine Meg and Blanche Baker's completely wicked witch Ruth and froth at how daring and uncompromising their acting is. But in the end, it's all in service of a sleazy, incomplete narrative that never explains the dementia behind the disturbing imagery. Instead, we are supposed to be shocked at the numerous atrocities and marvel at how artfully it's all been done.
Except, that's not the reaction a viewer takes away. The filmmakers like to describe their tawdry little trip into suburban Hell as a "car accident" - a horrible, wretched display of individual suffering that, because of our own inherent morbid curiosity, we just can't look away from. Sadly, not everyone is the callous witness the movie thinks they are, and in the case of this overwrought and disturbing effort, audiences should actually shutter their glance. There truly is nothing to see here except the most debasing of personal ethos. Besides, the sexualization of children should be left to lowlifes like Larry Clark - directors who somehow get a pass for being 'poignant' in their perversion. The notion that boys, barely out of grade school, would be desperate to f*ck their live-in cousin (in front of family and friends, mind you), reeks of one too many late night trips to Internet porn sites, and exposes a motivation for The Girl Next Door that's significantly less than noble. Using such mean-spirited material to illustrate your points may seem audacious, but that's all director Gregory Wilson and writers Jack Ketchum, Daniel Farrands, and Philip Nutman have to offer. And it's just not enough.
But perhaps the most horrendous element of The Girl Next Door is the decision to fictionalize the actual story of Sylvia Likens and Gertrude Baniszewski. The events surrounding the girl's miserable death at the hands of a psychotic, insane monster don't need to be dressed up in faux '50s nostalgia or creepy childhood choices. The minute we see Ruth giving liquor to underage kids, permissive streak excusing all kinds of abhorrent talk and deeds, we instantly feel the post-modern warning signs. From the inappropriate discussion about sexual characteristics to the decision to let her son rape Meg (nothing like this happened in the Likens case), there's a level of unconscionable cruelty in The Girl Next Door that doesn't support the story or the way it's being told. Even worse, we later discover that it's all been in service of a middle aged man's memories of pain past. There's no trial, no sense of justice, no denouement explaining what happened or how society finally wised up and punished the pandering out of these despicable fiends. Instead, The Girl Next Door gives us all that is vile and nothing that's valid. It's a dreadful viewing experience.
Oddly enough, for such an under the radar production, The Girl Next Door looks very good as part of this digital presentation. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image offered by Starz/Anchor Bay is excellent, a nice control of colors allowing director Gregory Wilson to attempt his revisionist nostalgia with artistic acumen. There is an obvious attention to detail and some solid cinematography by William Miller. Too bad it's in service of such a fetid little film.
While nothing overly exceptional, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is decent, providing good use of the back speakers and some intriguing spatial ambiance. The dialogue is always discernible and the musical score sits nicely within the setting. The 2.0 Stereo Surround is a little less atmospheric, but both add to the DVDs professional tech specs.
When it comes to added content, The Girl Next Door's digital package delivers. It's a shame that the vast majority of the material is of the self-serving, back slapping kind. While never addressing the terrible issues brought up by the movie, we get two audio commentaries (one from Wilson, producer Andrew von den Houten and cinematographer William Miller, the other offering Ketchum, Farrands, and Nutman), interviews with the cast and crew, a mandatory Making-Of, and a trailer. Those with DVD-Rom access can also view the screenplay. As is the case with all this material, everyone is overly impressed with how 'noble' and 'envelope pushing' this film is. No one addresses the implied underage nudity, the repugnant abuse, and the changes to the actual true story. Instead, this is one big happy family towing a particular party line. For those who love this film, these bonuses will be a treat. For those who dislike it, the constant praise will be painful.
Some could argue that such virulent responses to this soft focus snuff film indicate a level of skill and acumen amongst the cast and crew that needs to be commended. Such filmic logic is specious at best. Just became a movie makes you want to gouge your eyes out and pour Liquid Plummer in your brainpan to purge the memory of its meanness out of your skull doesn't make it a work of misunderstood art. Sometimes, crap is just that - crap...and The Girl Next Door is some of the most god-awful dung ever flung at an unsuspecting audience. No matter the intent or motive, this movie deserves a Skip It. Sadly, one can envision hordes of misguided genre buffs heading to their local B&M hoping to score a copy of this flawed forbidden fruit. One bite of this soiled, sour apple, however, and you'll have the 'told you so trots' for weeks. It's hard to know if there's a good film to be made out of this awful American tragedy. Clearly, Ketchum and the gang didn't create one.