Screenplay by Daniel Farrands and Philip Nutman
From the novel by Jack Ketchum
Draft date: 2003/2004
Shocked, appalled, moved, numbed, awed, distressed. It’s a morass of conflicting emotions and feelings careening round one’s mind and body once they delve into Jack Ketchum’s dark representations of the uncanny and horrible truth of the world that we all inhabit.
I’m familiar with Ketchum’s work, but not The Girl Next Door specifically. And though this is a screenplay, an adaptation, the terms most will approach from are as I did: as a superbly crafted tale of ordinary madness. Genre cinema will be glad of the day this hits.
The plot is minimal, in contrast to the impact such a simple tale exhibits. New Yorker David recalls one dreadful summer when a young girl, Meg, came to his small, leafy suburb to live with her Aunt Ruth, the brash but benevolent matriarch of the town with a gaggle of mischievous wastrels comprising her hardy brood – Woofer, Willie, Eddie and Donny. As the summer progresses, a nasty undertone begins to develop beneath Meg and her young sister’s dynamic within their new family. Slowly and surely, unease mutates into a barrage of devastating abuse form this surrogate kin that brings shock and horror to a once idyllic town.
Farrands and Nutman’s is an exquisitely crafted screenplay. Immaculately paced and layered with character and sense of place from the outset, it lures the audience in with its very darkly hued Stand By Me-ish tone. The prologue with the adult David is a poignant thematic starting block, ably setting up the man whose heart has quite obviously been scarred to the point of compassion in the Big Apple – easily interpretable as something quite rare. These first few pages rack up a palpable sense of impending dread – their bleached out descriptions of rainy New York, blanching any big screen glamour of the city. Grim and impressionistic, it’s an alluring opening for a horror story.
The blossoming summer of 1958 takes on a dreadful countenance after this, one that resonates throughout the tale. The story is initially almost imperceptible amid this lustrously sketched setting. It’s a mounting collage of insinuating quirks and character traits that, at first, seem bog standard small-town eccentricity. But this tone is ably maintained, each facet sowing the seed for the mounting awfulness yet to unfold. And when it does come – it’s breathtaking. We have seen the tender stuff of childhood played out. Meg paints watercolour portraits that are sweetly representative of an innocence soon to become shattered. David and Meg’s touching friendship is mired in a middle-American landscape of funfairs and sun drenched rocky brooks.
All the characters are given their own small ticks and traits. Woofer’s lapdog-like devotion to Ruth cruelly mimics his eventual subsuming to his mother’s dreadful nature. Willie, Donny and Eddie’s macho by-proxy desire is to belong and please the dominant spirit of “Auntie Ruth”. They look up to her and want to become part of something in the lackadaisical community representing this late 50’s (not so) innocence. It’s a simple but bold metaphor.
Ruth herself is a conundrum. Overbearingly matron like – almost Twainian in fact – part of what works is that she is quite plainly slipping into madness before her boy’s very eyes. It’s a compassionate portrait – perversely remaining tinged thusly throughout. Obviously a woman who has suffered and sacrificed and she consequently remains a defiantly human creation despite all that she is written to become by Ketchum/Farrands/Nutman. It’s all the more shocking when her abject madness manifests itself in common-or-garden abuse. On the page, the script routinely plays out the abuse in the same dour tones seen throughout myriad coming-of-age films with their strict fathers and unbending moral fortitudes. That it’s so resolutely matter-of-fact and over the edge of the same heightened morality here makes it all the more appalling.
Reading the pages, what’s most strongly brought to mind is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” by way of Carrie. Hopelessly, maliciously po-faced justification for dispassionate cruelty by what we all recognise as icons of Americana (the make shift family unit) are played up to the subtextual hilt. In Jackson’s world, King’s world and now Farrands’ and Nutman’s, the self-justification of the characters themselves (here Ruth) is both hideously abhorrent and agonisingly believable. We can see why she does it even though every part of us screams out in mute defiance at her mediaeval moralising — like some awful parody of Witchfinder General by way of Misery.
Little details are neatly and consistently woven into the story: David’s father’s complacent adultery is never explicitly stated, but from his dispassionate (though importantly never directly chauvinist) stance on “the woman’s place”, it’s strongly inferred. Likewise, Ruth’s escalating rants lend an interior commentary of the society within which our story is playing. It’s rare for such details to sneak into a seemingly ferocious horror picture. They are, needless to say, greatly appreciated.
Along that same fine line between taste and depravity that John Carpenter so famously expounds The Texas Chainsaw Massacre habituates, it’s almost too shocking and awful to read at certain moments. In the latter stages of the abuse, it becomes literally too much to read though never rallies itself into cheap shock tactics. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was moved to tears on more than one occasion. The plight of the girls, David’s heartbreakingly forced reticence that resolves itself into unimpeachable – but searing and scarring – guilt, all lend a real gravity to the screenplay. It all feels like a story – not a collection of horrific scenes. There is nothing titillating about this: it’s horror, through and through.
One niggling point that sticks in my head – and perhaps this is an issue within Ketchum’s text, or any text dealing with abject terror – is the true nature of Ruth. How is it no one realises her amplifying madness in this quite close knit community? Her temperament seems to turn on itself at will and the events are stretched over a time leading one to wonder if society’s apathy would realistically extend as far as it does. Is Ruth mad or is she truly as calculatedly evil as the events tell us? The script is pleasingly ambiguous, hinting at the “sins of the fathers” (and mothers!) element that is thematically potent throughout. From a narrative point of view however, it slackens the plot’s resolve somewhat. A moot point but one that is worth mentioning.
Taut, lean and economical, the strength of the writing is especially evident in the scenes of mistreatment -a catalogue of depravity neatly and succinctly laid out with a minimum of grand-standing. It doesn’t once betray the awfulness of the unfolding events with sensationalism. The only “cinematic” treatment of this comes at the very climax when Jennings, Mr. Moran and Mr. Henderson make the discovery we’ve been desperately anticipating. It’s a wonderfully surreal moment to what is relieving and devastating for both characters and reader segueing to a coda both neat and sober. Its message of culpability, indifference and guilt provokes incisive questions in the audience – questions that can be all answered by cautiously reliving the events of the story, the horrors of everyday life that a series of yellowing newspaper headlines probe almost subliminally in the story’s final moments.
A searing and deceptively simple piece of work in the end, though heartfelt and deeply distressing, it can’t fail to be provocative and a supremely hard sell for a major picture. But it’s so pertinent to contemporary society that it’s difficult not to hyperbolize when saying how powerful it is. As a film and screenplay placed within the industry – I suspect none but the brave would approach without due caution. A million miles away from Larry Clark-esque “teensploitation”, it’s still a hot button representation of teen violence. As a piece of work and art – it is truly incredible. With the heart of a tougher, more intelligent 1970’s cinema driving it, it’s uncompromising, gun-shot-to-the-face powerful and unrelenting in both its terror and incisiveness.
The most shocking thing about the project ? Google search “Sylvia Likens”. Most of The Girl Next Door actually happened in one form or another. Whether such a requiem as this is appropriate is probably up to the individual. But as an indictment of child neglect and cruelty, it’s both solemn and sincere. There’s not a more sobering thought to be had and I truly hope when it comes to the screen, it’s intact and with as much talent behind the camera as is so obviously behind the pen.
Discuss The Girl Next Door in our forums!