Directed by Gregory Wilson
As horror fans, we often describe the movies we love as “fantastical”. Monsters rampage through the city, zombies devour the unlucky (or slow) and masked killers stalk their victims with a supernatural will … all moments we can discount as things unlikely to happen to us. I’ve often said in the past; it’s not the usual creepy fare that sends a chill up my spine. It’s the stories of torture and chaos that are plastered across news headlines, far away enough for us to feel safe.
Every so often, these things hit very close to home.
A woman in Brooklyn overdoses on pills and alcohol, leaving her three small children to feed and care for themselves while “mommy sleeps” … for 2 weeks. A man in Rhode Island beats his girlfriend for 6 hours, taking breaks to visit a bar on the corner for drinks. When a bar patron helps the stumbling man back home, she is found near death. There are people out there with stronger stomachs than my own, whose job it is to deal with these individuals and their victims. The rest of us can choose to read about it or ignore it all, but believe me when I say, apathy is the enemy. As a society we tend to become desensitized to the point where groups of people look on from their apartment balconies while a woman below is stabbed to death. Even worse, at times a “pack mentality” is fostered to the point where those near a chaotic event of mass vandalism and destruction, often join in. How do we, as a race, continue to argue that we are now “civilized” when these acts happen more often than ever before? When do we scream “Enough”?
The Girl Next Door is one such story, based on true events that could happen in your own stretch of quiet suburban living without you even knowing. The Chandler house is a favorite hang out for the local neighborhood children, complete with the “cool mom” who serves beers and talks about things kids wouldn’t normally hear until their teens. Everything seems innocent enough, as it were, until the arrival of Meg, a pretty young thing doing her best to look after her sister and pick up the pieces after a horrific accident that claimed the lives of their parents. With no one else to turn to, the girls are dropped on Ruth Chandler’s doorstep to live with her 3 sons, all who seem to have little use for their new guests. Awkward glances quickly turn to outright abuse spiraling out of control as the summer days march on. The only hope for the girls lie with David, the boy who lives next door and seemingly, the one child bearing witness to these atrocities who has a problem with any of it. This story is told from David’s perspective as we watch a small boy struggle to find a way to save two girls without becoming a victim himself.
A stand out performance is given by William Atherton, playing David as a now older man reflecting on the past. For me, these scenes contained the only moments of powerful emotion and at times. I could see the author and friend of Dread Central, Jack Ketchum, speaking the words himself. Unfortunately, the rest of this film is lacking similar impact.
Traveling back to 1958, the first character we meet is David Moran (Manche), a likable boy who gets into little boy things to fill his days. Manche handles the roll well with a great degree of innocence draped over every hesitant word spilled from his lips. He quickly meets Meg Loughlin (Auffarth) who projects an odd mix of vulnerability and eagerness to meet new friends. I say this is odd only because while Meg seems shy and timid one minute, she is consistently the aggressor in her interactions with David. There is something definitively not childlike about Auffarth, who is in the neighborhood of twenty-two. At times it makes it difficult to see her as a child among the other actors in this film, who are at least in their lower teens.
Blotting out these little rays of sunshine like an eclipse is Ruth Chandler (Baker), who begins the film as a quirky single mother who smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish and loves the sound of her own voice. At times, Ruth will remind you of those mind-scarring sexual education videos some of us were subjected to because his parents were too chicken to lay it out for him. Sorry … venting. ~shudder~ One child asks a question and Ruth expounds on subjects of sexual anatomy, the roles of men and women and more. After a time it comes off like the One Act Plays of Ruth Chandler and lasted long enough to make me forget anything else was happening in the film. If these diatribes had included some insight into Ruth’s secret pain of being left with three kids, some dropped hints on past abuse…just something to explain why she is, as the movie’s blurb explains ‘a woman slowly going mad” it would’ve helped immensely. That’s not to say that Baker isn’t a bit fun to watch, as she seems to take great joy in revealing the dirty little secrets of adults to children. It just seems like too much all at once.
With little character development and only the tiniest glint of perversion among the children of the neighborhood, the atmosphere goes from tense to harsh and right into insane in the space of what seemed like twenty minutes. It’s hard to go into detail about where this film goes without giving key scene details away, so I’m going to be sketchy for a bit. Those familiar with this work originally penned by author Jack Ketchum know that it took a great deal of time to bring this to the screen due to scenes of extreme violence against children.
There are three major forces moving against Meg and her little sister that you want to watch closely as the film progresses. The obvious is Ruth whose distain for her new houseguests is apparent from our first views of her interaction with the girls. What’s left incalculable are her motives for escalating her aggression toward them. Is she jealous that two new females in the house would steal her spotlight? Is she striving to make the girls stronger by any means necessary, as her belief is you can’t rely on men? Logic in this remains elusive to me. If we had seen signs of Ruth’s insanity before hand, we could just chalk this up to random psychotic behavior, but the character is played as a calm, calculating, self assured woman who doesn’t need a man for anything. That last fact enhanced my confusion whenever Ruth would call all girls “whores”. If that is the case, but men are not needed for anything in life, then what classification of being is Ruth? Maybe I’m over thinking it.
The second force moving against the girls is personified in Ruth’s three sons. These boys play in the dirt, fix their bikes and run through the forest with evident childhood glee. We do see their actions against Meg escalate like predators moving in on a wounded animal, but again, we aren’t told why. Sure, mom gives them beers and tells them naughty stories, but we don’t see any reinforcement that they are so superior to women that they should be able to take what they want. It’s hard to see how this escalation of violence would occur so rapidly in the time frame presented in the film. Even if the boys had been abused themselves, raised to believe that the strong can dominate the weak, we would have seen some evidence of this thinking in their interaction with the neighborhood kids. Instead, they seem likeable and friendly to all around them early on. The shift is a bit too drastic for my tastes.
The third force manifests itself as the neighborhood children. Again, without revealing too much, I’ll just say that it seems every child on the block knows what is going on in Ruth’s house and are invited to join in daily. You get to watch as the children devise new ways to torment Meg, physically and mentally. I can buy that the children that live in the house may have been messed up for life already, even at this early age, by their freak of a mother, but how does this infect every child in the neighborhood, all of whom have different mothers and fathers? Please remember this is 1958 America. I’d like to think kids were a little more innocent back then. All we are left with is little David who returns every day to watch the horrors, seemingly looking for opportunities to save Meg. I’ll accept that he was frightened by all of this and feared for his own life but HOLY SHIT…there’s a little girl tied up in the basement!!! One call to the cops, they raid the house and that’s what they would find. We don’t see David struggling with his guilt while trying to pretend everything is normal…or trying to secretly tell the authorities what is happening. All we get is David standing there sheepishly as Meg is brutalized for days. David isn’t a captive himself. He’s just watching.
I’ve been told by people who read The Girl Next Door that what made it so powerful is that we spend a lot of time in David’s head as he responds to things no child should ever have to even dream about. His running narrative sets the mood of the story and enhances the impending dread every time David enters the Chandler house. Abandoning this on film leaves us only with the re-telling of the tale from actor to actor and the artistic vision of the filmmaker. While I fully believed the time period presented here, there was no definitive vision beyond that. It’s hard to draw me into a scene when the look and feel lacks anything beyond defused light and sunny skies. I was warned before seeing The Girl Next Door that the subject material would make things hard to watch. Honestly, having not been drawn into the moment, it was more an exercise in onscreen violence. I can recall cringing in my seat several times while watching scenes of torture during Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror outing “Imprint”, a film which left me more than a little disturbed. The Girl Next Door lacks that impact. Instead I’m left with several plot holes and no real desire for a second viewing to figure them out.
2 1/2 out of 5
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