Directed by Gregory Wilson
Film adaptations of books can go a few different ways, and almost always result in the comparison “not as good as the book.” It’s almost inevitable that this would happen with The Girl Next Door given how few stories, in any medium, could have the same nausea inducing, emotionally draining impact as Jack Ketchum’s 1989 novel. That said, director Gregory Wilson’s interpretation faithfully follows Ketchum’s story and structure and fans of the book can rest assured that the core of the novel remains intact in the film version.
For the uninitiated, The Girl Next Door tells the story of Meg and her crippled sister Susan, who have been sent to live with their Aunt Ruth following the death of their parents in a car accident. Ruth is “like one of the gang” according to David, the next door neighbor and friends to Ruth’s three sons, Willie, Donny, and “Woofer”. The rest of the neighborhood kids love Ruth because she allows them a glimpse of adulthood by letting them congregate at her house to watch TV, where they can drink a beer, or sneak a cigarette. In return Ruth holds court on her favorite topics: the weakness of women and the tyranny of men.
Ruth’s leniency is not extended to Meg and Susan, who she resents, not only because they constitute a financial burden, but because Meg represents unsullied innocence and a potential for self realization and happiness long since lost to Ruth. Like Woofer feeding helpless inchworms to red ants, Ruth has a vapid longing to destroy not only Meg’s purity, but that of the neighborhood children and her sons as well. She starts by tying Meg up in the basement.
The boys are allowed to indulge their curiosity about the female body without fear of reprisal and without Meg’s consent. It goes downhill from there, as the gang’s voyeuristic urges grow numb, in favor of a yearning for more cruel pleasures. Just before the film reaches it’s sadistic nadir, and in response to David’s growing objections, Woofer barks “But we have permission!”
And here is the one significant problem I have with the film version of The Girl Next Door. The audience is given permission to watch the atrocities befalling Meg without being implicated. Sure, the more sensitive in the theatre will walk out, not wanting to see a girl branded and raped, but the power of the book is that it can make even the most hardened, questioning reader ask themselves why they keep turning the page. Ketchum’s reader is not given any cushy moralizing character to identify with and through whose eyes they can safely watch the action unfold without direct involvement. Even when David finally does rebel, it’s not until it’s far too late. Contrast this to the film adaptation in which David is conflicted from the get-go. Gone is the sense that David’s adolescent boner is taking precedence over his instincts as a decent kid. No longer are we forced to confront the reasons why we want the book to go further, just as David does. This allows one to watch the film from a distance, in a way the book forbids.
On a technical front, I found The Girl Next Door charmingly anachronistic; exactly as a story set in the 1950’s ought to be. The Technicolor suburbia filled with brill creamed boys, buying ice cream from the Good Humor man, contrasts jarringly with the grey, lifeless palette of Ruth’s basement. Some have complained that the film looks like a TV movie of the week, but I think this works in its favor, since this visual style heightens the sense that something is rotten beneath the “Leave It to Beaver” exterior.
The performances are also to be commended across the board. Despite the fact that she spends half the film tied up, gagged and mostly non-verbal, Blythe Auffart conveys a sense of moral outrage at her fate, and a goodness of spirit that shines through all the dirt and blood. Likewise, the child actors, and especially Daniel Manche, who plays David, never ring a false note even though there’s no way they could draw on any life experience in their portrayals (at least I hope not). Last but far from least is Blanche Baker in the role of Ruth. She turned in one of those performances that forevermore will be linked with the book. Not that I ever plan to read The Girl Next Door ever again but if I did, I know it’d be Blanche Baker as Ruth the whole way through.
Excepting the small, but critical flaw of making David a character for the audience to identify with, The Girl Next Door is a faithful, reverent adaptation that does justice to the Jack Ketchum novel. The film is not exploitative, nor do the filmmakers seem to be cashing in on the notoriety of the book. The film version of The Girl Next Door is not an easy film to watch, but it is easier than it should be.
4 out of 5
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