THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
From one of the roughest,
most uncompromising horror novels ever comes a profoundly graphic and disturbing
film. No, it doesn’t entirely do the novel (which on the whole is probably
unfilmable) justice, but what the filmmakers have accomplished is still fairly
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR by Jack Ketchum was initially
published as a paperback original back in 1989. It was loosely based on
the torture-murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Lykens, who in Indiana of 1961 was
abused over a period of several months by her guardian Gertrude and the latter’s sons. Ketchum’s
genius was in relating his story from the point of view of a fictional character
who witnesses but doesn’t take part in the abuse, and in the way the author
imbued the case with his own late fifties childhood memories, giving it both a
nostalgic overlay and a slyly subversive political angle. Yet despite its
brilliance the book appeared with little-to-no fanfare, and only really took off
upon its 1996 hardback reissue by Overlook Press (which came complete with a
lengthy introduction by Stephen King). Since then it’s gone through several
printings, including a new mass market paperback edition, and been adapted for
The screenplay for THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, written by Daniel Farrands and
Philip Nutman, spent over seven years bouncing around Hollywood; Ketchum liked
the script so much he made it a requirement that any potential filmmakers use
it. As it happened, the indie outfit Moderncine brought this project to the
screen and managed to (mostly) do it justice. Even more impressive is the
mind-boggling fact that the film somehow got an R rating from the MPAA without
Yet the film, in common with book, was given scant reception. Anchor Bay
Entertainment secured distribution rights, and gave it a straight-to-DVD release
in December of 2007. Much of its thunder appears to have been stolen by the
upcoming release of AN AMERICAN CRIME, a more straightforward recounting of the
Sylvia Lykens case starring JUNO’S Ellen Page. But keep an eye out for THE GIRL
NEXT DOOR. It may not have received the attention (or controversy) it deserves,
but I predict the film, like the novel that inspired it, will grow in
popularity, and be with us for a long time to come.
David is a fiftyish man haunted by horrific memories about what occurred
during the summer of 1958. 12 years old at the time, David was smitten with
Meg, a pretty girl who moved in next door together with her younger sister
Meg and Susan’s parents were killed in a car accident, leaving them in the
hands of their only viable guardian Ruth. A recent divorcee with three
rambunctious sons, Ruth is viewed as “one of the guys” by the neighborhood kids,
being a fun gal with no compunctions about letting the boys smoke and drink
beer. But Ruth is also a bitter woman whose already-tenuous mental state is
beginning to deteriorate.
One day at the town fairground Meg reveals to David that Ruth is abusing
her. Beatings and starvation are the order of the day at Ruth’s place, and
before long David gets a firsthand glimpse of both. He does his best to pretend
things are proceeding normally, but that becomes impossible when Meg tells a
policeman about the abuse...and Ruth responds by confining her to the cellar.
From there the torture steadily escalates, with Ruth’s boys meting out
increasingly depraved punishments that Ruth believes are for Meg’s “own good”.
David for his part is horrified, but does nothing to stop the madness. He
eventually makes a concerted effort to help Meg, but the attempt fails and David
ends up locked in the cellar with her, leading to an apocalyptic final showdown
with Ruth and her demented brood.
What distinguishes this film from most other horror movies is the simple
fact that it doesn’t play like one. From the start director Gregory M. Wilson
establishes a quiet, languid atmosphere that seems entirely appropriate to the
time and setting: late-fifties suburbia. The period details are quite
convincing given the low budget, and the New Jersey locations extremely well
A straight transcription of the novel would be inadvisable, to say the
least--such an approach might very likely land the moviemakers in prison--but
Jack Ketchum’s twisted narrative has made it to the screen virtually intact.
This includes the book’s trickiest element, the almost imperceptible shift from
charming (if dark-hued) nostalgia to out-and-out horror, which Wilson pulls off
with real skill.
The film is also impeccably cast. While the performance of young Daniel
Manche in lead role is a bit one note, the rest of the actors are top-notch.
This is particularly true of the leading ladies, led by the amazing Blanche
Baker, who delivers a virtual case study in pure evil as the psychotic Ruth (a
far cry from Baker’s best-known role, as the older sister in SIXTEEN CANDLES).
The doe-eyed Blythe Auffarth is also quite memorable as Meg, both the victim and
hero of the piece, and first-time actress Madeline Taylor, as Meg’s younger
sister, communicates volumes in a largely non-verbal role.
If only the film overall were as fine as its performers. Wilson and his
collaborators command attention and build suspense expertly, but loose their
footing in the climax, which collapses the novel’s nail-biting final third into
an overly abrupt wrap-up. In just about any other movie such a conclusion might
be acceptable, but I think material this fine deserves better.
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
Director: Gregory M. Wilson
Producers: William M. Miller, Andrew Van Den Houten\
Screenplay: Daniel Farrands, Philip Nutman\
(Based on a novel by Jack Ketchum)
Cinematography: William M. Miller
Editing: M.J. Fiore
Cast: Blanche Baker, Daniel Manche, Blythe Auffarth, William Atherton, Grant
Show, Catherine Mary Stewart, Madeline Taylor, Graham Patrick Martin, Benjamin
Ross Kaplan, Austin Williams, Kevin Chamberlin, Dean Faulkenberry, Gabrielle