Monsters, demons, and knife-wielding psychos might make for a suitably creepy movie, but if you really want to be chilled to the bone, just turn on the evening news and witness something really horrifying: The evil that men do to one another for no good reason. One of the most infamous crimes in American history centers around the torture and murder of young Sylvia Likens in the late '60s, but if you've never heard of this story, you can prepare yourself for two separate movies that tell the tale.
The first film is called An American Crime, and despite the fact that it played at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, I'm of the opinion that it's a pretty bad film. The second movie is called The Girl Next Door, and it's based on the novel by Jack Ketchum. Mr. Ketchum's novel is loosely based on the Likens story. I suppose the two films would make for a bleak-yet-fascinating double feature. The first film approaches the subject matter with facts, figures, and much detachment -- but the second one digs right into the psychology of the story and turns out to be a powerfully sobering true-crime thriller.
Blanche Baker (a familiar-faced character actor who delivers a seriously memorable performance here) plays a woman who takes her two young nieces in after their parents are killed -- but one has to wonder why Auntie Ruth would even bother. She's already got a handful of unpleasant sons, and she clearly has no affection for teenaged Meg (Blythe Auffarth) and the brace-wearing Susan (Madeline Taylor). So when the sweet-yet-strongheaded Meg defies her aunt's commands, well, let's just say that things get really ugly. And here's the scary part: Not only does Ruth condone the horrific abuse, but she invites her enthusiastic sons to take part. While some of the details have been fictionalized by Ketchum and the filmmakers, the bulk of the story is the same. Hell can hide in the most unlikely of places, it seems, and The Girl Next Door would like to take you on a tour.
In addition to the commanding work from Ms. Baker, the supporting cast also excels: The young actors are top-notch across the board, but the standouts are Ms. Auffarth as the ill-fated teenager and newcomer Daniel Manche as the only kid in the neighborhood who seems to have his conscience intact. Catherine Mary Stewart and Grant Show are quite good in small-ish roles. Character actor William Atherton anchors the 'framing' story quite handily.
Fair warning: This is not a "fun" horror movie. Despite what you may have read, there's nothing about this movie that could be described as "torture porn." And while the film has very little bloodshed -- it's still one of the most arduous movies to sit through in quite some time.
Director Gregory Wilson sets the stage early by creating a warm and nostalgic 1950s setting, but it doesn't take long before we start to see some of the darkness beneath the seams. Where An American Crime seemed more interested in facts, figures, and manipulation, The Girl Next Door feels like a cross between Stand By Me and Irreversible. So while this film is most assuredly NOT for all tastes, the adventurous movie-watchers will undoubtedly appreciate Wilson's unflinching look at some true-life terror.
And fans of the book will be pleased to note that Mr. Wilson's film is a rather faithful adaptation of Jack Ketchum's highly-regarded novel. It's a dark, harsh and sometimes powerfully unpleasant film, but it's also one that's made with a lot of care and craftsmanship. Proceed at your own risk, but definitely consider this a recommendation to the strong of heart.