SPOILER ALERT. This should not be
a significant issue since the film is based on real events, but I do reveal the
ending, and I also "spoil" a monumental tone shift which occurs about
twenty minutes in.
In 1965, from the unlikely locale of Indianapolis, the news spread to
America of a horrific crime committed in the name of motherly discipline.
A 16-year-old girl was found to have been tortured to death in a foster
home. Sylvia Likens and her younger sister, a polio victim, were
essentially abandoned by their father when their mother was sent off to
jail. Papa was a carnival employee who was left with five children who
just didn't fit into his itinerant carny lifestyle. He pawned off his two
youngest daughters on the mother of one of their schoolmates, paying the
woman $20 per week to care for the girls, and encouraging her to
"straighten them out." The foster mother, Gertrude Baniszewski, was a
frustrated woman who had left behind a trail of divorces and was raising
seven other children on her limited cash flow, much of which she blew on
booze and pills.
The situation got very ugly very fast, and ended with Sylvia's death,
followed by criminal sentences for Gertrude and several children who
abetted the torture.
In 2007 two new films covered this territory:
The first and most prominent was An American Crime, which acquired the
cachet of a Sundance premiere and featured Catherine Keener as the
murderous Gertrude Baniszewski. That film used the real names of the
characters and was based scrupulously on the facts of the case, although
it filled in its own interpretations of the characters' motivations.
The other was Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door, which was derived from
the case less directly. The source of the screenplay was a
novel by Mr. Ketchum, a disciple of Stephen King, who captured all of the important elements of the
case, but retold the story fictionally, without retaining a one-to-one
correspondence between his facts and characters and the real-life details.
I have not read Ketchum's novel, but various accounts have called the film
a conscientious rendering of the novel.
Although the source novel is simply called The Girl Next Door, the film
added the "Jack Ketchum's" prefix to distinguish it from two other recent
films named The Girl Next Door. Since the movie version is a third
generation account of reality, and since its characters are fictional to
begin with, it is not bound
to chronicle precisely what happened in Indianapolis.
For example, here are a few elements which do not correspond to the Likens
- The fictional story takes place in 1958, not 1965.
- While the girls are the right age to be the Likens sisters and the younger has polio,
they are said to have been orphaned.
- Most important, this version introduces a fictional character
who narrates the story. He is a young boy who had a crush on the
tortured girl, and in fact tried to help her in many ways, but
spent the rest of his life haunted by the fact that he knew
exactly what was happening and never alerted the authorities
before the abuse got out of control.
All things considered, the fictional elements do not detract from the
essential truth or power of the story. In fact, the narrator adds power
and depth to the melodrama.
The director and his co-author
chose to create the film as sort of a "Stand by Me meets Hostel II." If you think about
it, you will probably conclude that is an extraordinarily powerful combination. The introduction is
all about young kids enjoying the pleasures of a 50s-era summer: fishing,
going to the carnival, playing in the woods, experiencing sexual
curiosity, having their first case of puppy love, having a beer with the
cool mom, running to meet the ice cream man, and so forth. The doomed girl
and her would-be beau are introduced and we love them immediately. They
are naive, kind-hearted, unguarded, and shy. There is little sign of the
trouble to come. It is the calm before a storm.
The storm does not descend upon us suddenly. Each passing day brings a
slightly greater level of abuse from the mom, and it takes some time
before she escalates from bitchy to demonic. When she gets there, the film
carries an extraordinary power because we remember what we first thought the
movie would be like, and because she has enlisted a brood of children to
join her in the torture rituals. The compliance of the children grips us.
Some of the boys join in because they are sadistic. Others are just
overwhelmed by the sight of a naked 16-year-old girl hanging by her arms.
The saddest bystander to watch is the ineffectual "good" kid, whose
resistance always seem to be about half what it should be, whose disgust
always seems to be tempered by titillation. We root for him
to man up and do something, and he eventually does, but by then it is too
The 1958 story is book-ended by a scene in 2007 in which the good boy,
now 60ish and played by William Atherton, remembers the incident and is
overwhelmed by his own guilt, shame, and regret. In the final scene he
returns to the ol' fishin' hole where he first met the doomed girl, and we
return there with him, sharing his memories, and his pain.
I think the film works. As many critics accurately asserted, it's a
feel-bad movie, and very hard to watch. It can never be pleasant to watch
the torture of children, or the corruption of other children. One might
also carp that the script seems to have no special point to make nor
insight to offer, and it would also be fair to say that the
characterizations are not always as complex as they might be. It's a genre
film, not a serious drama. But, damn, it delivers an emotional punch. Sure
it's a cheap shot. Having kids abused is always an easy way to create
emotional impact. But cheap shot or not, it's a KO. This film just ate
away at me, and the final scene had me inside William Atherton's head. I
would have preferred not to be there, but because I was there the film did
what it had set out to do.