Scoop's notes: 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
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
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
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 late.
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, the film did what it had set out to do.