Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door
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 her
$20 per week to care for them, 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 children of her
own 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. You can pick up the real-life story here:
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 directly on the facts of the case.
* Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door was derived from the case less
directly. The source of the screenplay was an eponymous novel by Mr.
Ketchum, who captured all of the important elements of the case, but
retold the story fictionally, without retaining one-to-one
correspondence between his facts and characters and the real-life details.
Although the source novel is called The Girl Next Door, the film added the
"Jack Ketchum's" prefix to distinguish it from a readily identifiable
Elisha Cuthbert film which was released fairly recently. The movie version
is therefore a third generation account and, since its characters are
fictional, is not bound to chronicle precisely what happened in
For example, here are a few elements which do correspond to the Likens
- The store takes place in 1958.
- While the girls are the right age and the younger has polio, they
are said to have been orphaned.
- 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
tortured 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.
This film is very difficult to watch. The director and his co-author
chose to make the film in the mode of "Stand by Me meets Hostel II." If
you think about it, 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 no
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 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. 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 set out to do.
It was underrated by the critics (29 at Metacritic, 58% at RT), but
maybe even a bit overrated at IMDb at 7.6. A more balanced viewpoint would
land it somewhere between those levels. If I were a real reviewer using an
Ebert scale, I'd call it three stars, and I rated it a 7 at IMDb. That's a
"gut feeling." I have a mental picture of what an 8 is, and this just
didn't seem strong enough for an 8.
It's yet another one that is a good movie, but I wish I had never seen
Street date December 4th (Tuesday). Available at all standard outlets
including Amazon (below)
* widescreen anamorphic, 16x9
The nudity comes from Blythe Auffarth as the doomed girl. She is
actually 22. Here
is the film clip.