I finally had my annual nightmare-inducing film from Fantastic Fest this year after seeing Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door. It's not a horror film in the traditional sense, but rather an odd combination of family drama and scenes of physical torture -- like a Lifetime movie directed by Eli Roth. The movie is adapted from the 1989 Ketchum novel, which was based on the real-life story of Sylvia Likens. Likens' story was also told in An American Crime, which premiered at Sundance this year.
The Girl Next Door is set in "innocent" 1950s small-town America, structured as a long flashback of David, a guy currently in his fifties. When young David (Daniel Manche) was on the verge of adolescence, two girl cousins moved in with the Chandlers next door, a family of several boys and their divorced mom Ruth (Blanche Baker). The girls lost their parents in a car accident, and the younger one, Susan, wears leg braces and uses crutches. Ruth was always considered a "cool" mom because she let the boys drink beer and talked about sexual matters. Now she starts bullying her nieces in a minor way, slowly advancing to higher and nastier levels of abuse especially targeted at teenager Meg (Blythe Auffarth). The movie is arresting at times, and you can't turn away, although during one key scene I was peeking at the movie through my fingers -- enough of a wimp not to want to watch, and enough of a film geek that I couldn't sneak out of the theater before the movie was over. It was like that pivotal scene in Hard Candy, only this time the women in the audience were all visibly disturbed. Or that scene in A Hole in My Heart -- well, you get the idea. This isn't a gory or graphically violent movie, since the worst acts aren't shown onscreen, but simply knowing what's going on is disturbing enough and occasionally seems to verge on exploitation.
One of the problems with the movie was that David's behavior didn't make sense to me. He had a crush on the girl, he saw her being abused, and all he could do was stare like a scared bunny ... and return the next day to watch more suffering. I was talking to someone after the screening who pointed out that if David had been a darker character who joined in and acted equally horrible, even if he backed off later, at least the movie would have made more sense. But instead he spends too much of the movie being passive, and we don't understand why.
I imagine that the point of The Girl Next Door was to show that the 1950s were not quite so innocent as many people would have you believe -- that innocence is sometimes a cover for denial. If the movie took place in a contemporary setting, the abuse would not seem nearly as horrible -- we are much more jaded about what happens these days than about what happens in an earlier time, especially the overly glorified post-WW2 era. Everyone thinks it's like A Christmas Story, or even Stand by Me, but here the boys are on the verge of Lord of the Flies.
The Girl Next Door works better when viewed as an exploitation film than as a psychological drama, because the characters don't have sufficient depth for us to care about them or understand their motivations. Ruth is more like a monster than a human being, and her sons simply follow along. I would have preferred to see fewer scenes of appalling abuse and more scenes about the characters themselves. Still, the atrocities in The Girl Next Door are vivid enough to stick in your head and give you nightmares.