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THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (2007)
Dir. Gregory M Wilson, USA, 91 mins
Welcome back to Film Gutter, and today we wrap up 'classics month' here at the column with a look at an infamous movie from across the pond. In October we've been to Serbia, Spain and China so it's nice to come back to a film without subtitles this week, at least. But there's not much else nice here – because it's time to look at The Girl Next Door. Taking its source material from Jack Ketchum's novel of the same name, with the inspiration for that being the infamous case of Gertrude Baniszewski's terrible abuse and murder of Sylvia Likens in 1995. If you want a more honest-to-life look at the case, you might be better to turn to An American Crime – if you want to get right to the heart of the horrors, then this is likely the version for you.
So, we begin with a flash-forward to a Wall Street banker by the name of Davey, who after a dramatic opening begins to reminisce on his younger days and in particular his infatuation with Meg, the girl who moves in next door (makes sense, right?). What starts out with the flavour of a touching coming of age story takes a sour turn, however, as the influence of Meg's guardian, Aunt Ruth, begins to grow. If there's a single thing that elevates this movie, it's Blanche Baker's role as pretty much the sole adult in the lives of the children of the neighbourhood. In the beginning she's free in giving out the beer and cigarettes to all the youngsters, but her attitudes towards men, women and sexual relationships are warped to say the least. And Meg is soon enough a victim of her ire, resulting in a couple of beatings and unpleasant scenes.
But there's far worse to come, of course, as Ruth continues to employ her poisonous influence and gain the support of the young boys on the block. When Meg reports the beatings to a local police officer, who is dubious of her report, Ruth drags her to the basement and ties her up. It's in this cramped, dingy space that she spends the rest of the movie, and from there we are effectively treated to the classic torture porn scenario. Meg is abused physically, mentally and sexually, much of it by the kids on the street while Ruth calmly watches on with a cigarette. In fact, she leads the most brutal of the treatment herself. The youngsters in the movie display a very variable level of acting skill, and it's not always entirely clear why they go along with so much of what is done to Meg. It's only Davey who offers any resistance, and it's his attempts to free Meg that lead to the conclusion of this one.
By the time I came to the end of the movie, I couldn't help but think that it falls short on both fronts it angles at. The acting is a bit too weak for a serious drama – with the exception of the excellent Blanche Baker – and there's also a bit too much cut out or glazed over to be as seriously shocking as some of the movies we've watched previously here. The finale is obviously designed to stir emotions, but comes off heavy-handed in comparison to – to name but one – Megan is Missing. It's all a little awkward, a little clumsy, perhaps mixing its influences and not quite defining its aims throughout. The best and most impactful moments come from the cruelty of the regular human being, but perhaps there aren't enough of those to really keep you going.
RATING: 5/10. Having seen this on so many 'most shocking movies' lists, and also being a fan of Ketchum's work, I suppose I was ultimately expecting a bit more from this one. The true story that this follows is absolutely harrowing, and although there are places where this is horrible to watch, the overall effect is just a bit underwhelming. It feels as though the director has perhaps shied away where they might have gone all the way to truly produce the effect, and the constant attempts for emotional impact never really play out. So it's a distinctly average 5/10 for The Girl Next Door.
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