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The Girl Next Door – Review

The Girl Next Door – Review

Feb 17, 2010

reviewed by Danny
directed by Gregory Wilson, 2007

Gregory Wilson’s The Girl Next Door is based on the novel by legendary horror writer Jack Ketchum (which was, in turn, based on the true case of Sylvia Likens, a young girl who, in 1965, was brutally raped and murdered at the hands of her aunt and cousins).  It is one of the most disturbing horror films of the past few years.  It is also one of the most difficult to review.  I watched it a few weeks ago, and I have started this review a half-dozen times since then.  Why is it so problematic?  I’m not sure I can say.  Part of the reason is the film seems to expect the viewer to be entertained by the vile acts of a monster of a mother, her children, and many of the children in the film’s fictionalized suburban neighborhood.  Though I, like many horror fans, have no problem with graphic violence and gore, seeing the violence done to the young girl in the movie is vastly more disturbing than watching Jason killing a slutty teenager in some comically exaggerated way.  On top of that, I wonder at the emptiness of the film.  Its only message seems to be that people are capable of some sick stuff, alone or in groups.  I’m not sure that message is original enough or that the execution is good enough to make that a compelling.  Still, I did find the film compelling, specifically because I could not understand the actions of the protagonist who, despite not participating in the torture, rape and murder and actively trying to help the girl escape, might be the film’s true villain.

After a modern day prologue, the film opens with our protagonist, David, cute-meeting Megan while catching “crawdaddies” in the river.  We soon learn that Meg and her younger sister (who is crippled by polio) have moved in with their aunt and his next door neighbor, Ruth.  Ruth’s house is where all the neighborhood boys hang out and drink beer and watch television.  David thinks of her as his cool neighbor, but it is clear from these early scenes that there is something wrong with the relationship between Ruth and the girls.  It isn’t long before we see Ruth abusing Meg and her sister verbally and physically.  There is constantly an sexual undercurrent in her words and actions.  Eventually things escalate and Meg ends up tied to the rafters in the basement where she is tortured by Ruth, her sons, and some of the kids in the neighborhood.

Throughout these events, David tries to help Meg where he can.  He loosens her ropes to make her more comfortable, he acts as the voice of reason when the boys want to jump start the inevitable final acts, he turns away when Ruth has her stripped nude.  In the end, he unties her and attempts to allow her to escape.  The problem is that he never really does anything to stop the torture.  In truth, he seems fascinated by what is going on.  He wouldn’t participate in those kind of acts, but one gets the idea that he might be wrestling with the fact that he is sexually excited by what he sees.  It is not hard to imagine that he is placed in the story to represent us, the viewers of the film.  We are disturbed by what is done to Meg, but we do not turn off the film.  We keep watching.  In this way, the film seems to be exploring similar territory as Funny Games though in a much less self-referential way.

I can’t give The Girl Next Door my whole-hearted recommendation.  The film isn’t boring and, other than some amateurish acting, it is well made for low-budget exploitation fair.  It isn’t, however, likely to be all that enjoyable for the average horror film fan. There just isn’t enough here outside of whatever fascination there is in the David character, and that is certainly a “your mileage will vary” kind of situation.  If you are interested in the psychology of cases like the Likens one this is based on, then the film is interesting.  If not, it is probably one you can afford to avoid.

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