Much in the way the details of the Ed Gein case wormed its way into the psyche of horror writer Robert Bloch and motivated the author to dramatize Gein's murderous deeds in what became the classic novel Psycho, the ugliness of the Sylvia Likens case (along with the grisly visage of her chief tormentor and killer) haunted and beckoned horror writer Jack Ketchum (aka Dallas Mayr) to craft a tale that ultimately functions as a metaphor of the unspoken bad behaviour that existed in the pastel-dyed fifties, but was never discussed or openly addressed because it was considered bad form.
The Likens case actually occurred in the mid-sixties, but in setting the story in the late-fifties of his youth, Ketchum was able to mine his own experiences as a child; a world where he had to behave by a certain unwritten code in spite of suburban reality being less idyllic than the squeaky clean Father Knows Best fantasyland.
From a cursory sampling of fifties movies, one sees fears of Communists, bomb radiation, and syndicate and youth crime, but it was very rare when divorce, drug addiction, bigamy, unwanted pregnancy, racism, or child abuse were dramatized on the big screen – basically social ills that did affect families on a local level and sometimes sparked the prejudices and upset mores of neighbours whose own personal issues were just as idiosyncratic, if not wonky.
From a Lynchian angle, suburban and small-town malaise is metaphorically shown through bugs, dreams, and differing realities that converge and repel characters or whole environments, with some classic nutbar character at the core who's both frightening and funny; the deadpan absurdity in David Lynch's dramas – Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks – plus surreal humour ensures Lynch's films feel like dreams or nightmares, whereas Ketchum's story, even if it hadn't been inspired by an actual crime, plays like an docu-crime-drama, much along the lines of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and the gritty film version by Richard Brooks.
Brooks, like Girl director Gregory Wilson, knew that to dwell on the sensationalistic and exploitive aspects of a crime would smother any chance of establishing a strong drama and maintaining believable characters, so the trick was to find some balance between the shocks so that the final work (book or film) would be a creative statement of outrage against human depravity enacted by ordinary people who either fell into some awful circumstances of their own, or due to a community turning blind eyes to signs of crime, allowed a situation to evolve into something truly monstrous.
The psychologies of the victims and perpetrators, particularly those stuck in the grey matter between both terrains, is what propels Girl, and our advance knowledge that the beautiful person seen in the opening scenes by the river is going to die slowly makes it all the more foreboding, although how bad it gets is something no one can guess unless they're familiar with the actual case, or have read some advance details of the film.
Girl is not exploitive junk, nor some sordid film designed to test the wills of viewers, but the final reel will undoubtedly sicken some.
As participants on both commentaries on Anchor Bay's superlative DVD recall, people did walk out of the theatre, but one gets a sense Brooks' In Cold Blood fared no better when the same level of dread was compacted yet powerfully dramatized as each family member was slaughtered like an animal. Be it 1967 or 2007, the violence and cruelty in both films ensured some audience members were left in a daze after watching a local-level story that left them emotionally bludgeoned, and probably feeling the world is a pretty rotten place if it can breed such wickedness.
Girl is equally powerful because it's also the story of how an aging beauty with her own trunks of demons and seething self-hatred used her status on the street to coerce other children and teens, including her own kids, into participating in the psychological and physical torture of a child (in the film she's been aged as a vague young adult) before the violence moves to rape, incendiary circumcision, and murder.
The film's producers were extremely lucky in finding a director who not only recognized the story wasn't a horror yarn, but could create a working environment of trust between filmmakers and young actors so that the cast was as close as possible to the actual perpetrators and faithful to the events in Ketchum's dark book.
The words and deeds committed by the kids makes the drama more powerful and tragic, and the only area where the film falters is in the finale, which wraps up far too quickly and manages to negate a fair amount of credibility the filmmakers had maintained from the opening shot. In their own commentary track, the writers rightly lament the filmmakers' decision to compact and hasten the final scene before the bookend sequence, but Girl is still one potent film that will slowly age into the kind of classic crime-drama that In Cold Blood has become since its release 30 years ago.
The DVD from Anchor Bay / Starz Home Entertainment is a first rate production that presents the film with valuable contextual elements for those wanting details on the book's genesis, the screenwriters' 9-year efforts to get the film made by a caring team, and the producers who knew Ketchum's book was not something they could turn into a cheap exploitation shocker.
The best commentary track belongs to the writers, since it has all three – Ketchum and screenwriters Daniel Farrands and Philip Nutman – addressing their efforts to remain faithful to the book, and Ketchum's own insistence that Girl would only be made if the filmmakers used the original Farrands-Nutman screenplay (which is included on the DVD, with the writers' original finale). It's a fine discussion that compares some of the changes made in the script and by the filmmakers, and like the film, stands as an example on how to craft a crime-drama without relying on shopworn clichés.
The main commentary with director Wilson, co-producer Andrew van den Hooten, and cinematographer/co-producer William M. Miller is just as solid, although one should arguably listen to the writer's track first, if not to compare the differing views that nevertheless resulted in a unified film. (It's also worth noting how the filmmakers and writers don't ridicule the characters, nor get too jokey on the respective commentary tracks.)
Also important is the making-of featurette because it shows the child and teen actors separate from their characters; the downward spiral of bad behaviour and torture is so pronounced that it's vital to see how scenes were shot, makeup was applied, and the tone maintained by the cast and filmmakers. The commentaries also contain some amusing coincidences and funny anecdotes, some of which related to material in the featurette, as well as the short cast & crew interviews that are really just short excerpts from the making-of featurette.
Girl was made by an unlikely group of people: co-producer van den Hooten had recently made the gory Headspace; the screenwriters were respected novelists whose own film forays were rare if less than stellar (Farrands' most obvious credit is Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers); this was the director's second feature film; and the multi-generational cast included Blanche Baker (returning to acting after a long absence), former leading man William Atherton (appearing in the bookend segments as the older David Moran who remained the only child among the group with a conscience), Daniel Manche as the young David (which he played in the daytime, while appearing in Disney's Tarzan musical at night!), and Blythe Auffarth as the doomed Meg, whose prior roles as Anne Frank and Helen Keller familiarized the actress in portraying dignified and spirited characters.
The only weak spot in the DVD is the lack of a small section devoted to the actual Likens case so we can further compare the novel and film to the events that are referred to by the filmmakers as being far more horrific, but director Tommy O'Haver's An American Crime (2007), starring Ellen Page and Katherine Keener, and written by O'Haver and Irene Turner, will make for an intriguing comparison when this direct version of the actual case is released in 2008.
Other works by Ketchum made into feature films include Lucky McKee's Red (2008), co-directed with Trygve Allister Diesen, and The Lost (2005) from Chris Sivertson (I Know Who Killed Me).
Although we're early into 2008, The Girl Next Door deserves the Michael Reeves Award for Cinematic Bleakness.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan