CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT (DVD EDITION): JACK KETCHUM’S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
By Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(The scene is a dark basement. L. L. SOARES sits on a chair, surrounded by a bunch of shouting children. He is wearing a flowered dress and lights a cigarette. Meanwhile MICHAEL ARRUDA is in front of them, hanging from the ceiling by ropes that are around his wrists. As viewed from behind, he is naked. His buns are perfect.)
MA: Obvious stunt double.
MA (suddenly clothed and untied): You know, after watching JACK KETCHUM’S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, I’m not in the mood for parody. What do you say we just get on with the review and do this seriously for once?
LS: I figured you’d wimp out on this one. Okay, kids, you’re all fired.
(Children booing and groaning as they exit.)
LS (still wearing dress, takes a drag from cigarette): Not to be confused with other movies titled THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (there are a few of them), JACK KETCHUM’S version isn’t a comedy or a documentary. Instead, it is the adaptation of writer Jack Ketchum’s 1981 novel of the same name, which I believe is one of the most powerful, disturbing horror novels ever written.
This is one of those books where you think “There is no way anyone can turn this into a movie.” But somehow, it’s been done. Daniel Farrands and Phil Nutman have crafted a fine screenplay, which is very faithful to the book, and director Gregory Wilson has done a fine job bringing it to the screen . I have to say, I was quite impressed with how well this movie turned out.
The story, for those of you out there who never read the novel, concerns David Moran (Daniel Manche), a normal kid growing up in a typical small town in 1950s America. Next door to his house is where Ruth Chandler (Blanche Baker) and her kids live. Ruth is the kind of mother all the boys in the neighborhood like. She hands out beers like other moms hand out soda pop, she swears like a sailor, and she tells great stories. But the Chandler household gets some new additions when Ruth’s nieces Meg (Blythe Auffarth, in an amazingly courageous performance) and Suzie (Madeline Taylor) Loughlin show up – after their parents are killed in a car crash. In fact, poor Suzie has braces on her legs from the same accident and can barely get around.
Right from the start, it seems that Ruth has a problem with these new additions to her family. Her own kids are all boys, and she treats the girls as intruders. She takes most of her anger out on Meg, the older of the girls, and finds lots of excuses to “punish” her when the girl rebels against her tyranny. It begins with Meg being not allowed to eat for days because she’s “getting fat” and then degenerates as her “punishments” get more and more brutal.
The disturbing part of the story – which is based on a true incident – is that Ruth involves her own children in the punishments of these two girls, and other neighborhood kids as well. And things get more and more vicious as time goes on. Remember how cruel other kids could be when you were growing up? Well, Ruth channels this cruelty into the most bestial behavior possible as she gives the kids free reign to do whatever horrible things they want to poor Meg.
David, who has feelings for Meg, has to stand back and watch as things get worse. This is the 1950s after all, and people were supposed to mind their own business, and you didn’t get involved in the domestic problems of others. But David feels more and more guilty in the face of the helplessness he feels, and his inability to save Meg.
I have to admit I read Ketchum’s novel in two days over a summer weekend. I couldn’t put the book down, but at the same time it was very disturbing to read. Ketchum does a great job of bringing all of this to sinister life, but, like David, you feel like an accomplice the more you read. Which is why it’s such a powerful novel.
While the film does a good job of bringing the book to the screen and certainly has its rough moments, I don’t think it ever reaches the level of tension that permeates the book. The book just ratchets up the trauma more and more, and Ketchum’s writing really makes you feel bad as you keep reading. The movie seemed safer, for some reason, even though it has just as much brutality.
Both the novel and the movie are not for everyone. If this subject matter upsets you, you are not going to feel very good when the movie is over. This is intense stuff, and the reason it works is because it is simply unrelenting.
The fact that is it not for everyone makes it even more impressive that this movie ever got made. Somehow it even got an R rating! Although it is going straight to DVD (after being shown at some festivals and conventions), I think it’s easily the best “straight to DVD” movie I’ve seen in a very long time.
MA: Well, I’m going to surprise you and admit that I liked THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. You are absolutely right. This movie is not for everyone, and it is unrelenting and extremely disturbing. I was uncomfortable throughout, so if that’s the point of the story, then the filmmakers succeeded.
This is a movie that did not look cheap at all. It looks like a mainstream film, from the sets and costumes, to the 1950s cars, to the acting performances; THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is high quality stuff.
The acting was very good. I thought three performances stood out. You already mentioned Blythe Auffarth as Meg, and you’re right to credit her with a courageous performance. But I also enjoyed young Daniel Manche just as much. He is an important character in that he’s the person we in the audience most identify with. We’re right there with him watching the horrible things done to Meg, and we’re there thinking this is horrible, yet we’re also there with him watching, and for those of us who make it to the end credits, we watch with David till the end. The third tremendous performance in the film is Blanche Baker as Ruth Chandler. Hands down, she’s got to be the creepiest, nastiest character seen on screen is some time, and thanks to the writing of Jack Ketchum, she’s not a one-dimensional villain. For everything she does, if you listen to the things she says in the movie, you know exactly what it is that is motivating her to do these horrible things, and it all comes down to things that have happened to her in her own life. It’s deep stuff for a movie, which is another reason why it succeeds.
LS: You’re totally right about the performances. Blythe Auffarth, as Meg, shines the most for me because she’s the one who has to undergo all this harrowing stuff, and she does so bravely and realistically. Not once was I not on Meg’s side – like Danny I wanted to protect her and save her from it all, which is crucial to making this story work. But you’re right about Daniel Manche – he’s a very sympathetic character and does not once seem to be going along with the cruelty of the other kids. Right from the start we know he’s different – but I do wonder why he hung around with these other kids in the first place – and why they didn’t turn on him sooner. He’s clearly more mature and sensitive than they are, and you’d think they’d ostracize him for that – or at least exclude him from their “fun” as things get more and more brutal. But everything Manche does as Danny is in character and you root for him.
Blanche Baker as Ruth gives a great performance, too. It’s a showy role, and she handles it well – giving us just the right level of viciousness without spilling over into caricature. These three characters are the heart of the film (and the book as well) and the actors do a great job. Without good actors in these roles, the film would fall apart. But instead, it has all the more impact because they’re all so believable.
MA: Another thing I liked about this movie is that in spite of its harsh, unsettling subject matter, it’s not exploitative. You’re watching this film, full of horrid images and cruelty which goes beyond entertainment, and yet never do you feel like you’re watching something pornographic. It’s not titillating. It’s sad. I wouldn’t say the subject matter is kept tasteful, because the subject matter itself is simply too disturbing for that word, but screenwriters Daniel Farrands and Phil Nutman have prevented it from being tasteless by refusing to give in to any sense that what is going on is fun. You watch what these children are doing to Meg and even if you allow yourself to enter into their mindset and have fun at her expense, you are hit smack in the face like Meg time and time again by Farrands and Nutman to feel what Meg is feeling, and what young David is feeling, and ultimately you are just as pained as they are. You are not allowed to feel good. Farrands and Nutman should be commended for their efforts.
LS: I agree. The movie does not seem exploitative at all. It seems as if you’re watching real people’s story unfold and it’s as “tasteful” as it possibly can be, considering the subject matter.
MA: Now I’m going to put you on the spot. I want to go back to the source material, the novel by Jack Ketchum. You said Ketchum’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is one of the most powerful, disturbing horror novels ever written. I’ve heard many readers say the same thing. My question is, why? I haven’t read THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, but I have read other works by Ketchum. I agree he’s a terrific writer, but what he writes about isn’t what I like to read about, in terms of horror anyway. As you know, I read horror more for fun than to be scared, and Ketchum’s novels aren’t exactly escapism. Mind you, this doesn’t take away from their quality, which brings me to my question.
Why do you feel that THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is such a powerful horror novel, as opposed to simply a powerful novel? I’m not asking because I disagree with you, but because I want to understand. See, I don’t quite get it. A story like THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is powerful, yes, disturbing, yes, but why do I want to read a novel or watch a movie about horrible painful things being done to an innocent person? What’s the point? And why would a work such as this be considered a powerhouse horror novel compared to say an extremely literate and well-written tale about werewolves? See, because I’m going to read the book about werewolves over the book about the crazy lady down the street who tortures young girls. Though to be honest if it’s a book about one werewolf gang fighting another, and then taking on a gang of vampires, I’d probably read about the crazy lady.
LS: First off, I consider THE GIRL NEXT DOOR to be both a powerful novel and a powerful horror novel. It transcends any genre boundaries. But it is one of the best works the horror genre has to offer, so we should rightly claim it as our own.
As for why would anyone want to read such a thing? Well, it all comes down to your basic philosophy of what horror should do. I think you and I are a good combination for these reviews because we stand for totally different philosophies. You, for good or bad, think horror should be safe and entertaining. Vampires, werewolves, the like. You like stories that give us very clear lines of good and evil, and you like to leave the theater (or finish the book) knowing that good has triumphed. There’s nothing wrong with this, but personally I want something more. If you already know that it’s safe and that good will win, then why read it? If you’re going for a rollercoaster ride, then I can enjoy that too, but in the end, I don’t find it very satisfying.
MA: Pardon the interruption, but your interpretation of my view on horror isn’t quite accurate. To define my view as safe, where there are clear lines of good and evil, and where good triumphs, is wrong. I liked THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, don’t forget. I just don’t think it’s horror. It’s drama. To me, safe implies watered down horror, and I don’t think films like THE EXORCIST (1973) or David Cronenberg’s THE FLY (1986) are safe, yet I liked those movies and consider them horror movies. When I watched THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, it reminded me, at least in terms of the disturbing emotions, of the old David Lynch film, BLUE VELVET (1986), a great movie, but not horror.
I guess we’re arguing semantics, which might be pointless. It’s just that we review horror movies, and I wouldn’t think to include THE GIRL NEXT DOOR on that list.
LS: If THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is just a simple drama, then why did you have such a strong reaction to it? Why did you have trouble making it to the end of a movie which deals with very HORRIFIC incidents? You don’t need a monster popping up to feel horrified, and this movie proves it.
It’s funny, first you say you enjoy horror for fun and escapism, then you say I’m wrong when I call you on it.
For me, the best books and movies are those that have truly affected me. Whether it’s the gritty violence of movies like the original THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or a book like THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. I don’t think horror should ever be safe, and I think that reducing it to an amusement park ride is to sell the genre short. Horror is all about emotion, and the potential is there to make it one of the most powerful mirrors on the human condition. The subject matter horror deals in – death and violence in particular – are things that affect us all, and we all have to deal with.
While I can appreciate films that offer us an escape from everyday life, I don’t necessarily want every horror movie I see to fit that category. It’s like food. If you eat nothing but candy bars, you’re going to feel a little nauseous after awhile. I like to take a break from the sweets once in awhile and have a steak. Something that will move beyond the scares and give me some real insight into what it is to be human. The good and the very, very ugly. Because there is plenty of ugliness out there.
Horror at its best faces these things head on – but the most important works in the genre are those that don’t feel the need to sugar-coat anything or give us a safety net. I want to finish a book or see a movie that has a strong emotional effect on me. And that doesn’t happen very often.
Anyone can just make a movie or a film that shocks or disturbs you, and for every Jack Ketchum there are plenty of imitators who focus on the shock rather than the emotion behind it. Something like THE GIRL NEXT DOOR takes it to the next level, to the literary level, which is why it is such an important book in the horror genre.
MA: I understand what you’re saying, but still if someone were to say to me they wanted to see a really good horror movie, I wouldn’t recommend THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. I’d suggest 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, for example, or even THE MIST, if they’re looking for recent horror. Now, if someone asked about a movie that depicts pain in a realistic, unsettling way, hey, go check out THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. But horror? Again, I ask you, why does THE GIRL NEXT DOOR get included in the horror family?
LS: I’ve had this discussion with a lot of people over the years and it once again goes back to personal philosophy. Some people believe that something is horror only if it focuses on supernatural horror. Things that are out of the ordinary, from beyond our scope of experience. But I don’t agree with that at all. I think that what humans do to each other is far more horrific than anything a monster could do. And I think that by exposing this, something like THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is as true to horror’s intention as it can be. Also, if we take the old Douglas Winter quote to heart, that “horror is an emotion,” then we should have an emotional response to it. And I don’t really have any kind of emotional response to something like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, no matter how much I enjoyed watching it.
MA: I thought the emotion of being frightened was pretty cool.
LS: Well, I guess 30 DAYS OF NIGHT didn’t especially frighten me.
Meanwhile, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR has an emotional punch, and thus it is true to Winter’s quote. And that’s why I feel it’s as pure an example of “horror” as you can get.
Would I recommend it to anyone who likes horror movies? No. Clearly some people would not be able to handle it, or would be deeply upset by it. This isn’t popcorn and gummy bears. But for those who can handle it, and who are able to take something away from it, then you can do a lot worse.
MA: Eloquently stated, but ultimately a little too deep for me. I also found it cool that we both know Jack Ketchum and Phil Nutman. That’s kind of fun. I also want to assure our readers that the fact that we know these guys didn’t affect our opinions. If I’d hated THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, I would have said so, and to be honest, knowing the subject matter beforehand, I thought I was going to hate it, but I didn’t. I’ll probably never watch it again in my life, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a good movie.
LS: I think the book takes a very repulsive story (based on reality, no less) and makes it literature. I also feel that Nutman and Farrands take a very difficult novel and do it justice on film. In lesser hands it could have been a depressing, exploitative travesty. And that’s not the case at all here. The movie is faithful and in the truest sense it’s an “adult” film.
(LS finishes his cigarette and crushes out the butt. A tendril of smoke rises as the scene fades to black)
(Originally published on Fear Zone on 1/11/08)
© Copyright 2008 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares