Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Girl Next Door

I figure it would have been in the summer of 1991 when I lived in Berkeley with my big brother. I went to Dark Carnival Books and saw a set of the zine Murder Can Be Fun, so I bought it. One of the first things I read about was the case of the torture, degradation, and murder of Sylvia Likens. The degree of abuse that she suffered was mind-blowing to 20 year old me. I hadn't been that unsettled since reading about a little kid put into a clothes dryer as a punishment, and that was when I was maybe 8 or 9. It was an introduction to a sub-level of humanity.

Since then, I have others to thank for disturbing me via literary means, chiefly Jim Goad, Peter Sotos, S. Clay Wilson, and Jack Ketchum. I suppose it's not surprising that Ketchum decided to write a book based on Likens' story. What's interesting about it is that he makes the events more horrifying in a way because he humanizes the aggressors, even while leaving out some things that are especially awful (not that he doesn't add things that are pretty ghastly at the same time). This film does a fine job at adapting his book.

It's the whitebread late 50's American normalcy that lays the foundation here. It's a time when your neighbors' home was open to you just about whenever and kids ran in packs through the neighborhood and the woods. Protagonist Davey lives next door to Ruth and her boys, who take on the responsibility of raising orphaned girls Meg and Susan. Ruth is the Cool Mom, who lets the boys drink beers and smoke cigs. She's just like one of the guys. Unfortunately for Meg and her little sister, Ruth loathes women and is at least a little crazy. Meg tries to get away, but doesn't. Davey feels really bad about what's happening next door, but never tells his parents or any other authority figure who might be able to help. On paper that sounds unbelievable, so it's a credit to the book and this movie that they pull it off. Many evil things happen because people are afraid not to go along for the sake of ease, and this film shows the worst-case scenario for being a follower.

There are some amazing acting performances in this. Meg is painfully charming, which I guess is one thing that pisses Ruth off so much. It's also nice to see Mark Margolis in anything, no matter how brief his cameo might be. Whether or not you know how bad things are going to get, it's incredibly uncomfortable viewing. I can only imagine what people who rented this because they thought they were getting a frothy teen sex romp with the girl from the TV show 24 felt like when this started getting ugly.

Tomorrow: Chaos

No comments:

Post a Comment