Starring- Blanche Baker, Blythe Auffarth, Daniel Manche, William Atherton
In the summer of 1958, a young boy named David Moran befriends adolescent Meg (Blythe Auffarth) who is living with her sister in their aunt’s house after the loss of their parents. Aunt Ruth Chandler (Blanche Baker) and her sons are David’s next door neighbours and she welcomes all children with open arms with a lax attitude to giving them beer and how they should behave.
Gradually, Ruth begins to torment Meg and her sister to the point of which she and her sons sadistically start to torture her in their basement.
Arguably the greatest tagline in all of cinema history is attached to Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House on the Left’. The immortal words of , ‘To avoid fainting, keep repeating: It’s Only A Movie!’ have never been surpassed in conveying the notion that what you are actually about to see will physically assault you. The tagline for ‘The Girl Next Door’ is simply ‘A True Story’ and believe me, this is about a thousand times more frightening.
Based on the Jack Ketchum novel of the same name, concerning the horrific case of Sylvia Likens and her real life torture at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski, the film is regularly featured in lists of the most distressing films ever made. Being the controversy-led moth to flame that I am, I was able to procure a copy in the most surprising of shops where everything is at the value of 100p. The most distressing part of ‘TGND’? There is no safety net, there is no ‘only a movie’, this actually happened and the film does its damndest to make you never forget it.
The only thing that lets the film down is the frankly unnecessary framing device of having an elderly David (William Atherton) reflecting on his troubled past at the start and end of the film. Despite the fact that it was based on real events, the complete blind-siding dark turn the film takes is undermined by establishing in the prologue that clearly something bad happened in David’s childhood and we as an audience are set up to expect something bad.
‘Something bad’ is putting it incredibly mildly, but do not be deceived into thinking that this is one drawn out piece of ‘torture porn’. Director Gregory Wilson plays a brilliantly unsettling hand in establishing an eerily accurate 50s setting, kids actually playing outside, comically square tins of beer, the ice-cream man regarded as king and of course sleepovers.
To the naked and blissfully unaware eye, it looks to be a Happy Days spin-off in all but name, however, the Fonz isn’t going jet-skiing over some sharks to save the day. ‘Harsh Reality’ is the film’s edit and despite the cute opening of David and Meg’s bonding by the lake, the idyllic 50s setting is slowly stripped back like a particularly menacing-looking onion, to reveal the horrible truth that mankind as a species is still just as capable of barbaric attacks to each other as it has ever been.
The ingenious way in which the film slowly builds up to its watch through your fingers set pieces is by the painfully drawn out, but in a good way, gradual progression of the children and consequently Aunt Ruth’s cruelty. We see the tough kids on the street and their very cruel variation of hide and seek and just as quickly as we are welcomed in by Ruth’s lax attitude to parenting than no sooner are we frantically breaking out in a sweat as to what cruel method of punishment she will administer next for the most minor of transgressions.
The acting is of the highest possible quality, the neighbourhood rough kids and Aunt Ruth’s sons are skin-crawlingly repellent, remorseless and all seem to have a permanently-fixed scowl that makes you want to slap it right off their face. As nasty pieces of work that they are, Blanche Baker’s simply yet terrifyingly intense matriarch is a performance worthy of legend. With a completely warped ideology and horrifying dominion over seemingly all the children in the neighbourhood, this ultimate ice-queen could seriously give Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched a run for her money in the fight for most terrifying human spirit destroying character in all of cinematic history.
It is clear that the film’s more incendiary elements prevent Baker’s performance from being recognised en masse but here the plaudits are endless, although I can’t say I could ever actually feel comfortable in her presence. Whilst essays could be written on Aunt Ruth’s evil machinations and speculations made about just what lead her to be like this, the real talking point is arguably the ‘protagonist’ of David. We see all this cruelty through his eyes and whilst he appears to be a sweet kid who is repulsed by what he sees, is he in a way culpable for not saying something sooner and not trying to get help?
Blythe Auffarth is given quite literally the rough end of the stick as Meg, the victim of the brutal torture who has to elevate her character above being no more than an abused ragdoll who is often gagged and obviously unable to have any dialogue. However, despite her very limited time to develop character, your heart instantly goes out to Meg, a sweet innocent young girl who stands up to her fierce Aunt in defence of her sister and is made to suffer the consequences. In the same way, you really feel every blow and the humiliation that she suffers with even more intensity and like all great films that create a strong bond with characters, her performance makes you want to jump through the screen to her defence.
There is one moment, one blood curdling moment that literally made me clap my hand to my mouth and violently shake my head in utter disbelief, muttering “No!” as many times as my throat could manage. I shall not spoil it here, but when the film reaches THIS point, you realise that no other film has ever properly gone this far down the torture route and that the classic rule of ‘what you don’t see is more frightening’ can still be put to devastating use.
One of the most harrowing yet immaculately crafted film experiences of my life. This is an unbelievably bold piece of cinema, certainly not for the faint of heart and far from ‘enjoyable’ but an experience that will rock you to your very core.
The ultimate experience in total psychological water-boarding for your nerves remains with Sean Derkin’s ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’, the only film to have me on the verge of throwing up in the aisle, which I consider to be the highest of compliments!
About Oliver Ryder
Ever since he saw ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ at the tender age of five, Oli was dragged into the wonderfully disturbing world of horror and has never looked back. He enjoys all things macabre, dark comedy, penguins and likes his coffee black just like his metal.