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When i review a very strong horror movie i have liked a lot, i must admit i generally brandy around the word "disturbing" with an undeniable macho pride. There are some really extreme horror movies that have deeply affected me, and i know that few people i know would even survive the first 10mn of those films. But for some reason, the better films of the genre really electrify me. The deep themes really give me a lot of food for thought and stimulate me intellectually, and emotionally. And even though i am an inch away from fainting each time i see blood in real life (i am quite queasy and my kids are daredevils, which doesn't help), the strong gore on film has never had that type of effect on me, and rather reinforces, amplify, my overall emotional and intellectual response to the film. Take Aftermath (1994) for example. It was a transcending experience to me although i do not know a single person in my life who could watch it with me. Takashi Miike's Ichi The Killer (2001) and Audition (1999) are other such films that exert a strange influence on me.
But in all those cases, i play the game and get into the mood, but i also remain somewhat distant from it all. After all, it's just a movie, and i connect emotionally and intellectually with the message and the packaging, but i am not going to lose any sleep over it. It's rare for me to actually feel uncomfortable even when watching the most horrific fares. But from time to time, there comes a movie that affects me deeply, and disturbs me, even if it's not nearly as graphic as the above mentioned films. Girl Next Door, The (2007) is such a film.
I came across it by chance really. I read on the web somewhere an article about another movie, Lost, The (2005) which i rented and thoroughly enjoyed. I felt like watching a modern version of a film such as Blue Velvet (1986). Back in the days, David Lynch shocked us with a film that painted a horrific picture behind the closed door of an all-American white suburban town. The juxtaposition of the American dream and idyllic white-picket-fence neighborhoods with unspeakable pathos and horror and scary psychotic characters had a very strong effect on pretty much anyone who watched the movie. Followed several years later with the ground breaking TV series Twin Peaks, Season 1 (1990) which explored that same juxtaposition again, there was a strong basis for horror based on the theme of what happens behind the scenes of what looks like a pretty picture.
Lost, The (2005) was great in creating that same type of mood, following the life of a psychotic teenager on a violent rampage in a dream small town in the 50's. The main character was a scary individual, and the violence he unleashed was scary in its extreme, detachment, and unavoidable path to his own destruction. I highly recommend this film. What intrigued me the most was the writing. It was was so detailed, and so interesting in how it depicted all the people involved in the story. It was also merciless. I was instantly drawn by that writer, Jack Ketchum, and started to see if there were other films based on his writings. Girl Next Door, The (2007) is such a film, and that's how i came to rent it and watch it.
Boy oh boy. As i wrote above, i do not remember feeling so uncomfortable watching a movie. It's not the gore (there is almost none of it), but the subject matter, how it was filmed so frankly, and its cast of disgusting characters led by a psychotic 40-something mother that was so perfectly performed. Told as a flashback, the film centers on 3 characters living in small-town USA in 1958. David is a young 13 year old boy who has a crush on Meg who just moved across the street. Her parents just died in a car accident, and she and her sister just moved in with their Aunt Ruth (Blanche Baker) and her 3 boys. Ruth is the archetype frustrated widow with a warped sense of justice and the condition of women in society. As her tweener boys start getting interested in Meg, the first woman to live with them except for their mother, Ruth immediately lashes out at what she perceives as a horrible slut bent on perverting her young boys, and in bad need of some straightening up. But the horror doesn't stop there as slowly, she brings in her own boys to first witness the abuse she unleashes on Meg, but eventually participating in rape and torture themselves as Meg becomes so dehumanized as to represent nothing more than a piece of meat to the family. This happens all the while David is witnessing this and frozen with fear, threatened of being killed by Ruth and her older boy, not even knowing what to do in the first place, cannot bring himself to tell anyone or say anything. He is a silent witness to this nightmare unleashed on the object of his affection, his first teenage love.
This is a twisted movie that is just painful to watch, mainly due to the overwhelming performance from Blanche Baker and the involvement of kids in sadistic torture scenes. Even though many camera and editing tricks were used, the movie is so smartly filmed that the kids are very present during every difficult scene, making this even tougher to watch. One scene after the next, you can't help but wonder how those kids performed the way they did, and the whole technical support infrastructure around them from the production team. It's mind boggling.
And as for the characters the kids pay, you know how they'll turn out when they grow up, and that's perhaps the most difficult thing to witness. You know that Ruth is not only physically destroying Meg, but she is also emotionally and psychologically destroying her own children who are turning into psychopatic beasts before our eyes. And she does it without seemingly giving it a second thought, as if it were all normal and fine. Again, Blanche Baker's calm and glacial performance stands out as the emotional anchor for this film. Some of her remarks, about Meg, and to her own kids, will make your skin curl. The mechanism of this transformation is fantastically described in this movie, which of course makes it all the more difficult to watch. The settings are detailed, and each step in the story is meticulously presented. Jack Ketchum, the writer, really knew his subject matter, and the makers of the film, the screenplay adapters, the director, the producer and the cast really put in all their energy for this story that keeps on hitting raw nerves.
This is a rare film that i instantly loved because of its uncompromising depiction of a very difficult story. Because it involves kids and a diabolical mother (probably one of the most terrifying "bad guy" in movie history), the emotional impact is compounded in multiple dimensions. It's difficult to watch, it's difficult to absorb, and it's very difficult to think about it and how things like that, or perhaps even worse, can take place worldwide. I couldn't help but think about children used in militias across Africa (like portrayed in the very good Blood Diamond, The (2006)) or by terrorists groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah or any other terrorist group, as shown in several documentaries. The basic tool to make beasts out of children is to have them dehumanize another human being. This act is so damaging that it will fracture a child's psyche forever. This film is so powerful because the centerpiece character Ruth combines physical attacks on Meg, her own niece, along with psychological attacks on her own children. Terrifying.
This is absolutely not a movie for everyone, and i actually do not know a person who would watch this film and "enjoy" it in the traditional sense. It's fascinating in its psychological depth and nightmarish terror that anyone can identify with immediately, and the film is fantastically done. But its very raw nature simply puts it out of reach for most audiences.
- Laurent Hasson