Sunday, March 16, 2008

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (2007) d. Gregory Wilson

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Telling a dark tale requires walking a very fine line. Include too much wickedness and you cross into the turgid waters of sleazy exploitation and leave behind a segment of the viewing population. Make your film into a soap box-morality play without any visceral content and you run the risk of being preachy and uninteresting. What would happen if writers, a director and producers came together to spin a yarn that was a little like FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002) and a lot like BLUE VELVET (1986)? The outcome would be THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, based on the novel by Jack Ketchum, which is a powerful, grisly but engaging film that leaves the viewer uncomfortably contemplative after the credits have rolled.

Based on a true account, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is the story of neighbors David Moran and Meg Loughlin. Meg and her sister Susan come to live with their relative Ruth Chandler and her sons. David is close friends with the Chandler boys and neighborhood kids like Eddie, Denise and Cheryl, who play games in the woods and by the riversides in their tranquil 1958 town. Not long after making Meg’s acquaintance, David is drawn into a web of unsavory acts perpetrated upon Meg by Mrs. Chandler and abetted by her sons. David is forced to witness deepening perversity and must make a decision between breaking faith with friends and neighbors or doing the right thing before any further horrors are visited upon Meg.

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR begins with idyllic, bright colors in the fresh outdoors of the late 1950s, descends through a sepia-toned purgatory of middle class American living rooms and then abases itself at the altar of blue and black shaded depravity in the Hell of the Chandler’s basement. Just as the color scheme of the film subtly shifts even as the story patiently builds towards it loathsome crescendo, the mood of the film passes through gradations of tone from blithe, to agonizing to abominable. What this film has going for it is that it blends a gruesome narrative and grotesque imagery with powerful themes on abuse, parental power, conformity and the warped actions of seemingly “normal” people who swim in the streams of society like sharks. “Torture-porn” films like the unpleasant HOSTEL movies or the abysmal SAW series are violence and filth simply for the sake of violence and filth. In the case of Eli Roth’s HOSTEL franchise, at least one can say they are shot well and have some powerfully constructed scenes. Nothing good can be said about any of the SAW films except that they may possibly make good skeet-shooting targets. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR has a story that leaves a viewer feeling both bleak and buoyed because there is a redeeming point to the film’s descent into the darkest chambers of immorality.

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is replete with fine performances, most notably Blanche Baker, whose character of Ruth Chandler is one of the most disturbing “villains” since Hannibal Lecter, but without the glamorous powers of disguise and escape. Ruth Chandler is a sadist and an abusive fiend pure and simple. Wrapped in her 1950s garb and set amid the iconography of America’s “Glory Days”, Ruth Chandler’s sins seem that much viler and her sons’ base behavior conjures up images of Nazi henchmen “just following orders”. What the SAW and HOSTEL films don’t get is that it doesn’t take exotic locations in the East or lavishly constructed torture pens to be frightening and unsettling. The most potent imagery is always that with which we are most familiar. Make the main characters look like the boy who was once on your little league team and the girl you once had a crush on, make the villainess look like your Aunt Charlotte, set the story on a block that looks like your Uncle Charlie’s town and then do unspeakable things. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR follows this formula to the letter and as a result, it is very hard film to watch and say “you liked”, but it is a very impressive accomplishment none-the-less.

The extras menu is a mixed bag with more positives than negatives. The “Making of the GIRL NEXT DOOR” featurette is a neat look behind the scenes with a large percentage of the cast and crew. The very short “Interviews with the Cast Crew” is really just snippets from the longer featurette and focuses primarily on the writing and production principles. There are two worthwhile commentary tracks, one by the director and producers, the other with Jack Ketchum and the writers. Despite the unnecessary “Interviews” segment, this is an interesting set of extras that also includes a dvd-rom screenplay.

The canon of films includes just about every genre, directorial style and script ever imagined by the human mind. Some offerings are as sugary sweet and as simple as cotton candy, while others are no better than the excrement you try to scrape from your shoe after a walk in the park. Some are visually stunning, while others leave a lasting intellectual impression. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR succeeds as a film because it dares to tackle a very delicate subject and present it in a fashion that stays far enough away from the swampy filth that would have soiled it, but lays bare the core of corruption that is likely to be found in every city, town and hamlet on the face of the planet. Looking at such putrescence is never easy, but it is necessary if we are to transcend the sordid motivations that still lurk in our psyches.

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