projects. Remember back several years ago eruptions (DANTE'S PEAK, VOLCANO) or two about asteroids on a collision course with Earth (DEEP IMPACT, ARMAGEDDON). Sometimes television production companies will get into the act and create knock-offs of stories that are being dramatized on the big screen. Presumably this year, audiences can choose between two feature films that utilize the heinous 1965 torture and murder of teenager Sylvia Likens as their inspiration. The Sundance-screened AMERICAN CRIME takes a factual approach to the case and features Catherine Keener and Ellen Page in the lead roles. For a slightly different approach, there is also JACK KETCHUM'S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, based on the author's 1989 novel that fictionalized the events. Not having seen the former, I cannot compare the two movies. I have, however, seen the latter and it is well-made, if difficult to watch.
With a screenplay by Daniel Farrands and Philip Nutman and directed by Gregory M. Wilson, JACK KETCHUM'S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (undoubtedly using the author's name to distinguish the movie from the 2004 film of the same name) is a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel.
Opening in the present day, David Moran (William Atherton) is walking in the financial district in lower Manhattan when a man is struck by an automobile. David snaps into action and offers CPR and watches as the ambulance takes the injured man away. This triggers his memories of a fateful summer when he was a pubescent boy (nicely embodied by Daniel Manche) living in suburbia with his distant parents (Grant Show and Catherine Mary Stewart). David hangs out next door with the Chandler family, mostly because mom Ruth (Blanche Baker) is permissive. She's a chain smoker who likes her beer -- and is willing to share it with her sons and their friends. Ruth also frankly and openly speaks of sex and hints at the tragic past she shared with her husband. (She may also have had an affair with David's father, although that is never clarified).
One fine day, David happens to encounter Meg (Blythe Auffarth, adequate in the role), newly arrived in suburbia. She recounts her tragic tale: her parents were killed in an automobile accident that left her younger sister (Madeline Taylor) in leg braces. It turns out they are related to Ruth Chandler and have come to live with her. David immediately develops a crush which Ruth eventually picks up on. Gradually, Ruth begins to punish the girl and/or her sister for minor infractions, and the punishments can range from no food to a spanking. David is slowly drawn into the fray, and as the abuse against Meg gets more violent and more sexual, David struggles to "save" her, although he may not be a match for her cousins (played by Graham Patrick Martin, Benjamin Ross Kaplan and Austin Williams) and his efforts may be in vain.
The film is quite disturbing and some scenes are difficult to watch. I'm not in any way squeamish but the depiction of the insidious torture that Ruth and her reprobate sons concoct proves particularly gruesome.
The movie details the sordid doings of a troubled woman -- Ruth Chandler -- and yet it doesn't reveal the motivation or reasoning, which may be its intent. The news media is filled with stories about murders or assaults that are committed without any real motive. There are some suggestions in the many diatribes Ruth delivers and in Baker's fierce performance, but someone looking for a clear answer may be disappointed.
Rating: B- MPAA Rating: R for sadistic torture and sexual abuse, nudity, language and strong sexual dialogue - all involving children Running time: 93 mins.
Viewed at the Walter Reade Theatre
L to R: Blythe Auffarth as Meg Loughlin and Daniel Manche as David Moran in JACK KETCHUM'S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR