Before we get to the movie review, I thought I'd share a bizarre meta-data fact about And Now the Screaming Starts. A slight majority of the readers who stop by either come directly here (they've got the blog bookmarked or type it right into their browser's address bar) or they come from links on other blogs. The rest find ANTSS through Google searches. And the number one topic that leads people to this blog is the 1965 murder of Sylvia Likens. This handily beats out the next two highest-ranking topics which are, in order, Gustave the enormous man-eating African crocodile and the haunted house rides of Coney Island. Curiously, these searches are looking for non-fiction subjects. I have yet to get any searches for the The Girl Next Door or Primeval, the fictional works inspired by these cases. People want info on the real-life stories, not the fictional re-imaginings.
I bring this up because today's film, 2007's An American Crime, purports to be "the true story" of the Sylvia Likens murder, unlike 2007's The Girl Next Door which exists twice removed from the incident, being an adaptation of the novel of the same name, itself very loosely inspired by the infamous crime. Though An American Crime is probably not considered a horror film in a tradition sense, being perhaps better labeled a dramatic film about a horrible event, I've covered previous adaptations, so I feel its appropriate to cover it here.
The filmmakers of An American Crime put the issue of realism front and center. The film begins with title cards that not only give viewers the standard "based on" disclaimer, but also claim that the film is drawn from information in the court transcripts. The story will be familiar to anybody who has seen the aforementioned film or is familiar with the case. In 1965, the Likens, two traveling carnies, leave their daughters, Sylvia and Jennifer "Jennie" Faye, in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a single mother with a house full of kids. (The real Baniszewski had seven children, but only six appear in the flick for some reason.) Unbeknownst to the Likens, Baniszewski has a history of mental trouble, and an alcohol problem.
At first, things are awkward, but not entirely unpleasant. The nomadic life-style of the Likens family has meant that Sylvia and Jennie have never had many friends. They enjoy suddenly finding themselves among a whole tribe of kids. Sylvia begins to meet people at school and, aside from Gertie's chemically driven moodiness, there's not much to complain about. Though there are some creepy hints of the horrors to come. Gertie is capable of sudden and explosive violence. And Jonny, the sole boy in the family, seems to take pleasure in small, but disconcerting acts as cruelty, such as leaving a dog's food dish nearly out of reach of the animal or abusing the toys of his sisters.
In less than a week, the inoffensive Sylvia finds herself pulled into a family struggle between Gertie and Paula, the eldest and slightly out-of-control daughter of the Baniszewski clan. Not understanding the family dynamic, Sylvia quickly becomes the scapegoat for the Baniszewski clan's social and financial woes. The mentally unbalanced
Gertie starts to subject Sylvia to series of increasingly horrible punishments, beginning with whippings and getting rapidly worse. Sylvia is trapped in an insane cycle of punishment and groundless accusation – every thing Baniszewski does to her seems to confirm, in the twisted mind of Gertie, the need for further torture. Things come to a head when Gertie accuses Sylvia of sexual improprieties with some local boys. As punishment, Gertie forces the horrified Sylvia to sexually violate herself with an empty Coke bottle as the Baniszewski children and a neighborhood boy watch. This torture is interrupted by the arrival of more family members and Gertie, deciding that Sylvia is to corrupting an influence to leave free to roam, sentences her to be locked in the basement. When Sylvia resists, the Baniszewski children literally throw her down the stairs.
What comes next is a matter of the historical record. For several weeks, the Baniszewski children and numerous neighborhood children come to "play" with Sylvia. She is beaten, burned, stripped and hosed down, denied adequate food and water, and otherwise tortured. Both young men and young women take part in her torture. Most of this occurs with the knowledge of Gertrude Baniszewski, who acts as if the children are playing house and not slowly killing a young woman. Eventually, under the direction Gertie, a neighborhood boy brands "IM A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT" on Sylvia's stomach. This whole latter part of the flick spools out as a long, horrific montage of outrages, much of it filmed from the first person perspective of Sylvia (as if she's fading in an out and all she's conscious off is a nightmarish series of disjointed painful attacks), punctuated by short dramatic set pieces. There's also a short, hopeful dream sequence that serves to cruelly elevate the hopes of the viewer. The conclusion is foregone.
In the end, Sylvia dies from the treatment. Panicked, the Baniszewski children call the police. Officers arrive on the scene and Jennie, who has been silent all this time, fearing the same treatment, tells the cops that she'll tell them everything if they'll take her away from the torture house.
The narrative of the film jumps between Gertrude Baniszewski's murder trial and the events unfolding in flashback.
Honestly, I don't know what to tell you about An American Crime. It is well written and beautifully shot by writer/director Tommy O'Haver (who shot this nightmare as the follow up to his 2004 Ella Enchanted - I kid you not). The acting is fine, though many of the characters seem to intentionally be a sort of appendage of the Baniszewski family-beast, so they don't have a lot to do. Ellen Page, in a reversal of her avenging angle role in Hard Candy, plays the martyr here. It's a kinda thankless role. For a considerable portion of the movie she has to act semi-conscious and on death's door. It is hard to make that role your own. Plus, given the horrendousness of the crime, the tendency on the part of everybody who has tried to work with this material is to turn Sylvia into flat icon of purity, violated by a cruel world. This is weird because it seems to imply that the horror of the incident was that she was innocent, instead of making the moral stance that nobody, anywhere, under any circumstances should be treated this way. Compare this to Boys Don't Cry, which had the same producers. Nobody felt the need to make Brandon Teena's behavior beyond question – including minor criminal activity and the ethical implications of her deceiving others about her identity – but the result in no way mitigates the horror one feels at what happened to her. What happened to Sylvia Likens wasn't wrong because it happened to a nice person, it was wrong because it happened at all. I know this sound obvious and utterly moronic to even make such a point, but in our current judicial and moral climate it is, sadly, not a universally accepted concept. Acting-wise, the real standout is Catherine Keener, who actually flirts with making Gertrude Baniszewski sympathetic before the character slides into irredeemable vileness. This is a pretty gutsy move and many reviewers have expressed disgust at Keener's effort to humanize Baniszewski. It would be a much more comfortable story if Baniszewski wasn't, in fact, a human.
[I'm adding this revision the day after posting. It occurs to me that I should clarify what I mean by "cleaning up" the Sylvia character. I've left it too vague and I worry that some reader will think that there was something in the true story that implies she might have caused or deserved her fate. This isn't the case. What I'm talking about it a minor whitewash of the details of her life. For example, she and her sister were, in real life, left at the Baniszewski house because their mother, in whose care they were in, went to jail for shoplifting. When they first met the Baniszewski daughters, the Baniszewski girls told them they could spend the night at their house. Sylvia and Jennie did so without asking their parents' permission because their mother was in jail and their father wasn't in town. Their father didn't find the girls until the next morning. In the film, this incident is portrayed as a daytime, after-church visit. In the film, both Likens parents are in the girls' lives and the father picks them up before sundown. The implication is that the Likens had it hard, but they were essentially responsible normal parents. The film also glosses over something the Likens girls' father really told Gertie Baniszewski. When he left them, he left Baniszewski with some vague directive about "straightening out" his daughters because he felt their mother was letting them run wild. Another example of the filmmakers ignoring Sylvia's real life details is the fact that Sylvia once admitted to shoplifting. This is notable in that one of the first times Sylvia was punished by Baniszewski, the rough treatment was supposedly punishment for leading the Baniszewski kids to shoplift. None of that appears in the flick. Does any of this imply what happened to Sylvia was right? No. Even if she was shoplifting - which is by no means certain - the vicious nature of the Baniszewski clan's crime makes it obvious that the motivation was not disciplinary. What the Baniszewskis did is still a horrific crime that staggers the imagination.]
Still, it was an oddly empty film experience. Despite the "realistic" label it wears – which is, I imagine, the film's first line of defense against those that would label it exploitation – there's something strangely stagey about the undertaking. I say this ignoring the factual liberties (the oddest is the transformation of Paula Baniszewski into a more sympathetic character). First and foremost, there is the Sunset Boulevard/Menace II Society style first person narration from beyond the grave: Sylvia narrates a few sections of the flashback. Second, there's the historical setting. The Baniszewski home at 3850 East New York St, Indianapolis, (you can Google map it if you like) is not far from the downtown of Indianapolis and it isn't the sort of suburban utopia we've come to equate with American innocence through nostalgia exercises like The Wonder Years. Yet there's something wrote about the period atmosphere here – sun-drenched and bopping along to a selection of period correct pop hits – that seem to imply they exist not in 1965, but in the fantasy realm of the prelapsarian youth of America. This becomes important because the film makes a bid for social relevance later when Sylvia's narration attempts to position the crime as one of those moments when the country as a whole lost its innocence. Both historically and aesthetically, that's a hard proposition to swallow. In contrast, the fictional Girl Next Door frames its narrative is terms of the guilt of the young narrator who stood by and did nothing. Lacking in historical gravitas, it nevertheless achieves a greater universal theme. Whether we've let evil triumph by simply failing to actively be good is a perennial question. The courtroom drama falls weirdly flat because we know how the story ends. The result is that the framing device feels too much like a tool for shoe-horning research details in.
Weirdly, it's the fake story – the adaptation by Ketchum and the movie made from that – that might better get at what is so important about the Likens murder. An American Crime rightly shows us that what happened was horrific. We watch it, we are repelled by the inhumane acts we see, and we pass judgment. Girl Next Door centralizes the moral dilemma of the witness. We are asked to judge not just the monsters, but those who watch the monsters do their work.