Sunday, January 13, 2008

Movies: There goes the neighborhood.

In extra features of the new-ish DVD release Jack Ketchum's Girl Next Door (the attribution added presumably to prevent folks from mistaking this brutal horror flick with the zany semi-raunchy comedy Girl Next Door), one of the screenwriters mentions that it took nine years to get the project to the screen and mentions that, at one point, he assumed the film would simply never get made. It isn't had to imagine why. Though I've never pitched a script before, I can see how this would be a hard sell.

Screenwriter: "Its about a girl who gets sent to live with her aunt after her parents die."
Producer: "Oh, a tragic angle."
Screenwriter: "Yeah. And her sister – she's got a little sister – who is in leg braces. Like polio kids had, you know?"
Producer: "Hmmm."
Screenwriter: "It's set in the '50s. It's all town carnivals and cars with fins and bikes with cards in the spokes. That sort of stuff."
Producer: "Like Wonder Years."
Screenwriter: "Sorta, but even earlier. The years leading up to the Wonder Years."
Producers: "Like Grease."
Screenwriter: "Right, but with younger kids. Think of the little bothers and sisters of the kids in Grease."
Producer: "Alight. I'm with you."
Screenwriter: "So the new girl comes to town and this young kid, our narrator . . ."
Producer: "Our what? You didn't say this was a religious picture!"
Screenwriter: "No. Narrator. The dude the voice over is coming from . . ."
Producer: "Oh, right. I thought you said something else."
Screenwriter: "What did you think I said?"
Producer: "Nothing. Never mind. So this so-called narrator boy . . ."
Screenwriter: "Yeah, so the narra . . . guy who talks to the audience, he falls for the beautiful new girl I town."
Producer: "A love story."
Screenwriter: "Kinda. They catch crayfish together and go to the county fair together."
Producer: "Very sweet. So what happens next?"
Screenwriter: "Next? Oh, the aunt who is taking care of the girl flips out and ties her up in the basement. She and her sons take turns physically abusing her. Eventually other neighborhood children are invited to join in. They cut her and burn her and rape her and stuff."
Producer: "Oh."
Screenwriter: "And she dies."
Screenwriter: "Um. The end."

Based on Jack Ketchum's novel of the same name, The Girl Next Door has, joking aside, pretty much the plot I outlined above. After losing their parents in a car accident, tow young girls – Meg and Susan – end up in the care of Aunt Ruth, an embittered widower whose tenuous grasp on sanity in no way improve through the course of the film. Because Ruth's a crazy, her dislike of Meg and Susan quickly devolves into psychological and physical abuse, with then launches off a cliff into Hostel grade tortures. The central character is this drama isn't Meg or Susan, but David, the young neighbor who falls for Meg and ends up becoming a reluctant witness to her slow destruction.

In order to defend themselves from charges of exploitation, the filmmakers repeat, mantra-like, that their film is "based on a true story." The phrase appears in front of the film and is recited again and again in the extra DVD material. Whether being or not being loosely based on a historical crime automatically proofs one against exploitative tendencies is debatable, though one does need to go into that debate here: the film is, in fact, based on a novel that was itself a fictionalization of a true crime. This is a true story in the same way that the movie Psycho was the story of Ed Gein – in as much as it was an adaptation of a fictional work inspired by said murderers real crimes. I don't bring this up because I think it was wrong for artists to fictionalize real-life situations. In fact, the value in Ketchum's original work is that it brings what no documentary, non-fictional treatment can bring to such a subject: it allows the reader to get inside the head of a witness and possible collaborator in order to explore fully the dynamic of authority and its abuses, of leaders and their followers. And it did this so successfully that the quality of the work became its own defense. Ketchum doesn't need to obsessive remind people he's not exploitative because a reading of the book dispels the notion. The film, with its defensive mantra of "this isn't exploitation, it really happened," underscores how little the movie can rely on the same self-evident claim for seriousness.

The movie itself is well made. For a straight to DVD production, the flick is high-gloss. Gregory Wilson directs with a solid confidence that only occasionally strains to add intrusive POV shots that seem to exist solely to remind you a director is around. The plot is an efficient condensation of the novel which leaves most of the major plot points intact and earnestly attempts to get at the moral core of Ketchum's grim book. (Though the character of Aunt Ruth sometimes slips and mentions details that seem to be not from the book, but from the truly life crime on which the book is based. For example, in real-life, the girls' parents were alive and sending money to the women abusing their daughters. Ruth mentions how she's not getting paid enough to watch the girls – a flashpoint in the real case as she started to starve the girls at that point. In the context of the film, however, she's not getting paid anything at all to watch the girls.) Those deviations from the source are almost always smart moves that add value to the story in some way.

The problem with the film is that it ultimately fails to communicate what made the book more than a semi-serious exercise in shock aesthetics. By film uses a narrator as a framing device, but once the viewer is transported to the 1950s, the film becomes takes the sort of third-person objectivity most common to film as part of the nature of the medium. The book told us rather than showed us because the telling was the story. The film can only show us. A cast of stellar performers might have been able to communicate the shades of internal conflict we get in the book, but that's on the abilities of the cast here. No to say that they do a bad job. Meg's got a thankless role, spending most of the film being tortured really restricts what an actress can show, but TV regular Blythe Auffarth does as much as one can with such a role. Soap opera regular Daniel Manche does a praiseworthy job too. But, ultimately, this plot requires A-grade chops to elevate it beyond becoming a numbing endurance test and these kids just aren't that good. I must admit that I'm not sure anybody could have pulled it off. Still, the lack of that interior thought process, the inability to get in the skin of David, makes it too obvious. We see evil and recognize and suffer through it to the end. There's no evolution, no awakening to our understanding. The condensed plot exacerbates this thinness: David realizes almost immediately that this is all crazy and spends very little time wondering what his role in the crisis is. His journey to full morality is shortened to irrelevance for the sake of narrative compactness.

Despite the nastiness of some of the elements in the film, I believe the filmmakers when that claim they didn't set out to make an exploitative horror flick. If Girl Next Door falls into the loose pseudo-genre of torture porn, then it serves as a sort of boundary marker indicating the limit of moral serious one can bring to the mode. If Passolini's Salo is the genre's most stylistically accomplished example, then GND is the genre's most earnest entry. But, just as Salo's technical virtuosity couldn't save it from leveling off into a sort of spectacle of horror, the earnest intentions of the filmmakers get somewhat buried by GND's more hideous excesses.


spacejack said...

I bet if they called it "American Girl Next Door" the film would've been made a lot sooner.

Anonymous said...

But would it have been any better with a happy ending ?

I can't come up with a reasonable answer, but don't most horror movies end with either everyone dead, or a sole (or few) manage to miraculously escape, only to have the killer spring out of the glove compartment in a surprise-you-die-now ending, fade to black ?

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Oh, I'm not arguing that it should have had a happy ending. There would be two things working against it.

First, it would seem kinda creepy given the source material. Even twice removed, it would have seemed like some strange and almost disrespectful cop out to have the girl survive. Or, let me re-frame that statement, given how much emphasis they place on the fact that they aren't exploiting the situation, it would seem like so strange and almost disrespectful cop out to have the girl survive. I mean, imagine if, at the end of the film "United 98" the passengers suddenly overwhelmed the terrorists and set the plane down safely. It would seem like some cheap stunt and it just serve to remind you of what actually happened. If, on the other hand, the film was called "Revolt on American 234" and you didn't make a big deal out of the fact that you were inspired by the events on the doomed flight, then you movie might not be any good, but you wouldn't get that same exploitative feel if you went with a happy ending.

The second is that, by the end of the film, survival for the character would be a nominal sort of thing at best. Eventually Meg's suffering is so great that one can't imagine how any character who went through all this would ever get away from it in any significant way. Aside from the physical damage, the mental damage would be profound. Even survival in this case wouldn't make for a real happy ending. Now I'm taking about the character within the narrative, not the real case. And within the story one gets the sense that Meg ultimately welcomes death as a release from what's been done to her.

Again, let me stress that I'm talking about the narrative logic of a fictional story here. Pondering what would have happened to Sylvia Likens had she lived through the ordeal is something much more serious and grim to ponder.

Anonymous said...

To compare apples and oranges, one of the things that I really liked about Thomas Harris' book RED DRAGON was the internal struggles and thought processes of criminal profiler Will Graham. In the first film adaptation of that book, MANHUNTER, with William Peterson as Graham, he has a number of thinking out loud monologues as he tries to put himself in the skin of the Tooth Fairy. A little clunky, but you got the idea of what they were trying to achieve.
However, it still didn't address the other doubts going through his mind about his own moral character, emotional buttons that Hannibal Lector enjoyed pushing every time Graham spoke to him in prison.

I wonder, just now, if maybe, theoretically, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR might actually make a more effective theater piece.
Theater seems to lend itself better to the device of a monologue, and the idea that these crimes are happening in front of you (so to speak, depending on how explicit you got), is an interesting idea, in terms of putting the audience in the same shoes (somewhat literally) as David, making them also an actual witness to these events and being somewhat complicit in the participation.
I'm not saying it makes for zany entertainment (and I'd nix any musical or dance numbers), but I'm just thinking out loud about a possible method of turning this awful real-life experience into a worthwhile work of art, if possible.
And, intellectually, I would think it would be possible.
To a certain extent, it seems like this case is one of those instances where you could argue that it's a situation asking for art to transform it into something to be seen in order to accomplish some good from the event, unless pure journalism is all that is required and trying to convert it into art is really presumptious.
Does that make any sense?

But, the whole case is in a similar category of the Holocaust, I think, about how does a regular person participate in a crime against innocent people, by allowing it to happen?
Or, perhaps the Holocaust is a bad example because it doesn't "involve" us-- I sometimes think that we as Americans somehow sit in judgment of those civilian Germans, as if such a thing is impossible to occur here in the States, at least not on such a grand, organized scale. But if the degree or scale to which something like the Holocaust were not the issue in terms of comparison, perhaps lynchings in the U.S. is a better example for Americans, considering some of these lynchings were photographed by photo studios and displayed as examples of their work
and made into postcards, featuring the hanged victim and a gathered mob posing cheerfully around him.
How much of this crowd response is fear (specifically acting in compliance out of peer pressure) and how much is genuine evil and how much is cultural compartmentalization?
Okay, the lynching example I find particularly fascinating, so my apologies for arbitrarily dredging that up.

I hope some of what I said made some damn sense!

So, is this like the third film incarnation of this case coming out or already out? Sheesh.
So much for unfilmmable events.