Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

SPOILER ALERT. This should not be a significant issue since the film is based on real events, but I do reveal the ending, and I also "spoil" a monumental tone shift which occurs about twenty minutes in.

In 1965, from the unlikely locale of Indianapolis, the news spread to America of a horrific crime committed in the name of motherly discipline. A 16-year-old girl was found to have been tortured to death in a foster home. Sylvia Likens and her younger sister, a polio victim, were essentially abandoned by their father when their mother was sent off to jail. Papa was a carnival employee who was left with five children who just didn't fit into his itinerant carny lifestyle. He pawned off his two youngest daughters on the mother of one of their schoolmates, paying the woman $20 per week to care for the girls, and encouraging her to "straighten them out." The foster mother, Gertrude Baniszewski, was a frustrated woman who had left behind a trail of divorces and was raising seven other children on her limited cash flow, much of which she blew on booze and pills.

The situation got very ugly very fast, and ended with Sylvia's death, followed by criminal sentences for Gertrude and several children who abetted the torture.

In 2007 two new films covered this territory:

The first and most prominent was An American Crime, which acquired the cachet of a Sundance premiere and featured Catherine Keener as the murderous Gertrude Baniszewski. That film used the real names of the characters and was based scrupulously on the facts of the case, although it filled in its own interpretations of the characters' motivations.

The other was Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door, which was derived from the case less directly. The source of the screenplay was a novel by Mr. Ketchum, a disciple of Stephen King, who captured all of the important elements of the case, but retold the story fictionally, without retaining a one-to-one correspondence between his facts and characters and the real-life details. I have not read Ketchum's novel, but various accounts have called the film a conscientious rendering of the novel.  Although the source novel is simply called The Girl Next Door, the film added the "Jack Ketchum's" prefix to distinguish it from two other recent films named The Girl Next Door. Since the movie version is a third generation account of reality, and since its characters are fictional to begin with, it is not bound to chronicle precisely what happened in Indianapolis.

For example, here are a few elements which do not correspond to the Likens murder:

  • The fictional story takes place in 1958, not 1965.
  • While the girls are the right age to be the Likens sisters and the younger has polio, they are said to have been orphaned.
  • Most important, this version introduces a fictional character who narrates the story. He is a young boy who had a crush on the tortured girl, and in fact tried to help her in many ways, but spent the rest of his life haunted by the fact that he knew exactly what was happening and never alerted the authorities before the abuse got out of control.

All things considered, the fictional elements do not detract from the essential truth or power of the story. In fact, the narrator adds power and depth to the melodrama.

The director and his co-author chose to create the film as sort of a "Stand by Me meets Hostel II." If you think about it, you will probably conclude that is an extraordinarily powerful combination. The introduction is all about young kids enjoying the pleasures of a 50s-era summer: fishing, going to the carnival, playing in the woods, experiencing sexual curiosity, having their first case of puppy love, having a beer with the cool mom, running to meet the ice cream man, and so forth. The doomed girl and her would-be beau are introduced and we love them immediately. They are naive, kind-hearted, unguarded, and shy. There is little sign of the trouble to come. It is the calm before a storm.

The storm does not descend upon us suddenly. Each passing day brings a slightly greater level of abuse from the mom, and it takes some time before she escalates from bitchy to demonic. When she gets there, the film carries an extraordinary power because we remember what we first thought the movie would be like, and because she has enlisted a brood of children to join her in the torture rituals. The compliance of the children grips us. Some of the boys join in because they are sadistic. Others are just overwhelmed by the sight of a naked 16-year-old girl hanging by her arms. The saddest bystander to watch is the ineffectual "good" kid, whose resistance always seem to be about half what it should be, whose disgust always seems to be tempered by titillation. We root for him to man up and do something, and he eventually does, but by then it is too late.

The 1958 story is book-ended by a scene in 2007 in which the good boy, now 60ish and played by William Atherton, remembers the incident and is overwhelmed by his own guilt, shame, and regret. In the final scene he returns to the ol' fishin' hole where he first met the doomed girl, and we return there with him, sharing his memories, and his pain.

I think the film works. As many critics accurately asserted, it's a feel-bad movie, and very hard to watch. It can never be pleasant to watch the torture of children, or the corruption of other children. One might also carp that the script seems to have no special point to make nor insight to offer, and it would also be fair to say that the characterizations are not always as complex as they might be. It's a genre film, not a serious drama. But, damn, it delivers an emotional punch. Sure it's a cheap shot. Having kids abused is always an easy way to create emotional impact. But cheap shot or not, it's a KO. This film just ate away at me, and the final scene had me inside William Atherton's head. I would have preferred not to be there, but because I was there the film did what it had set out to do.

DVD Book


58 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
29 Metacritic.com (of 100)




7.6 IMDB summary (of 10)

It was underrated by the critics, but maybe even a bit overrated by IMDb voters at 7.6. A more balanced viewpoint would land it somewhere between RT and IMDb. If I were a real reviewer using an Ebert scale, I'd call it three stars, and I rated it a 7 at IMDb. That's a "gut feeling." I have a mental picture of what an 8 is, and this just didn't seem strong enough for an 8, but it is a good effort.



No theatrical release.





You can pick up the real-life story here:




  • Blythe Auffarth, who is actually 22, did full frontal and rear nudity as the doomed girl.



Web www.scoopy.com

Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is an effective film.

Add this to my list of good movies that I wish I had never seen.