Local Monsters

Gertrude Baniszewski, the monster next doorThis is a bit of an odd preamble. In the early days of home video it was perfectly normal for a bunch of kids to rent flicks from the local video store and watch them together in total darkness; sometimes an untrustworthy friend would quietly sneak up behind you and grab your neck at a tense moment during a horror film, causing food or pop to splatter onto the family carpet.

An ignorant or sympathetic parent or an older relative’s credit card is what often made that soiree possible, because their of-age age status meant underage brats (like me) could rent the most obscene films never intended for teen consumption.

See, the early years of video shops (I’m specifically thinking of the ancient Video Station chain) offered very unique cinema fodder: whether you had dropped in to actually rent a tape or were just curious about the films in the horror section, there was something hypnotic about the most lurid, gory, sleazy box covers that allowed one to gaze in awe at images never broadcast on TV (Pay TV excepted).

Video meant one could find things that would appall, and word of mouth among underage aficionados ensured some ancient bloodfest or primordial sado-porn from the slasher era would function as the ultimate dare or tolerance test. From those antics, the classics and the nadir of horror or Eurotrash or erotica became legend, and that mythic branding is what current torture porn filmmakers are after by remaking a legendary classic, topping a sequel, or exceeding the depraved behaviour and human suffering fetishized in a rival production.

When author Jack Ketchum learned of the Sylvia Likens case and saw a still of the girl’s lead tormentor and killer, Gertrude Baniszewski, the gaunt, shell-shocked visage of this alleged former beauty haunted the horror writer for years, but the genesis for his novel didn’t begin until he traveled back to his childhood home to settle the estate of a recently deceased relative. In going through the objects from his past and reflecting on his old neighbourhood, he came upon the brilliant idea to re-conceive the Likens case as drama of deceitful behaviour beneath the chrome glimmer and pastel shades of fifties America.

Actually, it could easily have been Canada or perhaps even parts of Europe, because the squeaky clean image of the nuclear family – nestled in the suburbs or in a town or village liberated by modern kitchen gizmos and industrial exports from North America – was part of the exported imagery flickering on cinema and TV screens; it may not have been wholly embraced overseas, but there was something magnetic in sharing in the fantasy of an idyllic, loving family living peacefully in their cozy, fully-detached home.

On the DVD commentary tracks (one of many extras in the superb Girl Next Door DVD from Anchor Bay / Starz Home Entertainment), the filmmakers recall how often people complimented them on recreating their childhood streets, which must have made Ketchum proud; the film doesn’t peel back the grass to show the carnivorous bugs in some Lynchian parable; it examines the social monsters that reside behind the pastel aluminum siding of an average two-storey home.

In the film, Mom invites the local kids to watch TV and provides free beer; she lectures on adult topics like slutty behaviour, and gradually invites them to participate in the rape and torture of a teen. The filmmakers demonstrate the group’s trust in the aberrant mother, and we see the simple shifts wherein Ruth gives the boys permission to taunt the film’s heroine, Meg, and nudges them to move from wall-flower voyeurs to rapists before Mom commits an even greater cruel act.

That act is what’ll likely earn The Girl Next Door a reputation it doesn’t deserve – a ‘dare’ film akin to torture porn - and even a simple synopsis makes it seem as though it’s just another exploitive tale of a teen held captive. Girl is one of the most dour stories ever filmed, and there’s no ray of hope at the end, but while based on the work by a renowned horror novelist, Girl is a social study, a true crime tale spun into a novel, and a tragic drama all in one, and it’s a rare effort by its makers to transcend the expectations of exploitation fans by crafting a statement on human cruelty that still exists on a local level.

In 2007 and 2008, it’s easier for filmmakers to take such risks because there’s home video, TV, and internet, but in 1961 when Roger Corman took a sidestep from his monster movies to film The Intruder, Charles Beaumont’s tale of a smiling itinerant racist who travels from town to town to incite hatred and partake in collective bigotry, the valiant effort failed in theatres, and Corman moved on to the next shocker, although one could argue that by tackling serious social ills like racism and collective guilt, he was able to invest some mature subtext in his subsequent Edgar Allan Poe films with screenwriter Beaumont. Corman wasn’t a hack filmmaker, but his business sense wrote off his serious gamble, and he never went back there again.

The Intruder was re-titled in some markets as I Hate Your Guts, and then disappeared until Connoisseur Video in the U.K. released the film on VHS PAL. Corman’s Concord label eventually released the film on DVD (albeit in a foolishly matted version that mucked up the original 1.33:1 ratio), but it took another six years before it returned to home video in its proper ratio from Buena Vista Home Video, albeit minus the notable Concord extras.

So alongside a comparative review of Corman’s film on DVD, we also have an assessment of the score, newly released by Monstrous Movie Music on CD, coupled with additional film scores by the seriously underrated Herman Stein. According to the CD’s co-producer, David Schecter, Stein, also a friend of Beaumont, had great hopes the film would boost his career beyond the monster films he scored for Universal-International, but it seems the commercial failure of The Intruder (perhaps hastened by Corman’s own dry business sense, legendary cheapness, and impatience) kept Stein below the A-list radar, and he spent the sixties scoring mostly TV shows.


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