This is the type of movie that you have to recover from. During the course of the movie, I found myself shouting at the screen, hugging my knees to my chest, and ultimately shedding a few tears. It made me angrier than any other film has, and I've been wandering aimlessly around my house for the past hour, unable to get it out of my head. I suppose I'm a bit of a masochist, but as a horror fan, that's exactly the kind of reaction that I live for. When it happens, you're no longer just watching a movie, you're having a profound experience.
I've gotten through other films that are similarly hard to watch, Martyrs in particular comes to mind, but while I love Martyrs, I can't say the same for this film. So what's the difference? For one thing, Martyrs starts out full of horror movies conventions before it takes you to unexpected and vile places. It is scary and disturbing from the get-go. Not so for The Girl Next Door. It begins in a normal suburban neighborhood full of kids just entering their teens who are still enjoy a playful romp through the woods. The kids are realistically rendered characters who aren't a bunch of wild-eyed innocents; they have their moments of cruelty and are playing at adulthood by cussing and talking about sex. The characters felt like kids I knew at that age, just clinging to the last vestiges of innocence. There's even a sweet little episode of puppy-love that sets the audience up for a major fall. Sure it's emotionally manipulative, but that's what movies are.
The Girl Next Door doesn't so much pull the rug out from under you as it escalates, little by little, into one of the most depraved scenarios possible. It's a slow build that leads you to an almost overwhelming dread of what's going to happen next.
The most disturbing element of the film is that the neighborhood children so easily become monsters when given permission by an adult to be as cruel as they please. The torture of a young girl becomes their new game, and they eagerly invite others to witness and participate. You have to wonder how the filmmakers and the child actors' parents dealt with the psychological impact of acting out such atrocious scenarios. They are taking part in horrors that no child should have to see.
On some level, this is an exploitation film, but then, so are all horror movies. The thing that sets it apart from pure exploitation is that it deals with profound themes like the loss of innocence, mob mentality and people's capacity for cruelty, the powerlessness of children, the repression of 1950s America, and the difficult choices that we sometimes fail to make, or make too late. Like I said, this is powerful stuff. If you watch The Girl Next Door, don't expect to be entertained. Expect to be confronted with the darkest side of humanity that we push away in order to stay sane.