After watching the remake of The Last House on the Left yesterday, I was surprised, like Quaid, by the way it forced me to confront my own squeamishness about violence on film. In horror films, we always need some degree of resistance, some element of “she’s forming a plan and going to get away,” in order to accept the violence that we are supplied with.
But is that really it? The Last House remake, and the original for that matter, both supply that resistance, but it is resistance that culminates in rape and death for the two girls held captive by the villains. Later on in the film, when the parents of one girl confront their daughter’s tormentors, the violence is presented as cathartic. This is a radical departure from how we feel when Freddy, or Michael, or Jason is defeated at the end of one of their films. With those, we know we should basically take a breath and get ready for the next sequel.
What is it about the violence in Last House that makes us so uncomfortable? Put simply, they don’t manifest evil as a hulking guy in a mask, but as people who lurk just around the corner from our comfortable surroundings. There is nothing terribly impressive about the evil on display in Last House, except that it comes from a place where a human being has forsaken all compassion for another human being. While the Halloween or Friday the 13th films present us with villains so far removed from reality that we disconnect from any threat, the violence we see in Last House can, and very often does, happen to many of us. That is the stuff of not only discomfort, but real fright.
Since the horror genre has become more about crowd-pleasing, it isn’t a surprise that few movies with very human killers are made. When they are made though, they can be truly unsettling. One such film, An American Crime, came out last year on Showtime and is now on DVD. Few films have made me as uncomfortable as this one, which tells the story of an ordinary girl’s household punishment that makes a turn for the truly terrifying.
The girl is Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page), who is living in suburban Indiana with her mother (Romy Rosemont) and sister, Jenny (Hayley McFarland) in the early 1960’s. Her parents’ marriage is on the rocks, which prompts her father (Nick Searcy), a carnie, to suggest a trip on the road for the couple. A little time away from the kids might do them some good, he feels, even though this would leave Sylvia and Jenny without a caretaker.
Their father soon solves this problem after meeting Gertie Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), a very broke, very single neighbor with far more children than she knows what to do with. She needs extra money, so she tells Mr. Likens that she will take care of his daughters for $20 a month. Likens, eager to get on the road, recklessly agrees.
An American Crime should seriously be shown to new parents as a cautionary tale about who not to leave your children with. Looking at Gertie for more than five minutes would prompt a red flag. With six kids from who knows how many different fathers, she is a qualified train wreck of a human being. A cigarette in one hand and medicine for a respiratory illness in the other, she gets by financially ironing clothes for her neighbors and doing other household tasks. It doesn’t help when the father of her latest baby (James Franco) comes a callin for a quickie and a few extra bucks. Judgment doesn’t look to be a strong suit for Gertie, who usually obliges on both fronts.
Sylvia is a nice enough girl, but she is a gull among vultures. Gertie has trained her children, particularly teenage Paula (Ari Graynor), to be just as bitter and vindictive as she is. Paula and Sylvia start out civil enough, but when Paula turns up pregnant, Sylvia makes the mistake of blurting it out to stop Paula from being hurt by a boy in an alley confrontation. Never mind Sylvia’s good intentions—Paula tells Gertie, throwing the poor girl to the wolves.
The film becomes a feminist parable wrapped in the fabric of torture porn. Gertie, whose carelessness with her own body produced her current misery, does violence to Sylvia, obviously chaste, in order to protect illusions about Paula’s chastity. Gertie, a promiscuous woman suffering through a life misspent, washes her own psychological damage in the blood of Sylvia, an innocent who becomes the tormented play toy of the Baniszewski clan.
An early belt spanking for Sylvia later becomes a cigarette burn to the hand and then a particularly unsettling scene involving an empty Coke bottle (fill in the blank). A throw down the basement stairs by Gertie renders her immobile. For the film’s second half, she is sprawled on the floor, helpless to a pack of curious, sadistic children, some who belong to Gertie and others just bored neighborhood kids.
Jenny looks on helplessly, fearing similar punishment if she tells anyone. If you’re wondering why no one else asks questions about Sylvia’s whereabouts, Gertie tells everyone that she was sent to a juvenile facility. If you are wondering why no neighbors concern themselves with the screams coming from Gertie’s basement, then all I can say is that director Tommy O’Haver either has a large plot hole or is making a commentary about the passivity of American culture.
The story is told in flashback via testimony at Gertie’s trial, as a prosecuting attorney (Brad Whitford) calls witnesses to the stand one by one, trying to make sense of the terrible crime. An American Crime is a story that we wouldn’t trust for a second if it didn’t bear the label of “based on a true story” and then we are still skeptical about what parts are actually true. The story inspired a novel by Jack Ketchum in 1989 and another film, The Girl Next Door, which came out in 2007, but there is little available online about the actual case. Even if the finer points of the story aren’t authentic, I can totally imagine the story of An American Crime happening in our culture, whether it be in the 1960s or currently.
The film forces us wrestle with a number of uncomfortable issues, whether as film-goers or simply as people. If you were a neighbor in this situation, would you truly step in to confront its horror? Would you allow yourself to be bothered? The fact that most Americans seem content to just go with the flow makes the scenario depicted in An American Crime seem at least plausible.
It would be easy to call the film nihilistic, but I would have been insulted if it had invented a silver lining. The story as it exists is dark, terrible, tragic, and those elements are what make it worth telling. There is an interesting beat in the film where it starts to play out as a conventional horror movie would; there is a chase scene, an escape from the villain, a false sense of security, and then one more confrontation, only the confrontation is not between the heroine and the villain, but between real pain and the notion that we can escape it via horror films and simulated terror.
Ellen Page, as I say often, is a really cool actress. The world went ape for her in Juno, but I have been more impressed by her work in one of her first roles, Hard Candy, where she played captor, and in this film, which gives her the unenviable tasks of creating a compelling captive.
Catherine Keener has an extremely difficult role—there is absolutely nothing redeeming about this character, and she surrenders herself to it. She also doesn’t make Gertie so big that she defies reality. This isn’t Hannibal Lecter, but a real person that could live around the corner from you.
The reason that An American Crime ultimately works is simply because it goes all the way and it doesn’t cheat. It is a good story that allows us to glimpse the dark corners of human nature. That’s it. Part of the film’s intelligence is that it doesn’t force catharsis. It shows you that bad things happen and that there isn’t always a message behind them. The world moves on, and the film’s success is in forcing the viewer to ponder that.