By Jerome Reuter
An American Crime is a crime drama, about the Sylvia Likens murder case. Unlike The Girl Next Door, it follows the actual events more closely. It even goes so far, as to follow much of the transcripts from the trial of Gertrude Baniszewski. Using the real names of the parties involved, and choosing to stay grounded in reality. (for the most part.)
For those of you unaware with this case, heres a short description. 16 year old Sylvia Likens and her younger sister Jenny, were left in the care of Indianapolis housewife Gertrude Baniszewski. Her parents, who were carnival workers, had trouble providing a stable environment. Sylvia would undergo horrendous and inhumane torture, at the hands of Gertrude. Going so far as to manipulate her children, and others from the neighborhood, to participate in acts of sadism. Sylvia’s short life was claimed by this sadistic abuse, due to malnutrition, shock, and a fatal brain hemorrhage.
Which brings me to the film in question. In my opinion, it didn’t do this case justice. It isn’t a bad film, but it’s not one I would recommend to anyone either. A few of its elements do work in its favor. First off, it follows the case file very accurately. The films opening is a narration by Sylvia, informing the audience that this is her story. Which is something we first saw in Sunset Boulevard, the dead being allowed to give their testimony. We are then swept away of to Gertrude’s trial. This is what the narrative mostly consists of, scenes from the trial and flashbacks to the events in question.
However, the depiction of the case file is this films major downfall. It would be almost impossible to show the full scope of events, without it turning into a snuff film. However, the series of events seem more like a made for TV movie, rather than a serious production. More of Gertrude’s past is touched upon, almost to humanize her more. This hints at the theory that this a never ending cycle of abuse, and she’s a product of her own poor decision making. I had quite an issue with this angle, Gertrude Baniszewski, is one of the most despicable human beings who ever lived. An attempt to make the audience empathize with her, even for a moment, is poor storytelling.
Although many real life events of the case are depicted, and other times implied, they never have the effect they’re aiming for. Although I’ve stated in several of my reviews that horror is what you don’t see, but this isn’t horror, this is reality. You have a duty to engage your audience, and make them aware of the severity of the situation at hand. The only reason I felt anything while watching this, is because I’m familiar with the original case file. Even the films conclusion felt out of place. It involves a dream sequence with Sylvia’s parents rescuing her. The film then shifts back to reality, and we’re shown that she has died.
This felt a lot like The Exorcism Of Emily Rose. Which itself, was based on the real life exorcism of Anneliese Michel. Taking a true event , and watering it down for easier consumption. This film doesn’t leave a mark, it barely scratches the surface.
Which brings me to my final thoughts on this endeavor. The Girl Next Door, is the superior film. Although Ketchum’s work is not a direct interpretation of fact, it tells the story in a more effective way. It built itself upon the suffering of the victim, and the sadism of the torturer. That was a film that you felt, and wouldn’t soon forget after watching. Aside from all of that, it resinated more with an audience. After all, how guilty would you feel if you were a witness, but did nothing until it was to late?
As the old saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. The story of Sylvia Likens, is more jarring than any screenwriter could possibly imagine. However, it’s the fictionalized account of her story, that shows us the true face of evil.