***NOTE: Sorry, this is late guys. Anyway, it is something I wrote a few years back. And since it’s November, I felt this would be appropriate because it’s a “horror” story. It’s probably scarier than RINGU, now that I think about it. DO NOT watch the vid until you’ve read what I’ve got to say. Then you can decide if you’d like to watch it…This post is supposedly a review, but it could very well be a feature.
AN AMERICAN CRIME
I must have an invisible genie somewhere because just a few days after wishing for it–lo and behold–I found the movie An American Crime! And now, I am obsessing myself with it. Well, actually, with the story behind it. I am slightly a closet-psychologist wannabe, so for this movie, my curious button was definitely on.
The movie centers on two people–on sixteener Sylvia Marie Likens (Ellen Page) and on mother-of-six Gertrude Baniszewski a..k.a. Mrs. Wright (Catherine Keener). The year is 1965.
Sylvia is a pretty and likable girl whose parents, Betty and Lester (Romy Rosemont and Nick Searcy), operate a concession stand that travels with carnivals, therefore, they have moved not less than 14 times. That October, she and younger sister Jenny Fay (Hayley McFarland) are to be left behind again so they could go to school and have more time to have friends. Meanwhile, Gertrude is a woman who has had a hard life. Thrice married, twice divorced, once lived in with a boyfriend more or less 10 years her junior. All the men have been abusive and deadbeat dads, leaving the responsibility of raising all six children, including an infant, to Gertrude alone. Her first daughter Paula (Ari Graynor), 17, does try to help with meager earnings. They live in a squalid home with hardly any food on the table. To top it all, Gertrude has an ailment that is not often attended to properly with much-needed medicine.
Somehow, the Likens girls cross paths with the Baniszewkis. Mrs. Wright then meets Mr. Likens one day and offers to take in and care of the girls for a fee amounting to 20-dollars a week to be sent to her. A deal is made and the relieved father promptly encourages Mrs. Wright to discipline his daughters as she sees fit. “Discipline” them is exactly what Gertrude does, and so on October 26, 1965, Sylvia is found dead by the police in the house at 3850 East New York Street. She is covered with bruises and burns, mutilated and beaten to a pulp.
That is the synopsis. Now, I’m pretty sure it’s under the drama category, but any sane person who has seen this will agree when I say it could very well blend in with the ghost and slasher flicks under the horror category, too. There’s no one coming back from the dead nor is there lots of gore, so why horror? Because the thought that this could happen to a loved one, to your kids, all that Sylvia went through, should already be terrifying.
But what makes it doubly horrifying is IT’S A D*MN TRUE STORY. It is based on actual testimonies during the trial of the Baniszewski v. The State of Indiana case. The name “Gertrude Baniszewksi” is said to be right up there on the notoriety level of serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer.
The case of Sylvia that was soon to be dubbed The Indiana Torture Slaying became a sensational story that shocked people everywhere. How could this woman torture the young girl? And how could a sickly woman like her ever be physically able to do it? Well, the answer is both simple yet very disturbing–she had the complete cooperation and assistance of her children and other neighborhood kids!
“The crime had been perpetrated by an informal group of teenagers and children, some as young as 11 and 12, led by a 37-year-old woman” (The Torturing Death of Sylvia Marie Likens).
Everyone was out to “punish” poor Sylvia for sins mostly made-up and imagined by Gertrude and her children. Jenny was spared perhaps because she was younger and less outspoken, aside from her having a disability. Not to mention, Paula was keen on taking revenge on Sylvia for ratting out her “condition”. Everyday, kids would visit the Baniszewskis’ house just to make fun of Sylvia and beat her up in every way possible.
She was their entertainment. They ridiculed her, tied her up, punched her, kicked her, scorched her with cigarettes and matches, threw hot water on her, and hosed her down. One of her most painful ordeal was when Gertrude branded her with words etched on her stomach saying, “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT!” as a form of getting even for her kids. Another boy would be tasked to finish it. Prior to that, there was an incident with a bottle which I find hard to mention…Oh, all the wonderful things those perverted souls could think off!
And those were the only ones shown onscreen. In reality, Sylvia suffered so much more in the hands of her tormentors. Gertrude repeatedly kicked her on the crotch and made her striptease in front of everyone. The kids practiced judo moves on her, flinging her on walls and everywhere else. Investigations would show that Sylvia also suffered assaults that were sexual in manner although there was no actual rape involved.
By now, questions are probably going through your minds, the hows and the whys, the same questions I found myself asking. Why didn’t the Likens girls tell anyone? Why didn’t any adult try to help? And why, oh, why did the neighborhood kids do such terrible acts? To get your answers, I suggest a research. That’s what I did and now, at least some aspects of the true story have become clearer.
The movie is literally a torture to watch but I dare say it is relevant. It reminds us to think twice or a hundred times about our responsibilities as adults. Could we really trust anyone with our kids? How much should we give our trust? I am already worried about my own kid…and I don’t even have one yet! [Ed. Again, to remind you, this was written years ago.]
Mostly, I can’t get over the fact that neighborhood kids joined in the ‘fun’. It was bullying taken to horrible extremes. Gertrude’s kids, I can still understand. Twisted parents can bring up twisted kids. They were probably their mother’s victims as well until Sylvia, the scapegoat, came along. But for the other kids to keep coming back to inflict torture? Sick is what that is. My brain cannot fathom the depth of this mystery. I’ve heard about serial killers in groups. Could it be they were going down that road? How much of it is proof of the great evil hidden inside of us and that we are very capable of?
I can’t say much about the writing of the story except there were a lot more in the true story that were left untold. The writer did take some liberties near the end that left me a bit baffled for a while. Casting-wise, they should have made Paula look heavier to emphasize her insecurity with Sylvia (she is said to be actually heavyset with a sort of mean streak). But aside from those, I have no real complaints.
Ellen, as always, did her part well, except the script required her to do a lot of lying down and screaming. It’s not one of best performances, methinks, not because she couldn’t act, but because the script did not ask much from her, really. Catherine was great and convincing in her role in the sense that you see her own vulnerability and you question if you should really hate Gertrude. Personally, though I believe that convicting her was just, I felt sorry for her. I think she was seriously ill in the head. But she was sober at times as well and did not stop herself or the kids from torturing poor Sylvia. That still made her accountable.
So while watching this disturbing film would be hard to bear, I still recommend it, if only to make us open our eyes more. If you want to be all happy without a care in the world, go rent a dumb movie. Pretend that all is well in the world and be blessedly ignorant. Meanwhile, I will be on the lookout for a copy so I can share it to more people. Sometimes, we need to have our world shaken up to see the whole picture.
Any thoughts? Reactions? Have you seen it? We’re free to discuss at the comments section. Let us know what you think! 🙂