Friday, February 28, 2014


Nicolas Gessner, 1976
Starring: Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen, Alexis Smith, Scott Jacoby, Mort Shuman

On Halloween, Rynn Jacobs is celebrating her 13th birthday all alone. A creepy neighbor, Frank, the son of her landlord, knocks on the door and pushes his way into the house. His interest alarms Rynn and she later learns that he is a pedophile. She is spared his further attentions that night when he goes off trick or treating with his stepsons, but he begins to follow her around town. His mother, Mrs. Hallet, their landlady, arrives soon after, demanding to see Rynn’s father, though Rynn always insists he is either out of town or working. Rynn won’t allow her to go in the basement and she leaves, outraged, promising she will make trouble for Rynn with the school board.

Soon Rynn meets a police officer and his nephew, Mario. They become her only friends in the neighborhood, as her father is constantly “busy” or “away.” Mrs. Hallet returns and forces her way into the basement. She sees something there that terrifies her and hits her head on the door and falls down dead. When she doesn’t return, both Frank and the police turn up, though Frank won’t go away. Mario protects Rynn from Frank – after he kills her pet hamster – and the two misfits quickly bond. What he soon learns, however, is that Rynn has bodies in her basement…

With a script from Laird Koenig based on his own novel of the same name, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is something of a forgotten Canadian film that advertised itself as horror, but is a blend of coming-of-age drama, thriller, and misfit romance. With elements of horror, mystery, and the Gothic tale – thanks to the creaky old house with bodies in its basement and the potentially mad family member sequestered upstairs – one of the film’s strengths is its attempt to defy genre.

I’ll admit it – I haven’t yet seen Badlands and I associate Martin Sheen with The West Wing and his role as the difficult, but lovable President Bartlett. He is downright traumatizing here as the pedophile Frank. Though Sheen is powerful in the role, Frank and his mother Cora are two of the film’s biggest flaws. The nosy, aggressive Cora and her sick son are clear villains, forcing us to always root for Rynn, particularly during the concluding scene when she commits her first cleverly premeditated murder. Some more ambiguous characters would have made the plot more compelling and complex.

Thanks to a young Jodie Foster, Rynn is nearly compelling and complex enough to drive the film. She’s a mysterious, but sympathetic character. The script throws in little details that are somewhat farfetched, but interesting. At thirteen, she can cook a complete dinner, drinks wine, reads Emily Dickinson, does grown-up crossword puzzles, listens exclusively to Chopin, and is teaching herself Hebrew with the help of some records. It’s helpful that Foster was 14 at the time, forgoing Hollywood’s later, frequent habit of casting adults in teen roles. It’s also amazing to think that after a childhood of modelling and commercials, she really came into her own in 1976 by co-starring in Bugsy Mallone and, most importantly, The Taxi Driver. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, however, depicts her first love scene, though any semi-nude moments were body-doubled by her older sister.

There are some good performances all around, despite the fact that this feels like a made-for-TV movie. In addition to Foster and Sheen, Alexis Smith (The Woman in White) is a force to be reckoned with as Cora Hallett. Scott Jacoby (Bad Ronald) is decent as Mario, Rynn’s only true friend and first lover. Musician and producer Mort Shuman (he wrote “Viva Las Vegas” among other things) appears as the likable Officer Miglioriti, Mario’s kind uncle and the only adult in the film who is nice to Rynn.

The film’s biggest flaw is the static nature of the action. It is almost entirely set inside Rynn’s house and is so heavy on dialogue and light on action that it feels like a stage play adaptation. There are some undeniably ridiculous script elements, though the emphasis on child/teenage independence is interesting. The scant outdoor scenery was beautifully shot by RenĂ© Verzier and it’s impossible to tell that Quebec is actually standing in for New England. This Canadian-French co-production is somewhat of a lost gem; it’s not the finest ‘70s horror film, but it has some solid performances and interesting connections with other films of the period.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is one of several films from the ‘70s that could be classified as horror about troubled youth. The Exorcist, Carrie, Alucarda, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, Alice Sweet Alice, Stranger in Our House, and Don’t Deliver Us from Evil are all centered around troubled female teenagers or girls approaching their teen years. There is something of an obvious influence taken from the earlier play and film The Bad Seed, though The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is really the only movie to examine things from the child killer’s perspective and utterly succeeds because it turned Rynn into a sympathetic, if mysterious character.

Another similar film, Bad Ronald, approached the same subject matter and coincidentally also starred Scott Jacoby as the titular Ronald. Here Ronald is also an accidental murderer and outcast, orphaned when his mother suddenly dies of an illness. The two films deal with similar themes in very different ways; Ronald descends further into his fantasy world, becoming dangerously disturbed. Rynn tries to accept the hard facts of reality and behaves as she believes an adult should, doing whatever is necessary for her survival.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is available on DVD after being hard to find for a number of years. It comes recommended, particularly for fans of subtler films that rely more on mystery (and emotional angst) than on gore or excessive violence. Plus, it’s worth checking out an early, underrated performance from Jodi Foster. 

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