powered by AFI
In the atmospheric and creepy shocker, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976), Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster) is a precocious 13-year-old girl whose poet father has died, leaving her to carry on alone in their isolated seaside house where she reads Emily Dickinson and listens to Chopin.
Fearful that her father's death will result in an unwanted guardianship, Rynn pretends that her father is still alive, telling the kindly local policeman Miglioriti (Mort Shuman) and her cruel landlady Mrs. Hallet (Alexis Smith) that her father is working, or away on business whenever they stop by. But Rynn's secret is most threatened by the lecherous landlady's adult son Frank (Martin Sheen), who has sexual designs on young Rynn.
The one person Rynn is able to confide her secret to is an equally eccentric local boy, the precocious Mario (Scott Jacoby), who even comes to her aid when the anti-Semitic Mrs. Hallet and her son start snooping into Rynn's home life.
This Canadian-French co-production, which was shot in Canada and directed by Hungarian-born director Nicolas Gessner features a chilling, unsettling portrait of American small-town life defined by snobbery, casual racism and the money and influence that allows people like Mrs. Hallet to keep her pedophile son out of jail.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane has an unusual theme, personified by Rynn, about the free will of children and their desire to be treated fairly and with respect. Some of the adults, like Miglioriti, do treat Rynn well; he proves his proximity toward Rynn's point of view early on when he tells her, "People can seem cold at first. But when you've been here awhile they'll seem even colder."
But most adults, from the bank teller who questions Rynn's rights as a child to withdraw money from the bank to Mrs. Hallet, who bullies and intimidates Rynn, try to wrest control away from the teenager.
In a 1977 Variety review, the trade paper called the film "farfetched nonsense" and Time was no less critical in its observation, "the picture looks as if it had been shot on location over a long weekend. It is the kind of quickie in which the sun can be seen shining brightly beyond the perimeter of the rain machine."
But despite a number of critical pans, many who saw the film on its original release or since have been unable to shake the film's creepy effect and compelling themes.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane's cult status has been affirmed, for one, by inclusion in Danny Peary's Guide for the Film Fanatic which calls it an "uncomfortable but interesting" film despite the fact that a "preposterous story line overwhelms its unique 'child liberation' theme."
The film did received two Saturn Awards from the American Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, as Best Horror Film and for Jodie Foster as Best Actress.
Though more appropriately called a psychological thriller, original poster art for The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane played up its horror film dimension, with a silhouette of a little girl in the foreground flanked by a shovel and discarded teddy bear, a gothic Psycho (1960) mansion in the background. The poster offers the tease, "Where is her mother? Where is her father? Where are all the people who went to visit her? What is her unspeakable secret?...Everyone who knows is dead."
One of the film's undeniable appeals is its many memorable performances including Sheen's eerie turn as a child molester, a character whose slick knowingness contrasts with Sheen's unsavvy, murderous juvenile delinquent in Badlands (1973). Also notable is Seventies television actor Scott Jacoby as Mario, a children's birthday party magician in his spare time with a distinct limp from childhood polio. Like Rynn, Mario has an ax to grind with the local small town aristocracy as the paid entertainment at rich children's birthdays. His Italian heritage and limp set Mario apart from the clannish locals as much as Rynn.
Mort Shuman, who plays Mario's uncle, is best known, not as an actor, but as a songwriter and film composer. He was also a music supervisor for The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.
With Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) under her belt, (for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination) Foster's always compelling precocity served her well, yet again, in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Roles in Scorsese's1974 Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and the kiddy mob picture Bugsy Malone (1976) proved the range and unique talent of an actress who had been performing since her debut at age three in a Coppertone suntan lotion commercial. Though cut from the American version to earn it a PG rating, the international version of the film featured a fleeting nude scene in which Rynn is seen naked as she prepares to go to bed with Mario. The nude scene was played by Foster's older sister, Connie, who had also stood-in for Jodie's more explicit scenes in Taxi Driver.
Writing in The New York Times, critic Janet Maslin, who singled out Jacoby and the chemistry between him and Foster for praise, acknowledged that in a film career thus far defined by precociousness, "even though she's cast as a murderess, Jodie Foster comes her closest yet to playing a normal kid."
Time magazine's Christopher Porterfield called Foster "the new waif," and said of the actress's undeniable next generation appeal, "other generations had Shirley Temple and Natalie Wood for their child stars. We have Tatum O'Neal and Jodie Fosterprecocious hoydens who are made not of sugar and spice but of nicotine stains and wisecracks."
Director: Nicolas Gessner
Producer: Zev Braun
Screenplay: Laird Koenig from his novel
Cinematography: Ren Verzier
Production Design: Robert Prevost
Music: Christian Gaubert
Cast: Jodie Foster (Rynn Jacobs), Martin Sheen (Frank Hallet), Alexis Smith (Mrs. Hallet), Mort Shuman (Miglioriti), Scott Jacoby (Mario).
by Felicia Feaster