Friday 12 April 2024

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

I’m not quite sure what I expected from The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. I guess I expected an evil child horror movie, and while it is a horror movie of sorts it’s not really that sort of horror movie. It’s also a thriller of sorts, with some interesting quirky touches. It’s one of those really interesting movies Jodie Foster made early in her career.

This was a Canadian-French co-production.

Jodie Foster plays Rynn Jacobs, a thirteen-year-old girl who lives in a house in a seaside village (and Foster was thirteen when she made this film). Rynn lives there with her father. They’ve been there for a few months.

It doesn’t take us long to suspect that in fact she lives alone. Wherever her father might be he certainly doesn’t live in this house in Maine.

Rynn’s life is about to get complicated. The first complication is Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen). He’s the son of the woman from whom Rynn’s father leased the house. Frank is a nasty piece of work in a lot of ways but the big problem is that he is much too interested in Rynn. He’s the sort of guy who is much too interested in young girls in general. The police know all about him but his mother, Cora Hallet (Alexis Smith), wields a lot of power in the village so they can’t touch him. Rynn isn’t stupid. She knows the sort of man he is but dealing with him could be difficult.

Rynn’s second problem is Cora Hallet. Cora is nasty, vindictive, meddling and officious. She enjoys pushing people around. She intends to push Rynn around. Rynn intends to push right back.

Then something happens that makes Rynn’s situation really awkward. Fortunately she finds an ally. Mario Podesta (Scott Jacoby) is a young man with whom Rynn has a lot in common. They’re both eccentric, they’re both outsiders. Mario has a bad leg. He’s also a magician. Stage magic is his way of dealing with being an outsider - if people think you’re weird you might as well be really weird. But Mario is a nice guy.

We eventually find out a bit more about Rynn but it’s important for the viewer to find out about her gradually as the story unfolds so all I will say is that she has constructed a life for herself, an unconventional life that suits her, and the security of that life faces major threats.

She also has some growing up to do, and her circumstances require her to grow up fast.

There are lots of plot twists and I have no intention of offering any hints about them.

Director Nicolas Gessner did not see this as a horror film but as a love story. It is a love story, but it’s a psychological thriller with horror overtones as well.

All the performances are good. Martin Sheen is extraordinarily creepy and menacing. But the movie belongs to Jodie Foster. She got top billing, and deservedly so. While Taxi Driver might be better known it’s The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane that gave her her best role of the 70s, and one of the two or three best rôles of her career. Her star quality is very much in evidence. She underplays, which is exactly the right choice.

I don’t know much about Nicolas Gessner but this seems to be the standout movie of his career and it’s a movie he desperately wanted to make. Laird Koenig originally wrote the story as a stage play, then turned it into a novel and then wrote the screenplay.

Insofar as it can be considered a horror movie it’s the sort of horror I enjoy - it relies on suggestion and atmosphere rather than gore. As a psychological thriller it’s a slow-burner, which I also like. As a romance it’s powerful and effective, and touching.

There is a scene in the movie which upsets some people, given Rynn’s age, but it’s absolutely crucial and could not have been cut or toned down without making nonsense of the movie.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
defies easy genre classification but it has an offbeat charm and considering that the director wasn’t trying to make a horror film it has some horror moments that pack quite a punch without ever resorting to gallons of fake blood. A superbly crafted movie which is now firmly established as one of my two favourite Jodie Foster movies (the other being Carny). Very highly recommended.

The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray looks great and includes a stimulating audio commentary by the director. Gessner has very strong ideas about how movies should be made. He was clearly in awe of Jodie’s Foster talent as an actress. There’s also an interview with Martin Sheen.

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