The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)


(director/writer: Nicolas Gessner; screenwriter: Laird Koenig/from the novel by Laird Koenig; cinematographer: René Verzier; editor: Yves Langlois; music: Christian Gaubert; cast: Jodie Foster (Rynn Jacobs), Martin Sheen (Frank Hallet), Alexis Smith (Mrs. Hallet), Mort Shuman (Miglioriti), Scott Jacoby (Mario), Dorothy Davis (Town Hall Clerk), Mary Morter (Teller), Clesson Goodhue (Bank Manager); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Zev Braun; Vestron Video; 1976-Canada/France/USA)
“A creepy atmospheric shocker oddity that’s engrossing and suspenseful.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A creepy atmospheric shocker oddity that’s engrossing and suspenseful. It was made on the cheap by American International Pictures (AIP), and filmed in Canada. It stands out as an excellently scripted original psychological thriller, and stars a 14-year-old Jodie Foster beautifully playing a 13-year-old waif. This was another showcase vehicle for Jodie, who in the same year previously made a splash in Taxi Driver (she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Freaky Friday. Hungarian-born filmmaker Nicolas Gessner (“Someone Behind the Door”/”12 + 1″/”It Rained All Night the Day I Left”) directs it as if it were a stage play without much visual cinematic imagination and Laird Koenig pens it from his own 1974 novel.

The film is set in a small New England coastal town, where the precocious 13-year-old Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster) lives alone in a stately old cottage on the edge of town her celebrated English poet father leased for three years (paying in advance) and when he discovered he had cancer he committed suicide without letting the authorities discover his body. Dad wrote her a letter urging her to try going it alone rather than getting involved with institutions like orphanages and schools that have little respect for the rights of children, and left her traveler’s check in a joint account that should last her three years. The bright girl was home schooled by her dad and is partial to Emily Dickinson, Chopin, studying Hebrew to preserve her cultural heritage and her pet hamster.

On Halloween Rynn’s celebrating a birthday alone when visited by the pervert child-molester Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen), who comes Trick or Treating with his kids and makes a pest of himself by asking where is her dad and then coming onto her. Situations she adroitly handles by telling him her father cannot be disturbed because he’s working in the study and rebuffing his advances with her superior vocabulary. Frank’s the married son of her real estate agent landlady Mrs. Hallet (Alexis Smith), who uses her pull to keep him out of jail. The cruel Mrs. Hallet visits Rynn the next day to snoop around and borrow mason jars kept in the crawlspace cellar in the kitchen. Rynn refuses to let the overbearing landlady push her around and tells her she can pick up the jars another day. When called by Rynn, Mrs. Hallet drives by in her Bentley and spouts off some coarse anti-Semitic generalizations intended to offend the Jewish girl (such as telling her you’re “Thirteen and brilliant, as so many of your people are”) and then the pushy WASPish woman insists in going down to the cellar despite being told she can’t. When in the cellar, she notices a corpse and shrieks as the cellar door slams shut on her head and she’s killed.

Luckily for Rynn she accidentally meets the town’s other misfit, an Italian boy named Mario (Scott Jacoby), who is an amateur magician going past her house by bike dressed in a costume to perform for a birthday party. He agrees to take Mrs. Hallet’s car back to her residence and they soon act as grownups and play bedroom games, as the crippled high school student (who was stricken by polio) falls madly in love with her–even helping her bury the two bodies when she confesses to her misdeeds. The other body turns out to be Rynn’s estranged mother, who came there uninvited when slyly obtaining the address from hubby’s London publisher and annoyed Rynn so much with her snooping that she was given poisoned tea.

Also popping around the house asking for her father is the suspicious but kindly policeman Miglioriti (Mort Shuman), Mario’s uncle. There is also a few creepy return visits by the lecherous Frank, suspicious about his mom’s disappearance and why he never sees her father, which bring about some deadly cat-and-mouse games.

Despite its absurd story line of a serial killer child living home alone that is hard to take seriously and its story being so amorally disturbing that it can’t be justified in rational terms, it nevertheless rather sanely and astutely argues for children’s rights and their desire to be treated fairly and with respect. The cop is the only adult in the film that does so and even though he doesn’t understand poetry and doesn’t like it the way the phony Mrs. Hallet professes to, at least his feelings are genuine and respectful of others and he’s thereby respected in turn by Rynn.

Jodie reportedly never cared much for the film because they made her do a brief nude scene, which was actually done by her older sister Connie.


REVIEWED ON 12/28/2008 GRADE: B+