Retro review–Jodie Foster’s dark and moody horror tale, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, is a fall classic

Review by C.J. Bunce

In her most prolific year–at age 13–actress Jodie Foster made five movies, including two big hits, the Disney comedy Freaky Friday, and Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver.  Along with two forgotten films, Alan Parker’s kid musical Bugsy Malone and the Richard Harris drama Echoes of a Summer, the fifth Foster film from 1976 debuted.  Sometimes in horror, a little creepy goes a long way.  And it’s a good thing.  That’s the case with Hungarian director Nicholas Gessner′s The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.  I was about Foster’s age when I first saw this movie and the movie holds its own 43 years later–that same sense of confusion, not knowing where the story was going–that dread–coupled with a moody seaside New England setting on Halloween nets that feeling that autumn has at last arrived and it’s time to prepare again for the movies of the season.

As with the similarly paced and similarly brilliant The Watcher in the Woods (released four years later), Gessner’s film deftly juxtaposes sinister secrets against a pastoral town we all think we’d like to visit.  Foster is Rynn Jacobs, a 13-year-old girl who is living alone in Wells Harbor, Maine, when we meet her.  She dodges a 30-something pervert played by Martin Sheen, who keeps coming by her house, well aware she’s usually home alone.  His mother, played by Alexis Smith (The Age of Innocence, Dallas, The Woman in White), is a hateful woman who claims to be leasing the home to Rynn’s father, and enters the house without warning, moving furniture and Rynn’s belongings and riling young Rynn.  The woman is a snoop, and she seems to make more than an ordinary effort to try to meet the man of the house.  Rynn’s story of being alone changes a bit depending on who stops by, sometimes her father is upstairs asleep, sometimes he’s locked himself in his den working, other times he’s meeting with his publisher in New York.  Rynn befriends a local police officer along the way, who is also suspicious of the local pervert prowling around.  She’s kept up some kind of secret for at least three months now, but it’s becoming clear her world is about to spiral in on her.

Where are her parents?  She only divulges the truth when she meets a boy who rides by on a bicycle.  Played by Scott Jacoby (Return to Horror High, To Die For) Mario is a slightly older boy, ostracized for his limp, and a different kind of loner than Rynn.  The dread looms heavy.  What does Rynn have in store for another person wandering into her life?

Based on the novel by Laird Koenig, with a screenplay by the author, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane keeps you guessing, even making you watch to the last flicker of film as the fire burns down and Rynn stares ahead through an entire series of end credits.  It was PG when released and does have some language, some bloody scares, and violence to a hamster.  It also dabbles at points with being a coming of age story for its lead, a strange pairing of a girl who gets to be “home alone” and run her own life without parental interference, and serves as a dark mirror to Foster’s Freaky Friday role that year where she was a teenager switching places with her mother.

Christian Gaubert′s quiet score is perfect for the picture, and he smartly incorporates Concerto pour piano No. 1 en mi mineur op. 11 by Frédéric Chopin, playing on a record player in a key scene.

Foster proved she had all the thespian nuance early in her career (that would get her an Oscar one day) as the lead of a suspenseful, creepy tale about a quiet, resourceful little girl living alone in a quiet little town.  And you’ve probably never seen Martin Sheen play a character so vile.  The film may also belong on our ever-growing list of movies about creepy little girls.

“This tea tastes like almonds.” 

“It must be the almond cookies.”

The director himself said the film wasn’t horror at all, but a “teenage love story.”  Today you may even see feminist undertones, or find Rynn as another rebel with a cause.  The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is available on Blu-ray here at Amazon, and your best bet may be setting your DVR to catch the next recording from your TV service provider as it airs on cable from time to time.  Catch it when you can, it’s a great seasonal suspense movie for those who prefer suspense, psychologocial thrillers, and mysteries over slasher flicks, and it’s not one you’ll want to miss.


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