Friday, April 14, 2017

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (Canada, 1976)

"You should see the way the fire lights up your hair. All yellow and gold. [coughing] Such lovely hair."
Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen)

1976 was a busy year for Jodie Foster, at that time a child actress previously known (if at all) primarily for her television work. Alone in that bicentennial year, she flickered across the silver screen in five movies: the forgotten Echoes of Summer (1976 / snore), the perennial kiddy flick Freaky Friday (1976 / trailer), the extremely odd Alan Parker movie Bugsy Malone (1976 / trailer), Martin Scorsese's early classic Taxi Driver (1976 / trailer), and this low-key thriller, a film that Foster herself is known not to particularly like. Much like Alice Sweet Alice (1976 / trailer) two years later, which also sold itself as an "evil kid" flick, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane seemed to be playing in every drive-in theater in the US when it was released.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, however, is not just some updated take on the classic Bad Seed (1956 / trailer) formula. Adapted for the screen by Laird Koenig from his novel of the same name published two years earlier in 1974, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is pretty much anything but a horror thriller about an innately evil and homicidal little girl, despite featuring a pubescent girl that commits homicide. Rather, it is far more a psychological thriller about a young girl forced by those she should be able to trust — adults, be it her deceased father, the landlord or the landlord's adult son — to undertake extreme measures to ensure an independence and lifestyle she knows and wants, and was arguably perhaps even trained (brainwashed?) to desire by her dear, departed daddy. 
Some Background Music as You Read –
Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op 11
 (Piano: Claudio Arrau):
In that sense, the true "monsters" of the movie are the adults (seen and unseen) of the movie, and here we would include her own father: whether one has a child of exceptional intelligence or not — and unquestionably Foster's character Ryan appears to be a kind of rudderless child prodigy — a parent who teaches their child to go over dead bodies to maintain independence is a failed parent, possibly far more so than any alcoholic tart out for an inheritance…
But is he worse, one can't help but wonder, than a manipulative child molester like Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen), who is only interested in finding a new under-age receptacle for his body fluids? (In connection to this, it must be said that it is extremely odd and very 70s that a movie that presents a paedophile as the villain would also include a gratuitous nude scene of a 13-year-old. True, the stand-in for Foster for that scene was her 21-year-old sister, but the scene nevertheless drips of hypocrisy, especially since it could have easily been filmed in such a way that one needn't see that even a supposed 13-year-old can fail the pencil test.)

At the beginning of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, there are already two dead, though we see neither death: Daddy Lester Jacobs has committed suicide, leaving his daughter to fend for herself alone.  She, in turn, only wants to be treated like an adult and live her life as she sees fit — which means alone at home, parentless, and not going to public school — and will go over bodies to do so, a reaction less adult than psychotic, and short-sighted in that she never considers what lies ahead after the buffer (financial and rental) that her father set up is gone. And though she tries hard to maintain the pretence that he is alive, a variety of adults continue to invade her space, including  her manipulative mega-bitch landlord and town mover & shaker Mrs. Hallet (Alexis "Ice Princess" Smith of The Two Mrs. Carrolls [1947 / trailer] and Split Second [1948 / trailer]), who basically forces herself to discover the body of Ryan's greedy-tart mother and, in her panic, causes her own death. A pointed change from the novel: when adapting the screenplay from his own book, Laird Koenig altered the circumstances of Mrs. Hallet's death, the first on-screen, removing it from Ryan's hands and making it an accident, thus ensuring that the young girl remains a bit more sympathetic than she probably would have had she been presented as 100% calculating killer. And somewhere along the way, she does manage to gain one's sympathy — to an extent.

A tightly scripted little thriller with of few characters, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is immensely intriguing but nevertheless skirts the unbelievable more than once. A murderous 13-year-old, in the end, is easy enough to swallow — perhaps even more so now than in 1976 — but the idea that no one in a small town other than the two evil Hallets ever notices that Ryan doesn't go to school doesn't cut it, nor is it easy to believe that Ryan's eventual significant other Mario (Scott Jacoby of Bad Ronald [1974 / trailer]* and Return to Horror High [1987 / trailer]), gimp-legged or not, would: 1) be so willing so quickly to assist her in destroying evidence and hiding bodies, and 2) be such a master at disguise and acting that he could fool a policeman (his own cousin) into believing that he's Ryan's father, Lester. Easier to believe, considering the time of the movie, is that a known pedophile like Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen of Badlands [1973 / trailer], Truth or Consequences, N.M. [1997 / trailer] and Spawn [1997 / trailer]) could, perhaps, remain a free man.
* Ranked #90 in David Hofstede's book What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History, Bad Ronald remains a pleasant memory to all those who saw it as a kid.

Speaking of the policeman, nice guy Officer Miglioriti (the singer, pianist, and songwriter Mort Shuman [12 Nov 1936 — 2 Nov 1991], co-writer of Viva Las Vegas, Sweets for My Sweet, Save The Last Dance For Me and others) is less a real character than a broadly acted joke. Amidst all the low-key characterizations that populate the movie, he comes across totally out of place and seriously rips the viewer out of the film's rhythm whenever he appears. His sitcom-level performance is a glaring and unconvincing contrast to both that of Sheen, who is so oily and disgusting that one could easily believe he isn't acting, and Foster, whose distant, aloof performance catches her character perfectly, right down to when the first cracks appear after letting Mario enter and become part of her hermetic existence.

Occasionally effective, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is less a horror or suspense film than an oddly paced and plotted drama, and while it is interesting viewing, it is hardly imperative. But its open-ended ending is definitely a strength to what is, in the end, an extremely tragic movie. It would seem that no matter what might transpire in the aftermath of the events of the final scene, Ryan is caught in a trap.
Eleven years later co-stars Martin Sheen and Jodie Foster both appeared in Siesta (1987 / trailer), another one of her odder projects.

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