29 November 2014


(1976)

It's a well-known cliché that successful child actors often experience incredible difficulties in sustaining their screen careers into adulthood.

There have been a few notable exceptions to the rule - among them Elizabeth Taylor and friend Roddy McDowall, Natalie Wood, Ron Howard and Patty Duke. And then of course there's Jodie Foster.

Foster was fourteen years old at the time she filmed The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. But she was already a veteran, having worked in a variety of commercials and TV programs since the age of three.

1976 would be a busy year for the young actress. Besides Little Girl, the future two-time Academy Award winner would appear in no less than five features, including the Walt Disney family comedy Freaky Friday, the kid-populated Bugsy Malone, and the lesser known drama Echoes of Summer.

But most importantly from a critical perspective, there was Martin Scorsese's dark Taxi Driver. Foster received her first Oscar nomination for her role as tough, self-assured teen prostitute Iris, a character she plays to perfection and succeeds in making all her own.

To round out a year of frothy comedies, weepy dramas and one gritty-as-hell crime actioner, Foster turned to an understated, moody little thriller.

Directed by Nicholas Gessner, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was written by Laird Koenig and is based on his 1974 novel of the same name.

Rynn Jacobs (Foster) is a peculiar and solitary thirteen year old who lives with her dad Lester and a pet hamster named Gordon. On this Halloween night in a small Maine town, she celebrates her birthday by herself…complete with cake and candles. There is a knock at the door. Rynn lights a cigarette using a candle.

Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen) introduces himself and says he is a friend of her father’s. But Rynn isn’t interested. “Can I tell my father what you want?” she asks impatiently.

Frank informs Rynn he is in the neighborhood with his kids and is taking them trick-or-treating.

“I’m just going along to make sure there aren’t any real goblins hanging around. Like dirty old men who try to give pretty little girls some candy,” he tells her.

Without an invitation, Frank enters the Jacobs' home, traipsing mud onto the floor. The young girl notices this but doesn't say anything.

Rynn has just returned from England. Her mom is dead, she tells Frank, and her father is working in the study. Frank has heard about Rynn’s dad and is aware that he is a published poet who "smokes French cigarettes." Frank's mother is the real estate agent who leased the house to Rynn - and she's filled her son in on all the details about the Jacobs.

Rynn is not in the mood for such unwelcome company. But she is polite - and cuts two pieces of cake for Frank’s kids. Yet Frank has something else on his mind. After asking to see Mr. Jacobs to no avail, he makes several inappropriate advances towards Rynn before leaving hastily. On the porch, he gives the cake to his two costumed children.

Shortly after, Frank waits near the Jacobs home…the passenger door of his car opened as Rynn walks by. She ignores him and heads to the bank to make a withdrawal from a joint account she shares with the elder Jacobs. The bank tellers are suspicious of Rynn because of her age...but she is allowed to convert some traveler's checks into cash.

When Rynn returns home, Cora Hallet (Alexis Smith) pays a visit and is as pushy as her son. She notices everything that has been moved around in the furnished home and comments on it. She even demands to know where a few pieces came from and puts certain items back in their original places.

“We don’t see much of you two in the village, even at the market,” Mrs. Hallet tells Rynn.

It’s just small talk, for the landlady is there for a reason besides socializing. She wants to collect a box of Mason jars to preserve jelly she's made from grapes taken off the rental property. And the jars are stored in the cellar.

But Rynn won’t hear of it and doesn’t let Mrs. Hallet anywhere near the basement. In response to a question about Mr. Jacobs’ whereabouts, she tells Mrs. Hallet that he is in New York. The older woman, nosy parker that she is, observes that the 13-year old is learning Hebrew from a record album set up nearby, and is also doing adult crossword puzzles.

Mrs. Hallet is inquisitive about her son’s visit to the house on Halloween a few days earlier. Rynn claims he has not been back since - but Mrs. Hallet gives the girl a warning: “If my son should come back and your father isn’t here…it might be better if you didn’t let him in.”

The subject returns to the jelly glasses and the talk gets heated. The fact that Rynn doesn’t attend public school prompts Mrs. Hallet (a school board member) to tell the young teen that she is going to bring the subject up at the next meeting on Monday.

Rynn is incensed at the fact that this virtual stranger has the nerve to try and tell her what to do. Besides, she has come onto the property and collected grapes and crab apples without permission. After all, Rynn yells, it is HER HOUSE. Mrs. Hallet reminds the girl that the home is leased and leaves in a huff without the jelly glasses. Gordon the hamster is given time outside of his cage to be with his owner.

Rynn takes a bus to Town Hall and reads Emily Dickinson along the way. She finds out that the next school board meeting is in fact the *following* week. “You’re a liar, Mrs. Hallet,” she says to herself.

Frank sees Rynn and offers to drive her home. Naturally, Rynn turns him down but tells Frank that his mother is welcome to pick up the jars...and that her father wants to speak with her.

At the same time, police officer Ron Miglioriti (Mort Shuman) pulls up and Rynn accepts a ride to her house. She relates to the friendly Italian cop, who also seems a bit out of place in the quaint WASP village – and Rynn offers him tea. Officer Miglioriti wishes to meet Mr. Jacobs but again Rynn fails to produce him. This time, she says he is busy translating Russian and cannot be disturbed.

During his brief visit, Miglioriti seems to acknowledge that Frank Hallet is the town pervert. Before he leaves, he persuades Rynn to purchase two raffle tickets for the chance at a Thanksgiving turkey prize.

Cora Hallet is back. She once again fibs by telling Rynn that she brought up the girl’s case at a board meeting that morning. Rynn doesn’t even bother to challenge her. She tries to apologize for her behavior the day before but Mrs. Hallet isn’t buying it. (Incidentally, she sprinkles her conversations with vaguely racist remarks towards Italians and Jews.)

What the landlady wants is to get rid of Rynn and her father, even though they signed a three-year lease. To counter her, Rynn threatens to tell her father about the advance her son made towards her on Halloween. Mrs. Hallet smacks Rynn and before things get even more heated, she grabs the box of jelly glasses and heads towards the door.

But something stops her in her tracks. The glasses are missing their rubber seals - which are in the cellar. Despite Rynn’s protests, Mrs. Hallet opens the cellar door and proceeds down the stairs. Suddenly, a loud scream is heard and as she attempts to come back up, the door hits her on the head.

Rynn waits several moments before checking to see what happened. She finds Mrs. Hallet’s dead body, blood gushing from her head…killed by the blunt trauma of the door.

Mrs. Hallet’s car is parked outside. What to do now? Rynn finds the keys on the deceased and tries to start the engine. Just then, a crippled boy riding a bicycle appears. Mario (Scott Jacoby) walks with a limp and is wearing a magician’s outfit…he’s on his way to perform a show at a rich kid’s party.

He knows exactly whom the car belongs to, since his father owns a service station and has worked on the Bentley. Rynn is evasive about what it is doing there and offers Mario five bucks to drive it to the bus depot and leave it there.

Mario needs to get to his gig and hints that he may return. He does – and he even gets rid of the car by leaving it outside of Mrs. Hallet’s office. Together, the two youngsters bond over Rynn’s home cooked meal and a bottle of wine. Mario, who comes from a large family, can’t fathom the idea of someone like Rynn not having any brothers or sisters.

Their fun is interrupted by a visit from Office Miglioriti, who happens to be Mario’s uncle. Miglioriti is bemused by the romantic setting but he is there for a reason: Frank has reported his mother missing and has told the authorities she was on her way to the Jacobs home to pick up the jelly glasses.

Rynn pretends that the woman was never there. It is clear that there is no love lost between the officer’s family and the Hallets. In fact, Mario tells Rynn that his uncle tried to bust Frank for dragging a little girl into the bushes but was unsuccessful. “All Hallet’s mother did was marry the creep off to some cocktail waitress with two kids – to prove he was normal,” he says.

Officer Miglioriti expresses concern that Frank may show up there and after he departs…it is exactly what happens. This time, Frank’s frustration pushes him to be malevolent, particularly after he discovers Mario’s presence. He cruelly kills Rynn’s pet hamster with a lit cigarette and tosses the poor creature into the fireplace.

And he taunts Mario’s physical condition and heritage. As Frank tries to toss the “wop” (his word) out of the house, Mario turns the tables and threatens him with a trick sword from his cane. “You know, if I stick this in your guts, all the cops will do is thank me,” he tells him.

With Frank gone, it is clear to Mario that something sinister has happened in the house...particularly after he finds Mrs. Hallet's hidden umbrella. Rynn decides to bear her secrets to the one person she trusts. She takes Mario down to the cellar, where he sees for himself the two bodies she is storing: Mrs. Hallet and her own mother.

Rynn’s father had found out he was dying while in England. He returned to the States with his daughter and planned to die with two wishes: that Rynn never let her estranged mother back into her life and that she raise herself, alone in the house (for which the next three years are paid off) and on traveler’s checks kept in a safe deposit box at the bank.

Lester Jacobs did pass on, with evidence suggesting to Rynn that he drowned himself in the ocean. And Rynn’s mother showed up alright - but her daughter was ready with some white powder that her dad left her. She was to put the “sedative” in her mother’s tea to make her “less aggressive.” When the substance killed her, Rynn found out that it was potassium cyanide. With some research at the library, she learned how to preserve her mother’s body in the cellar.

All of this information is startling to Mario but his affection for Rynn helps him overcome his initial apprehension. Together, they throw the keys to Mrs. Hallet’s car into the sea and bury the two bodies in the backyard.

The latter occurs during a thunderstorm and Mario starts to develop a cough. Rynn does her best to comfort him.

Meanwhile, Officer Miglioriti pays his customary visit one evening and tells Rynn that he doubts the existence of her father. Suddenly, an elderly man appears at the top of the stairs and speaks briefly with the cop. It is Mario in disguise – but the ruse works. Satisfied, his uncle leaves and the couple spend a tender moment in bed.

Unfortunately, Mario soon develops pneumonia requiring hospitalization. Rynn rushes to see him and although he was saved by the antibiotics, he is unresponsive.

Rynn returns to her house but is awakened by an unwelcome intruder. Frank has been hiding in the cellar and confronts her with a hairpin belonging to his mother – and a broken red fingernail from her own mom.

Although he doesn’t know the exact details, some kind of foul play is clear and Frank hopes to use the opportunity to blackmail Rynn into sleeping with him. The plan is thwarted when Rynn poisons him with the cyanide and her tormentor falls dead in front of her.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane won two Saturn Awards from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films (Best Horror Film, Best Actress).

Jodie Foster’s poignant portrayal of Rynn is somewhat cold and detached, an entirely appropriate choice for the part. She has said that she is not particularly fond of the movie and didn’t want to do it at the time.

Was the actress unable to hide her unhappiness? She balked at doing the nude scene, so older sister Connie filled in. In addition, Foster had a difficult time with the hamster sequence. It’s been said the rodent used was already dead, although that is a specious argument for animal lovers.

Whatever the motivation might have been, it works. Foster’s astonishing maturity is well beyond her years. Proof is in that memorable final shot – a three-minute plus close-up on her face as she watches Frank die. And the credits roll.

Is Little Girl a horror film? A thriller? If it weren’t for the truly Gothic “dead bodies in the cellar” subplot, it could very well be a serious psychological drama. Nevertheless, there’s an indelible mark of sadness unusual for this kind of picture. The character of Rynn is entirely sympathetic; that's perhaps a result of the fact that the only person killed (intentionally) is Frank. And the audience doesn’t exactly shed a tear over his loss.

Often, Little Girl seems to be a plea to let the marginalized live their lives as they see fit, to be a defense for those who are misfits, a bill of rights for those who are non-conformists. Why won’t Mrs. Hallet just leave Rynn alone?

Foster, who showed promise at such an early age, would of course go on to a long and stellar career. She has won two Oscars for lead performances, a testament to the admiration within the industry for her talent and resilience.

The first was for The Accused (1988), a drama about the real life gang rape of Cheryl Araujo in Massachusetts in 1983. And her second Academy Award? For her confident portrayal of Thomas Harris' Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), one of only a handful of horror films from the 1990s with any merit.

The rest of the cast in Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is uniformly excellent and a few are worthy of mention. Martin Sheen is terrific as Frank, a fine example in a long line of creeps he played during this period. And Scott Jacoby is charming as Mario. The young actor had his own portrait of isolation as the title character in the excellent Made-for-Television Bad Ronald (1974) co-starring Kim Hunter.

As an interesting side note: Jacoby won much critical acclaim - and an Emmy - for his part in the 1972 TV drama That Certain Summer. Jacoby played the son of a gay father (Hal Holbrook) who discovers that his dad has been involved with another man…portrayed by none other than Martin Sheen.

Alexis Smith had been a screen star in the '40s and her Cora Hallet is an imposing and stalwart figure. With almost military-like precision, she sees herself as the lone defender of the town’s old-fashioned mores and values. Yet her nasty penchant for keeping “foreigners” out of the village undermines her authority. In the end, Mrs. Hallet is almost as scary as her deviant son.

Christian Gaubert’s original score - with a little help from Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 - adds immeasurably to the feeling of melancholy in Little Girl. Mort Shuman (Officer Miglioriti), an occasional actor and known mostly as a composer, serves here as the music supervisor.

René Verzier’s cinematography nicely showcases the gorgeous northeast autumnal setting, while Nicholas Gessner’s direction is deft and polished. The movie was filmed in Québec, Canada and the substitute for New England is barely noticeable - if at all.


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