Nineteen Seventy-six was a banner year for Jodie Foster. Already a bona-fide television child star, the fourteen-year-old made the jump to the silver screen in a big way, with not only her Oscar-nominated turn in Taxi Driver, but with starring roles in the family films Bugsy Malone and Freaky Friday. Those projects alone probably made her the hardest working kid in Hollywood, but she also showed off her versatility in a creepy little horror mystery called The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is Rynn Jacobs (Foster), a tomboy who is celebrating her birthday alone in the house that her father and she rent in a small New England town. It happens to also be Halloween, and the landlady’s son, Frank Hallet (Apocalypse Now’s Martin Sheen) stops by the house ahead of his stepchildren who are trick-or-treating. Frank invites himself into the house and learns that Rynn just moved to town from England with her father, a poet. Frank makes inappropriate advances towards Rhynn, but his kids arrive before things get too out of hand. The next day, Mrs. Hallet (Alexis Smith from Night and Day), the landlady, pays a visit to Rynn and proves just as intrusive as her son, complaining about the furniture layout and pestering Rynn about why she isn’t in school. Rynn gets rid of her, but she comes back soon to get a box of jelly glasses that are stored at the house. While down in the cellar, she sees something that frightens her and she hits her head on the door, killing her instantly. While trying to move Mrs. Hallet’s car to cover up her death, Rynn meets a young crippled amateur magician named Mario (Scott Jacoby from “Bad Ronald”), and she seems to have found an ally in trying to preserve her fiercely independent lifestyle. The two of them try to find a way to keep Mrs. Hallet’s death a secret from Frank and the police but, between Rynn’s phantom father and the contents of the cellar, Mario learns that Rynn has a few more secrets of her own.
The screenplay for The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was written by Laird Koenig (Red Sun), adapted from his novel of the same name. Koenig also adapted his book into a play, and the film has a definite staged vibe to it. Director Nicolas Gessner (Someone Behind the Door) treats the script with a simplicity that is calculating and methodical, resulting in a film that is somewhere between an Afterschool Special and Psycho.
Two of the more fascinating things about The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane are the Hallets, both Mrs. Hallet and her son. Mrs. Hallet is a nightmare of a landlady, picking apples from the yard and walking in without knocking as if she lives in the house herself. When confronted with Rynn’s disrespect, Mrs. Hallet is infuriated, but Rynn’s behavior is simply a reflection of Mrs. Hallet’s lack of courtesy. Mrs. Hallet comes off as such a shrew that her death actually comes with a bit of delight from the viewer. Meanwhile, Frank is the prototypical pedophile, prompting Rynn to receive warnings from a policeman and Mrs. Hallet herself. He’s also got a sadistic streak in him, as evidenced by a scene where he takes his frustrations out on Rynn’s pet hamster with a lit cigarette. For as creepy of a kid that Rynn seems to be, the Hallets are creepier, and there is no doubt as to who the real antagonists are in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.
Because The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is so theatrical, the effectiveness of the film falls squarely on the cast. Luckily, the cast seems to be up for the challenge. Jodie Foster is expectedly great as the self-preserving heroine. Martin Sheen is utterly horrifying in his role as Frank, playing up the sleazy slimeball factor and making the viewer squirm by not giving Frank a single redeeming quality. Alexis Smith’s Mrs. Hallet is suitably bitchy and Scott Jacoby’s Mario is a good sidekick, and the whole cast works as well independently as they do in an ensemble. With the absence of any major visual effects, it’s the acting in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is what really sells the film.
Of course, by today’s standards, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane looks dated. The costumes and hairstyles look precisely like they came from 1976, and the awesome disco-funk soundtrack by Christian Gaubert (Dark Eyes) re-emphasizes the time period. Even the T.V. movie-of-the-week production values tip the audience to the fact that it was made in the seventies. Still, even with the era snapshot, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane stands the test of time by being well written and exploring themes of female independence and table-turning that would continue to show up for years in films like Hard Candy and I Spit on Your Grave.
As talented of a young actress as Jodie Foster was, she would only get better, going on to popular and critical acclaim in The Silence of the Lambs and The Accused. However, when skimming through her breakout year of 1976, it is best to not forget one of her scariest films, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.