Friday, April 27, 2007
One of the creepiest and most compelling thrillers of the 1970's is THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE from 1976. Directed by Nicolas Gessner and staring 14 year old Jodie Foster in one of her greatest performances, this unique little film started out life as a 1974 novel by the screenwriter Laird Koenig.
THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE is one of those films from my childhood that had a huge impact on me. I first saw it on television when I was probably nine or ten and I still remember how significantly creeped out I was by it. I was also oddly drawn to it and I think a lot of that is due to Jodie Foster. Jodie might be about ten years my senior but I feel like I grew up with her so I have always felt a slightly special connection when watching her performances. As a classic only child I remember specifically seeing her in FREAKY FRIDAY and thinking it might not be a bad thing to have a sister around and Jodie Foster seemed like a pretty good choice.
One thing that makes THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE so unique is that this 14 year old girl totally controls the film. Children in adult themed films are typically there only as characters to play off the leading adult actors. Gessner's film not only centers completely on the young Foster but also puts her in virtually every shot. When other characters are introduced we never leave Foster's point of view. The film would have been a disaster had the wrong actress been chosen. Foster is really astounding in this role, as good as her Oscar nominated performance in TAXI DRIVER the same year. In both films she is asked as a child to place herself in very adult and serious situations, but still at the same time play her age. Foster, even at this young age, was already able to radiate the intelligence and strength she has become so known for. THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE'S Rynn is one of her most overlooked, precise and captivating performances.
Gessner does a very nice job in this film of creating a cloudy atmospheric tension without resorting to shock tactics. He had previously directed the charming and mostly unseen Sharon Tate film 13 CHAIRS in the late sixties and it is a shame that he didn't have more success in his directorial career. THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE remains his signature production.
Koenig has written a dozen or so films but most are pretty unremarkable, with THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE definitely being his smartest and most assured script.
Filmed in Canada, but set in New England, THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE tells the story of a mysterious young girl and her father who have recently moved into a small and judgemental town. Rynn has a secret and she might be alone in the house but is clearly hiding something from the frequent guests, including a creepy pedophile played superbly by Martin Sheen. That is just the main set up, as I don't want to give the story away for people who might not have seen this film. The plot twists aren't too surprising or hard to figure out but the way the film plays out is, with the final shot being a particularly haunting moment.
THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE joins the rank of great Seventies PG horror films and thrillers. It is hard to imagine a time when a film so well made and with such adult themes could manage to get a PG rating, especially these days when the rating feels so compromised and pandering. Slight edits were made to the original American theatrical release including the cutting of some nudity (Jodie Foster's older sister performed as her body double) and a disturbing moment involving a hamster. Thankfully the current MGM dvd that is available is the uncut version.
Christian Gaubert delivered a fine score of the film that was released as a soundtrack but it is very hard to track down and I don't believe it has been released on cd. Chopin's Piano Concerto #1 is also featured in the film but did not appear on the soundtrack. Jodie Foster was especially popular in Japan in the seventies so a track from the soundtrack was released as a 45 and was a minor Japanese hit.
The film was honored with three Saturn award nominations (actor, actress and picture) with Foster and Sheen winning their respective nods.
The film has had an interesting history. Initially only a minor box-office success, it became a cult favorite on video and tv in the eighties but slipped out of print for most of the 90s before MGM re-released it on dvd a year or so ago. Koenig adopted his book later as a play and a gloating Jodie Foster fanzine waxed poetic on every conceivable aspect of the film a few years back.
For kids in the seventies who either saw this at a theater or grew up with it on video THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE remains a special film. Along with HALLOWEEN it was one of the films responsible for getting me obsessed with genre films at a very young age. It is also one of those little jewels from the seventies like LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and THE HAUNTING OF JULIA that begs to be seen by more people. MGM's dvd can be found usually for between five and ten dollars and features a nice uncut widescreen transfer (sadly no special features) and is, like the film, highly recommended.