By Scott Dorward
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (USA, 1976)
“How old do you have to be before people start treating you like a person?”
I was in two minds about including The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane in my line-up for this year. While it’s a film I’ve been meaning to catch up with for a very long time, I wasn’t sure it was enough of a horror film to qualify. I’ve already reviewed a couple of edge cases — Possessor and Cold Hell — and it seemed I should throw in some more unambiguous horror. While the original marketing campaign for the film played up its horror aspects, Laird Koenig, the writer, stated that he always saw it as more of a romance. We’ll get to why this may just make it more creepy.
It is Halloween. Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster) purportedly lives with her father, a poet, in a nice house in a seaside community in Maine. As the film opens, she is celebrating her 13th birthday alone when Frank Hallett (Martin Sheen) barges his way into her home. He is the adult son of Jacobs’ landlady, notorious in the town for his sexual interest in children, and wastes no time in making advances towards Rynn. Frank’s own children arrive, trick-or-treating, interrupting him before he has a chance to do more than upset Rynn.
Over the course of the next few days, Rynn is visited multiple times by Cora Hallett (Alexis Smith), Frank’s mother, who wants some jelly jars from the basement. When Rynn tries to put her off going down there, the two argue. Cora demands to speak to Rynn’s father and Rynn offers a series of excuses about why this isn’t possible. The situation is decisively resolved by a violent accident.
As she attempts to deal with the fallout of this, Rynn is befriended by a local teen, Mario (Scott Jacoby), who becomes her confidant, her accomplice and, eventually, her lover. The situation spirals out of control as the police take an interest and Frank starts to realise just how vulnerable Rynn is. And no matter how insistent everyone is, Rynn’s father never seems to be available….
It’s easy to see why Jodie Foster became such a huge a star. While she was the same age as her character, her performance is the bedrock of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. When she performs opposite much more experienced adult actors, she more than holds her own. She is so self-assured that it becomes easy to forget she is a child. And this is also a problem.
For a film that is not specifically horror, this is a weird, creepy piece of work, and not always for the reasons intended. Rynn is presented as intelligent and exceptionally mature for a 13-year-old. While this helps her navigate the adult world on her own, it doesn’t actually make her an adult. So having her become romantically and sexually involved with a boy of 19 makes for uncomfortable viewing.
What makes it all the more uncomfortable is that it’s portrayed as perfectly normal. We rightly recoil when Frank makes predatory advances towards Rynn, but we are expected to accept her relationship with Jacob. This is compounded by the bizarre decision to show Rynn disrobing and getting into bed with Jacob (mercifully using Foster’s adult sister as a body double). While the mores of the 1970s were very different, this was a bizarre choice even for the time. It’s easy to see why the scene was cut from many releases.
On the other hand, some of the more horrific elements of the book were toned down for the film. In the novel, Rynn is more of a deliberate killer, rather than the comparatively innocent character we see here. While this might make her more sympathetic, the improbable nature of the accident at the centre of the film calls for some serious suspension of disbelief.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is both an excellent film and a difficult one. The story is tense and gripping, and the performances superb. For anyone who knows Martin Sheen through his avuncular turn in The West Wing, seeing him so perfectly portray a cocky, glib sex predator is likely to be shocking. The portrayal of Rynn is likely to be more discomforting, however. While The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is far from explicit or gory, it crosses lines that modern films would not.
As strong as the other aspects are, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane isn’t the most visually exciting of films. The novel was originally adapted for the stage, but never performed there. The film shows its roots in its very stagey setting. Almost every scene takes place in a single room. A few move outdoors, but this is mostly an enclosed, almost claustrophobic film. This does at least help build tension.
Overall, I recommend The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane highly, but with caveats. It is a creepy film both for the right and wrong reasons, but I believe its merits win out. And while its inclusion in a month of horror may be debatable, I would argue that it is close enough to count. If nothing else, it is likely to be a refreshing change of pace.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!