Nicolas Gessner’s 1976 film The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane has finally come to Shudder, enchanting and entertaining fresh audiences with yet another strong early performance from Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen. Foster plays Rynn Jacobs, a remarkably intelligent child who lives on the edge of town in a huge house with (apparently) her parents, although they remain unseen, creating ambiguity as to whether they are actually there or not. The story is based on a book by Laird Koenig’s 1974 novel of the same name (keen to check it out), and the film brought Shirley Jackson’s novels to mind, particularly We Have Always Lived in the Castle, particularly the invasive threat of the townsfolk (from nosy landladies to pedophiles) as well as the ambiguous agenda of the protagonist (Merricat and Rynn). As with most of her early roles, including Taxi Driver, it’s a challenging one and also controversial, but Foster really nails it. Martin Sheen is at his utmost depraved here as Frank Hallet, a pedophile with an unhealthy interest in Rynn who not only continues to frequent the house with increased malice with every visit (and the hamster scene is also truly unforgivable), but is also the son of the unpleasant landlady Cora. The landlady might also discover more than she bargained for when she tries to investigate the whereabouts of Rynn’s curiously absent parents.
I enjoyed uncovering the mystery of her parents in this one, and while I have many unanswered questions about Rynn, I think she’s much more sympathetic and likeable than Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s novel. There’s also a sense of poetic justice that pervades the text. Rynn seems to enjoy her autonomy and it earns her our respect as an audience when we see how independent and resourceful she is. She’s also visited by a friendly police officer (who is also a bit useless, naturally) and her magician friend/police officer’s nephew/friend with benefits Mario, who seems nice enough, although perhaps still a bit dodgy with their age difference (one of the main controversies from the film arose from Foster’s nudity in the film, which was thankfully a stunt double and played by her adult sister Connie). I think the critics who think the mystery plot points are weak are missing the point of the film – it’s really about Rynn and her preservation, and the mystery is just a framing device to expose us to her vulnerability (as shown in Frank’s increasingly heinous visits and demands) and self-preservation. Frank himself is the embodiment of white male privilege, a WASPish young man with no disregard for others or manners or even the well-being and safety of children, and indeed, his toxicity and predatory behaviour is a threat that is far more dangerous than any absent parents. Frank can do as he pleases and get away with his crimes because he lives a life of privilege from his mother’s investments, even though she is hardly likeable but carries sway in the town. His crimes are mostly well known and the town’s dirty secrets, yet no one seems to stand up and take him out as they really should.
As a genre film, it’s part mystery, thriller, and possibly even horror. I think the film effectively blends and transcends these genre categories, and it’s really fascinating to watch. Apparently it was initially supposed to be a play, and there’s a theatricality and sense of theatre set design throughout that make this appealing to watch, and augmented by the strong actor performances all around. This is a buried treasure in Foster’s early filmography and it exceeded all of my expectations. I’m glad that Shudder is offering this great film and I hope more folks can experience it.