Dave & Dennis Review: The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

Posted: August 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

My frequent collaborator C. Dennis Moore and I have challenged each other to do weekly … or thereabouts … reviews of … well, of whatever the hell we feel like reviewing. We’re taking turns assigning the next project – might be a movie, might be music, might be a book, might be the latest wart on my foot. A little about us: I am the author of the novels Gray Lake and Death Sight, the first novel in my Will Castleton series. I used to write weekly reviews of all sorts for the entertainment page of my local four-county newspaper. Dennis is the author of the novels Revelations and the Amazon #1 horror bestseller The Third Floor. His new book The Ghosts of Mertland is coming out in just a few weeks. Dennis has written more than 1,000 reviews, many of which are available in a series of books – these new reviews will someday be a book too, I imagine. Together Dennis and I have co-written a short novel called Band of Gypsies and the priced-to-sell $.99 full-length story collection Terror Is Our Trade. Right now we’re working on a new Will Castleton novel called Return to Angel Hill. Each week (or whatever) Dennis and I will post both our own and each other’s reviews of the subject at hand to our respective blogs – you can find Mr. Moore’s blog over here. I have a crazy schedule, and if the reviews aren’t weekly, it’s my fault, not Dennis’s – that boy writes reviews like a runaway train barreling down a mountainside track with a hapless Alpine village waiting at the bottom.

I had the honor of picking our first outing; I went with a little flick I had fond but vague memories of, and boy am I glad I chose…

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

Four out of Five Stars

by David Bain

Before he was an R.E.M. song or the beheader of Marlon Brando or Mr. President, the young Martin Sheen was one of the most badass creepers in Hollywood.

And before she became the pluckiest FBI trainee ever, taking on the most badass, fava bean-eating creeper ever, Jodie Foster was already the longtime pluckiest kid in Hollywood, planning parent traps and taking on the likes of Travis Bickle’s warped affections.

And between her two iconic adolescent roles, in the somewhat forgotten little 1976 film The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Foster plays Rynn Jacobs, a barely thirteen-year-old girl hiding some creepy secrets of her own in her basement while matching wits with the pedophile Frank Hallet – perhaps Sheen’s most truly sinister role. Some might argue that Sheen embodied a larger evil in his star-making turn (on the big screen, at least) as Kit in Terrence Malik’s Badlands, but for me, Hallet’s cold calculations against both the welfare and budding sexuality of a barely teenage girl are far more cringe-inducing than Kit’s murderous abandon.

At the start of the film all we know of Rynn is that she apparently lives alone in a rented house and doesn’t want visitors going into the basement. She’s constantly making excuses as to why her father is not present – these range from “he’s working in his study” to trips to New York.

Frank Hallet and his straight-laced – and, let’s be blunt here, bitchy – mother, from whom the house is rented, soon begin to suspect the truth – that Rynn’s father is no longer of this earth. Mom, despite her uptight demeanor, seems to have some genuine interest in the girl’s welfare, but Frank, whom we quickly gather has a completely unwholesome interest in children, sees easy prey.

It’s a pleasure to write about a movie where almost anything but a bare bones summary would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that, much to her detriment, Mrs. Hallet soon discovers what Rynn’s hiding in the basement. This leads to a number of plot twists and turns which include Rynn attracting the curiosity of a local policeman as well as the officer’s teen nephew, Mario (Scott Jacoby), a budding magician with a limp who is only slightly older than she is.

Mario eventually becomes a co-conspirator, attempting to protect Rynn from both Frank Hallet and his own uncle. A case of puppy love also ensues between Rynn and Mario. The two young stars have a believable chemistry; they’re believably sweet and innocent – which is to say they pull off the tough roles of kids trying hard not to be sweet and innocent, which only makes them more so.

Some of the surprises in the plot work better than others in terms of suspension of disbelief. The manner in which the police officer is finally convinced of the existence of Rynn’s father, for example, begs credulity, but the movie is so generally clever and its tension so genuine that we forgive and go along for the ride.

One thing the movie does well is show both Rynn’s cunning and her loneliness. While the idea of a girl only a few days into her thirteenth year managing to live on her own in a small town for any amount of time without being found out might sound difficult to swallow, the film provides enough concrete examples of Rynn’s resourcefulness that we could actually see it happening. Her loneliness comes through as her friendship with Mario blooms. She is in dire straits when he comes to her, her subterfuge all but unraveling as she tries desperately to hide a huge piece of evidence. Mario’s eventual fate – which is not resolved at the end of the movie – only adds to the viewer’s sympathy when Rynn must, in the final scenes, face Frank Hallet alone in a tense game of cat-and-mouse.

That final scene is a textbook example of how suspense can be employed to squeeze the viewer’s guts and heart without the use of a gun, without physical violence, with only words and situation prodding us to the edges of our seats. Rynn’s final dilemma, a spin on the old “two cups, one poisoned” theme, strikes the final poignant note as we realize Rynn would have stoically accepted either outcome.

This is one of those movies we’re seeing less and less of these days, one that takes chances and allows the many horrors it portrays to be “quiet” – no shots fired, no blood spilled. It’s also brave, for both its era and ours, in that Sheen’s character is realistically portrayed as a pedophile who is allowed to operate in society because of his position in society, despite the fact that most of the town knows the truth about his predilections.

Although it’s more than 35 years old, the story elements of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane don’t feel dated at all. It’s a tale that could happen down the street and it’s of a type we need to see more of. It’s a mystery with a number of actual mysteries, a screenplay that isn’t afraid to let its protagonists experience sadness and dark emotions, and a story that could be performed at minimal cost on a stage, the audience sitting rapt by the unfolding plot itself with genuine concern for sympathetic characters in real peril.

Buy The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane on Amazon

Watch The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane on Netflix

THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE

Five out of five stars

by C. Dennis Moore

Well, that was only slightly uncomfortable.

My recollections of this movie go way back.  Probably not to its original release in 1976–I was only 4–but I do remember seeing it as a kid.  I couldn’t have told you anything about the story, only that Jodie Foster played a little girl who lived alone in a big house.  At the time, whatever age I was, I remember thinking how cool that would be, to have all that house to yourself and no one to tell you what to do.

I have a feeling my kids would think the same thing.

13-year-old Jodie Foster plays 13-year-old Rynn Jacobs, daughter of poet Lester Jacobs.  The Jacobs’s have rented a house on Long Island, paid up for the next three years, and are rarely seen in town.  The Hallets who leased the house to them, snobby Mrs. Hallet and her pedophile son Frank, begin to suspect something fishy when every time they stop by the house, Rynn says her father is either out of town or is working and can’t be disturbed.  Things get even worse when the pushy Mrs. Hallet heads down to the cellar for the rubber seals to go on her jelly glasses.  Something she sees down there makes her scream, she panics and turns on the stairs, knocks loose the brace holding up the door, hits her head and falls back down the stairs, dead.

Rynn is a smart girl, though, and she’s been living like this for a while now.  First order or business is to get rid of Mrs. Hallet’s car, which is sitting in front of Rynn’s house.  But at 13, even as much as she’s been through lately, she’s never driven a car.  Right then, Mario, an older boy from town, happens by.  Mario’s limp caused by a polio vaccine makes him an outcast in his own family, so he understands Rynn’s solitary lifestyle immediately, even if he doesn’t know the whole truth of it.  The pair bond right away and soon Rynn is sharing her burden with him.  Seems Rynn’s dad has died–cancer?  I don’t remember–but he went with enough time to plan Rynn’s existence and safekeeping, at least for the next three years.  Since then, Rynn has been paying her bills and taking care of herself, doing what her father instructed: survive by any means necessary.

Mario helps Rynn to better hide the fact she’s living alone to the rest of the town, which is slowly becoming more and more suspicious.  But there’s still the issue of perverted Frank Hallet, played with exceptional creepiness by a young Martin Sheen.  Frank is used to being protected, he’s used to getting his way, and, you know, for some reason his mother hasn’t been seen in quite a while.  And she seemed to be the one person in town who was able to keep him in check.  Mario’s out of commission with pneumonia.  And Frank thinks Rynn’s a very pretty little girl.

In my 40 years, I’ve seen some incredibly creepy movies, movies that make your skin crawl, movies that make you look at your neighbor just a little crooked, wondering what could possibly be going on inside their head, but knowing you probably don’t want to know.  But never in all that time have I come across a movie that made me think You know, I probably shouldn’t be watching this.  I wonder what else is on.

THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE was adapted for the screen by Laird Koenig, based on his novel of the same name, and directed by Nicolas Gessner (who also directed SOMEONE BEHIND THE DOOR with Charles Bronson and Anthony Perkins.  If you haven’t heard of it, look it up; the synopsis sounds fascinating).  While technically classified as a horror movie (it won the 1977 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film, while Jodie Foster nabbed the Best Actress award), this is one of the most subtle horror movies you’re gonna find.  There are no obvious scares, no screeching cats leaping through the open window, but from the first scene with Frank inviting himself in on a Halloween night and making himself way too comfortable as he introduces himself and tries to get to know Rynn, Gessner establishes a very real sense of dread.  You can tell the second she opens the door and Frank Hallet is standing on her porch, that something’s not right here.  And that feeling worms its way into the rest of the movie, ever present from one scene to the next.

Jodie Foster, who appears in every scene, carries the movie and gives a performance you can’t look away from, while Scott Jacoby as Mario brings an energy and a light to what is otherwise one dismal and oppressive flick.  The pair play so well off each other, they make you forget it’s just a movie.  But Foster’s is the real talent here.  Hollywood is lousy with 13-year-old actresses, but none working today (with the possible exception of Dakota Fanning or Chloe Grace Moretz) would have ever had the power to carry an entire movie alone, especially not one that bears a weight as heavy as this one.  This is a subject matter that’s simply beyond most actresses today.

Another plus to this movie is that it was made in 1976 before the focus group had ruined pretty much every movie to hit the big screen.  THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE doesn’t flinch and doesn’t allow you to turn away.  You’ll watch this movie and find yourself, more than once, thinking I can’t believe they got away with that.  But no matter what’s happening, it doesn’t come across as gratuitous.  It’s wrong on so many levels, but it isn’t played for shock, none of it.  I mean, it’s a movie about a 13-year-old girl who lives alone and is being stalked by a pedophile.  So right away, if you keep watching, you really don’t have any room to complain; the movie establishes itself in the very first scene.

This movie isn’t big on action or effects, it’s not a particularly violent movie.  The hero and villain don’t one-liner each other to death, and there are no last minute burst through the door saves.  In fact, pretty much every Hollywood convention of the last 20 years is absent, and I love it all the more because of it.

THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE is a quiet movie.  It’s a movie that demands your attention, but rewards that focus with an unforgettable experience you’ll take with you for a long time afterward.  And really, isn’t that what we wish all movies did?  You may need to shower afterward, but at least this movie got it right.

Buy The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane on Amazon

Watch The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane on Netflix

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