October 2, 2007

The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane (Gessner, 1976)

"Ask Her No Questions And Nobody Dies."

Nicholas Gessner’s The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is a peculiar film, the type of unclassifiable genre effort – is it horror? suspense? a love story? – that simply isn’t made anymore, which is a real shame. Despite its schizophrenia, or perhaps because of it, 31 years after its release, the film remains interesting and compulsively watchable.

Of course, instantly, the most noteworthy aspect of the film is the presence of Jodie Foster, who plays the titular “girl” Rynn, a young girl hiding a dark secret, living in a small town with her curiously and conveniently absent poet father (“he’s translating in his office and doesn’t want to be disturbed,” “he’s off to New York to see his publisher”). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Foster delivers a fantastic and layered performance, channeling emotions not many 13-year-old actors can, in a role perfectly tailored to the precocious persona that characterized her early acting work.

Yet, it is Foster that I was least enamored with, for as strong as she is in her role, she is simply part of a greater, infinitely more interesting whole. What truly caught me off balance was the idiosyncratic nature of the film, specifically Gessner’s decision to play against any preconceived notions the audience might have. Distributed under the American International Pictures banner, Roger Corman’s legendary cheapie film label, the film’s storyline is ripe for exploitation - a young girl, alone in a house where the doors seem to be perpetually unlocked – yet none of the situations are exploited, and one can sense the respect Gessner has for his young characters. Though there are certainly subversive and taboo elements at play (pedophilia and underage sex) they are handled in a serious manner atypical of AIP’s usually gratuitous offerings. Forgoing camp, the film handles its adult themes subtly and seriously. Martin Sheen taps into deeply unsettling territory in his menacing portrayal of the pedophile Frank Hallet. On the other hand, the underage romance of Foster and Scott Jacoby, who plays a crippled teenager, is touching and heartfelt.

Admittedly, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane occupies the fringes of the horror genre, though you shouldn’t take this statement as a criticism. Although it frightens more conceptually, upon reflection, than it does in an immediate sense, with this film, Gessner has crafted a rare, low-budget gem, a film far removed from what its origins, title, and subject matter might suggest. Where others would go for sensationalism, Gessner has crafted an intriguing, subtly frightening character study, so unusual in its pacing, tone and narrative choices that I am surprised the film was made even back in 1976.

Film: B+/B
Scare Factor: D-

View Date: 10/2
Shocktober Horror Film Count: #2

1 comment:

Tim said...

This is one of those oh so rare films that is weirdly watchable time and again. I have been a major fan of this cult favorite since I first saw it in 1992. I have collected alot of movie meorabilia related to this film such as a varirty of movie posters, press-kits and still
sets and finally the soundtrack by Christian Gaubert with its mellow melancholic flavor that proves conclusively that a music score is, indeed the soul of a film.