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“How old do you have to be before people start treating you like a person?” asks the lead character, Rynn, in the 1977 horror movie, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.
It’s a good question, and this vintage movie -- in some oddball fashion -- concerns how badly the world often treats the most innocent citizens, its children. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was released at about the same time, historically-speaking, as genre efforts such as Who Can Kill a Child? (1978), a horror film which opens with documentary-footage of real-life atrocities committed against the globe’s young.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is also a weird inversion or reflection of the principles and ideas explored in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Both films concern a lonely person living alone in an isolated setting, yet pretending to be in the company of a parent. Meanwhile, visitors to that character’s house in both films have a nasty habit of disappearing…permanently.
The difference, of course, is that Norman Bates is a schizophrenic, murderous lunatic, and Jodie Foster’s sensitive, young Rynn just wants to be free to live her life as she chooses. But she constantly finds her freedom imperiled by representatives of the adult --- and therefore corrupt -- world.
Accordingly, the film is not really about a girl who trespasses the law and commits crimes, but an adult world which leaves her no choice but to do so. Even the film’s title, after all, serves to infantilize her.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane opens on Halloween, as Rynn celebrates her fourteen (or thirteenth…) birthday. A man comes to the door trick-or-treating, Frank Hallet (Sheen), and he is immediately suspicious of Rynn’s isolation. A child predator, he immediately marks her as a target.
The next day, Frank’s mother, the cruel and parochial Clara Hallet also marks Rynn as a target, entering the family home without permission, re-arranging the furniture, and verbally upbraiding the child for having the wherewithal to stand up to her bullying. She threatens to revoke the lease on the house, but Rynn realizes that she is bluffing.
When Mrs. Hallet accidentally slips and dies on the stairs to the fruit cellar, Rynn becomes desperate to hide her body, and enlists the help of an unpopular local boy Mario, to get Hallet’s car off the premises. Mario does so, and he and Rynn develop a fast friendship. He soon learns her full, tragic story. Rynn and her father fled Rynn’s tyrannical mother in England and came to the States. Here, however, her father grew terminally ill, and arranged for Rynn to be independent, even as he reckoned with his impending death…
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is an adaptation of Laird Koenig’s novel of the same name and features a knock-out performance by young Jodie Foster as the isolated but brilliant, Emily Dickinson-reading adolescent who constantly sees her rights trampled on by the neighbors, including the aggressive child molester, Frank.
Alarmingly, the local police know all about Frank’s inappropriate behavior, and do nothing to stop him or protect the town’s children from his malicious presence. The film makes a point of noting that Frank – an adult -- is free to do whatever he wishes, despite his perverse tendencies while Rynn – owing to her youth -- must be incredibly careful about drawing attention to herself and her predicament.
Frank’s freedom to corrupt and destroy the innocent is embodied in an expressive image rendered early in the film. He tracks mud across the pristine wood floor of Rynn’s living room. Wherever Frank goes, he tracks that mud. And in the film’s most horrific scene, another metaphor for destroyed innocence is visualized. Hallet chokes to death – on camera -- Rynn’s pet hamster, Gordon.
Besides visually establishing Frank’s pervasive menace, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane does a good job of setting up the byzantine rules of Rynn’s everyday life and world. She lives an existence of constant subterfuge and misdirection, lest she be discovered. She must constantly fend off questions from Frank and his Mom. She also talks frequently about her father, a poet, though he is actually dead. At one point, when things grow dire, she must even enlist Mario – an expert in disguises – to double for him.
Every visitor to the house asks Rynn about her parents in virtually ritualistic, obsessive fashion, and so Rynn is exceedingly good about making up stories and excuses. If she knows a visitor is due, she smokes one of her father’s stinky cigars for a while, to grant the impression that he is nearby.
A funny and unique quality about The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is that the audience understands that Rynn is constantly lying, and yet very much wants her to succeed and to live as her (dead) father intended, without the interference of a world that will dull-her-edges, or otherwise harm her. The danger arises not just from Frank, but from a life of institutionalized mediocrity, apparently.
And yet as adults, the viewer also recognizes that Rynn is very, very young, and therefore unable to appropriately care for herself.
Accordingly, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane walks a tight-rope of suspense in terms of maintaining identification with the lead character even though, on more than one occasion, Rynn commits murder by poisoning a guest’s cup of tea.
Of course, in the incident the audience actually witnesses, Rynn has only two choices. Both are bad ones. She can submit to the will of a sicko child molester, or kill that child molester. It’s a pretty clear-cut case of self-defense when she chooses murder. The film’s final scene ratchets up the level of suspense to a nearly unbearable level as Rynn and Frank sit down uncomfortably to share tea, and then play a game of psychological chess with one another.
One shocking scene in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane which would never pass censors’ muster in 2013, reveals Rynn -- just thirteen years old -- making love to Mario, her boyfriend. The film features some brief nudity (a body double, not actually Foster), but today it is shocking to witness, and not necessarily in a good way. Trying to look at the scene objectively, there is a dramatic motivation for it presence, which, I suppose is what matters most.
In particular, the scene plays directly into the primary thematic question raised by the film: How old do you have to be for people to treat you as a person, one who can make his or her own decisions?
Well, our culture holds that legally a person is a child -- and therefore unable to make responsible decisions for him or herself without a parent -- until the age of 18.
Yet Rynn is thirteen (or fourteen, depending on whether she is telling the truth to Frank…), brilliant, and precocious. She also knows how she wants to live. Her father hoped she could live independently until she became eighteen, and left her a home, rent money, and a joint-savings account to make that dream a reality.
This is what Rynn wants.
Although Rynn seems lonely -- in part because of the film’s emotional piano score, and in part because of all the long, establishing shots of her walking the beach surf alone -- she also seems capable of taking care of herself, even though the law insists she can’t do it.
Clearly, given her circumstances, Rynn is a special case. And balanced against the adults in the film – the incompetent police man, the bigoted real estate lady, and the pervert – who’s to say that in this one, single case Rynn can’t, finally, look-out for herself best?
I have vivid memories of first seeing The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane as a kid, perhaps as a ten year old, and not fully understanding it all. I remember thinking that Rynn was evil for what she had done, and for the secrets she kept hidden in that beach house fruit cellar.
Now I see, of course, that Rynn is not an evil kid at all (like those in The Bad Seed or The Good Son) but rather a child just trying to make it in a very confusing, very adult world. Evil is in the picture all right, however.
It keeps ending up on her door step. And Rynn must find ways to deal with it, as any of us, young or old, might.
As the end credits rolled on The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, I wondered about where Rynn might be today, and what, finally, she became. In some manner, the persistence of that question must be a benchmark for the movie’s artistic success. By the film’s denouement, you come to care enough about this fictional character to ponder her future.
What happened to Rynn when she finally grew up, and no longer had to hide in that little house down the lane?