Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

1976 was a big year for Jodie Foster.  She had her breakout role in Taxi Driver, a commercial hit with Freaky Friday, and she made The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, a horror/thriller.  Kudos, Jodie, for adding variety to your work schedule.  Variety might be the spice of life, but that's usually said when the variety is pleasant; you don't say that after someone get punched in the face, right?  Unless you're the one doing the punching, I mean.  In that case, you're awesome.

Rynn (Jodie Foster) is celebrating her thirteenth birthday alone on Halloween.  The doorbell rings, and at the door is Frank Hallett (Martin Sheen), the son of the woman who is renting the house to Rynn and her father, a poet.  Frank is obviously a pedophile and he is definitely on the prowl; he more or less forces his way into the house and makes some not-so-subtle passes at Rynn.
Side note: If there is a good thing about pedophiles in popular media, it is that they're not very difficult to pick out.  That creepy guy who touches your hair and smells you?  Don't accept a ride home from him, kids.
While Rynn threatens to wake her father up, the appearance of Frank's trick-or-treating kids is the main reason Frank leaves.  Rynn doesn't go to school, her father is never seen out of the house, and some of the townsfolk are starting to get a little curious.  Cora Hallett (Alexis Smith), the landlady and Frank's mother, is one of those people.  When Mrs. Hallett inquires about Rynn's father a few days later, Rynn says that he is in New York, meeting with a publisher.  That doesn't sound fishy at all, does it?  And while Mrs. Hallett is snooping around the house, Rynn won't let her into the cellar.  Of course, that means that Mrs. Hallet just must take a look.  She does, but she sees something horrible and, in her panic, accidentally knocks the support rod for the cellar door; the door hits her in the head, killing her.  That sucks.  I guess Rynn will have to call the police, explain the situation and hope they agree that it was an accidental death.  Or she will hide Mrs. Hallett's body in the cellar and cover any evidence of her visiting the house that night.  Why would a little girl do that?  What exciting adventures await young Rynn?  You'll have to watch to find out!  Or, I could tell you: she pops her cherry with a limping kid, has a battle of wits with a pedophile, and explains the importance of preservatives.

The screenplay was written by Laird Koenig, who also wrote the novel this film is based on.  On the bright side, the movie never gets too ridiculous; Rynn is never revealed to be a demon witch or anything.  This is definitely a movie that wants to slowly build suspense and make its characters feel the claustrophobia of the proverbial walls of their lives closing in.  Despite being only 100 minutes long, though, this movie feels like it takes forever.  Taking forever is usually a sign of a failure to build suspense properly, so I'm going to make a radical claim and say that director Nicolas Gessner's pacing was underwhelming.

The acting is pretty good, but nothing spectacular.  Jodie Foster was Jodie Foster, although she was definitely still a child actor in the movie.  She wasn't bad, just unintentionally awkward in parts.  Oh, and in case you were weirded out by her nude scene here at age fourteen, chillax --- that was her older sister.  Foster's slight hesitancy in this role (and not Taxi Driver that same year) leads me to believe that this wasn't one of her favorite movies.  I have no facts to back that up, it's just a hunch.  Martin Sheen turns in a good performance as a creepy child molester.  His version, though, is a lot craftier than most film pedophiles.  Not more complex (he's still unquestionably the one-dimensional bad guy), but definitely smarter.  Congratulations, Martin.  You're a great pedophile.  The rest of the small cast was just okay.  Mort Shuman, author of "Viva Las Vegas," plays a local policeman, and does so in a straightforward way.  Alexis Smith plays the unsympathetic Mrs. Hallett unsympathetically.  Aside from how eerily well Sheen plays his part, the rest of the cast basically just reads their lines.

I like the idea of this movie much better than the execution.  Why is this girl alone, and why does the poster claim that everyone who knows her secret is dead (not true, by the way)?  The movie poster implies that this will be a tale terror and intrigue, but it's really not.  And that's the problem.  There are some horror elements and a plot twist that you will almost definitely see coming.  SPOILER: Rynn doesn't want people in the basement because that where she keeps the dead bodies.  Yes, the heroine is shown killing people in a sympathetic light.  Not because they deserve it, but because she deserves to be free.  If that makes you confused, watching the movie won't make it any better.  The justification for that twist is sorely lacking.  Actually, the justification for the entire premise is pretty weak.  This is a movie that is plot-driven, so it's not a problem that only Martin Sheen gave a good performance.  However, plot-driven movies need to have well-written and paced plots, which this lacks.

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