The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (Kino Lorber, PG-13)

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is a cut above typical AIP fare: it has no pretensions to being an art film but is a well-done thriller with a surprisingly good cast.

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I was surprised to discover that The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was an American International Pictures (AIP) release. AIP, you may remember, made its name in the 1950s catering to teenage viewers with cheaply produced, sensational films like High School Hellcat, Teenage Cave Man, and War of the Colossal Beast, which were destined for the drive-ins or as the bottom half of double features. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, directed by Nicolas Gessner, is a cut above typical AIP fare: it has no pretensions to being an art film but is a well-done thriller with a surprisingly good cast.

The title refers to the second half of the nursery rhyme “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep:” “One for the master/One for the dame/One for the little boy/ Who lives down the lane.” Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster) may be, at age 13, a little old for nursery rhymes, but she’s definitely too young to be on her own. Rynn lives, supposedly with her father, in a house in the Maine woods. The problem is that no one has ever seen this mystery parent because whenever someone from the nearby town stops by the house, Dad has either stepped out, is working and simply can’t be disturbed, or isn’t feeling well and is resting. That’s according to Rynn, who seems quite protective of her father’s privacy and need for uninterrupted concentration.

Rynn is a very self-assured young lady, good at managing adults and deflecting their attention away from topics she doesn’t wish to discuss. When the landlady, Cora Hallett (Alexis Smith) drops by, she doesn’t care at all for Rynn’s lack of deference (which she sees as disrespect) and becomes quite persistent about collecting some jelly jars stored in the basement. Funny thing, though: Rynn is as definite about no one going into the basement as she is about her father not being disturbed.

Mrs. Hallet’s pedophile son, Frank (Martin Sheen), takes an improper interest in Rynn, probably thinking that a young girl living in an isolated house and who seems to be frequently on her own would be an ideal victim. Meanwhile, Rynn makes friends with Mario (Scott Jacoby), a local teenager who is something of an outsider himself due to a childhood bout of polio that left him with a limp. Mario becomes Rynn’s partner in crime, so to speak, wearing a preposterous rubber mask to impersonate her father and put the local police off the scent and helping her move a car that could attract attention she’d rather avoid.

Two plot lines proceed in parallel in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. One is the mystery of what is actually going on with Rynn and her mysterious father. The other provides the thriller context: will Frank get what he wants? Foster’s assured performance carries the film (you can see a bit of Clarice Starling in Rynn), and it’s all the more remarkable since she was about the age of her character at the time. Sheen is convincing as the menacing Frank, as are Jacoby and Smith in their more conventional roles. The cinematography by René Verzier, shot on location in Canada, serves the story well, with some interesting sequences tossed in among the horror tropes.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was selected by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror films as the Best Horror Film of 1978, and Foster won top honors the same year for Best Actress. Director Nicolas Gessner, screenwriter Laird Koenig, and supporting actress Smith were also nominated in their respective categories.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include a commentary track by Nicolas Gessner, a video interview with Martin Sheen, a video conversation between Sheen and Gessner (which is very odd to watch, since Sheen is on camera while Gessner’s voice and shadowy image comes through a laptop computer), and the film’s original trailer. | Sarah Boslaugh

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