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Film / The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

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"This is my house!"

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is a 1976 French-Canadian thriller film directed by Nicholas Gessner, starring Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen, Alexis Smith, Mort Shuman, and Scott Jacoby. It's adapted from from the 1974 novel of the same name by Laird Koenig, who also wrote the screenplay.

Thirteen-year-old girl Rynn Jacobs (Foster) and her reclusive poet father Lester live in a Big Fancy House overlooking the ocean near the small village of Wells Harbor, Maine. Soon enough, however, some of the townspeople—like nosy landlady Cora Hallet (Smith) and Cora's pervert son Frank (Sheen)—catch on that something strange is going on. Why is Lester Jacobs always busy when people come to call? Why does he allow his young daughter to speak so rudely to grown-ups and take care of the household bills? Why does Rynn always go into town alone, and why isn't she in school?

But when Cora starts demanding some answers from Rynn, she unexpectedly goes missing.

Not long afterward, Rynn befriends Mario (Jacoby), a teenage amateur magician who becomes her Disabled Love Interest. Finally, Rynn opens up to Mario about the secrets of her reclusive father, her missing mother, and the disappearance of Cora Hallet. Mario offers to help protect Rynn from Frank Hallet's continued lecherous interest, but when he falls ill and Rynn is left all alone, Frank makes his move.

Rynn's not afraid, though. She knows how to take care of herself. And she's been doing it for a long, long time.

The film was nominated for five Saturn Awards in 1978 and won two of them, Best Horror Film and Best Actress (Foster).

This film contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Accidental Murder: Throughout the film, Rynn never actually kills anyone. Her father committed suicide; she poisoned her mother by mistake (after being told by her father that the potassium cyanide was a "sleeping powder"); Cora dies by misadventure through no fault of Rynn's. Even Frank Hallet's murder at the end might not have been intentional: it's unclear if Rynn meant to drink the poisoned tea herself or if she knew Frank would demand to switch cups with her. If Rynn intended to kill herself, then her only real crime is not trying to stop him—and it could even be argued that if she told him about the poison, he might have done something worse to her out of anger.
    • Given that he's already killed her hamster as an interrogation and intimidation technique, and fully intends to exploit his mother's death in order to make Rynn his sex slave, it's a reasonable assumption.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: In the book, Rynn is openly aloof, condescending, and superior to adults, which makes them dislike and mistrust her, while in the film she simply wants to be left alone but is constantly beset by busybodies. In the book, Rynn also murders Cora in cold blood, while in the film, it's an accident. Likewise, the book makes it plain that Rynn's father is a wealthy, smug intellectual who believes himself and his daughter to be "above" the townsfolk, while in the film, their plight is a bit more sympathetic: Rynn's father is a terminally ill man trying to make sure his daughter will be safe from her abusive mother after he dies, and the aloofness is to keep anyone from suspecting that Rynn's living alone.
  • Adults Are Useless: Officer Miglioriti is well-meaning, but rather clueless, and for obvious reasons Rynn is reticent to turn to a policeman for help. The other adults are either threats, like the Hallets and Rynn's mother, or dead, like her father.
  • All Hallows' Eve: Rynn first encounters Frank Hallet when he brings his step-kids to the house for trick-or-treating on Halloween night.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Implied with Rynn's abusive mother.
    • Discussed by Mario when he confronts Frank Hallet. He openly declares that the police would thank him for killing a pedophile like Frank. Frank gets his just deserts after trying to blackmail Rynn into a tryst.
    • Cora Hallet is a difficult person to feel sorry for given her undeserved and unnecessary haughtiness, to say nothing of her lack of sympathy for her pervert son's victims.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Frank burns Rynn's pet hamster Gordon with a cigarette while trying to extract information from her about her father's whereabouts, then kills it and throws the carcass into the fire, saying "The son of a bitch bit me."
  • Bitter Almonds: The potassium cyanide Rynn uses to kill; it's commented during the film that it smells and tastes just like almonds, which she disguises by serving almond cookies alongside the cyanide-laced tea.
  • Cool Car: Cora Hallet's 1955 Bentley.
  • Covers Always Lie: Early posters for the movie show a child dressed in a frilly lace dress and cuddling a teddy bear while standing in a graveyard. None of these appear in the film and may have been put on the poster to cash in on the Creepy Child thrillers popular at the time.
  • Creepy Child: Rynn unnerves adults with her mature self-assurance.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Everyone seems to be aware that Frank is a sex criminal, but a lack of hard evidence—possibly combined with his mother's money and connections—gives him impunity from arrest.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: Cora Hallet. In the book, she suffocates when Rynn floods the basement with gas. In the film she accidentally knocks away the bar holding the cellar door open, causing the cellar door to fall and give her a fatal head injury.
  • Dirty Old Man: Frank Hallet. It's implied that he's gotten away with molesting a lot of little girls in the past, and now he has his eye on Rynn.
  • Disappeared Dad/Missing Mom: Rynn's parents. Eventually Rynn reveals that both are dead: Rynn's father committed suicide due to being terminally ill, and Rynn accidentally poisoned her mother.
  • Disposing of a Body: Rynn keeps her mother's body (which she enbalmed herself) in the cellar. As well as Cora Hallet's, after the latter has a fatal accident when she goes down to said cellar for her jelly-jar seals. Later, Mario buries both bodies in the back garden. This seemingly backfires, when Frank goes in the cellar while Rynn's away and finds her mother's broken fingernail and his own mother's hairpin... but then he has that cup of tea...
  • Foreshadowing:
    • During Rynn and Hallet's first encounter, he slaps her on the bottom when her back is turned. When she wheels on him, very obviously angry, he tries to laugh it off, saying "It's your birthday, I have to spank you!" When Mario casually reveals to Rynn that Hallet is a pedophile, it's no surprise to the reader/watcher.
    • When Mario digs the grave and buries the bodies of Rynn's mother and Cora Hallet, they have to do it during the weekly football game, since it's the only time they're guaranteed to have no witnesses. It starts pouring down with rain, but Mario has to keep going. Rynn sets up a hot bath for him, and he's already sneezing. Then he mentions having "this damn cold" after he poses as Lester Jacobs. He spends the last third of the movie in a hospital bed, because it's developed into pneumonia.
  • Genre Savvy: Rynn is smart enough to subvert the Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo, putting the potassium cyanide in her own tea and thus making sure that when the cups are switched her target drinks the poison instead of her. Either that or she's decided she'd rather kill herself than submit to being raped and Frank Hallet is undone by being Wrong Genre Savvy.
  • Hollywood New England: Set in the village of Wells Harbor, Maine.
  • Horror Doesn't Settle for Simple Tuesday: Averted. It is a sort of horror movie, and it starts on Halloween, which is also Rynn's thirteenth birthday. But nothing horrific actually happens (on screen anyway) until some time later.
  • Latex Perfection: Mario uses a latex mask, a wig, and various props to perform an Emergency Impersonation of Rynn's father when Officer Miglioriti shows up and demands to actually speak with him. Somehow this works, even though Miglioriti is standing less than six feet away and Mario's his own nephew.
  • Literary Allusion Title: A variation on the line "the little boy who lives down the lane" from the nursery rhyme "Baa Baa Black Sheep."
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: The reason for Mario's disability.
    Mario: I have so many brothers and sisters, my mom forget who did and who didn't have [polio vaccinations].
  • Minor Living Alone: Rynn
  • Morality Pet: Mario is the only living person Rynn seems to care about.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Frank Hallet switching tea cups with Rynn out of suspicion and paranoia that she poisoned his tea, when her cup was actually the one containing potassium cyanide all along. Not to mention dressing in a magician's get-up and limping with a cane as Mario would to conceal his movements, so that no one fitting his own description will have been sighted by Rynn's house, giving her a possible alibi when he ends up disappearing.
  • Older Sidekick: Mario is several years older than Rynn.
  • Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: Frank does this at the end with the cups of tea Rynn brings him, mainly out of suspicion that Rynn put something in his cup. He ends up taking the tea with the poison in it and dies after consuming it.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Frank Hallet sneeringly addresses Mario as a “wop” at one point, while Cora makes some subtler but still unmistakable antisemitic comments to Rynn.
  • Posthumous Character: Both of Rynn's parents are dead at the beginning of the film, although we're not made privy to that for some time.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 is used throughout the film.
  • Put on a Bus: In Officer Miglioriti's final scene, he tells Rynn he's accepted a job in another town (it's implied it's because he's fed up with the Hallets and their ilk). And Mario ends up sick and unconscious in a hospital bed during the final third of the movie, leaving Rynn alone and with no allies during her final confrontation with Frank.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Officer Miglioriti may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he immediately suspects that Rynn isn't telling him the full story. Unlike the other adults in town, he doesn't try to bully her into a confession, but instead goes out of his way to win her trust. Also unlike most of the other adults, he seems to be motivated out of genuine concern for Rynn rather than the need to make her cow to his authority. He also seems to be the only person in town to have actually confronted Cora about her son's "behavior."
  • Sexual Extortion: What Frank Hallet intends to do to Rynn in exchange for keeping quiet about her murders. Noticeably he ramps up his touching and fondling of her once she apparently resigns herself to this. He also intends to keep it up for some time, talking about their forthcoming "long winter nights together".
  • Significant Birth Date: Played with, but averted; while Rynn's birthday happens to be on Halloween, it doesn't really end up having any relevance to the plot.
  • Stage Magician: Mario is one of these and is on his way to perform at a party when he meets Rynn.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Frank Hallet is a particularly vile example of this. He harasses Rynn whenever the opportunity arrives, watches her every movement and uses his mother's death (which he's not particularly aggrieved about) to force Rynn to become his Sex Slave. Suffice to say very few tears were shed for him at the end.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Rynn and Mario's relationship was really doomed from the word go, given that her lifestyle doesn't leave much room for any kind of normal relationship. Though by the end of the movie the state of their relationship is pretty much up in the air; Mario's still in hospital with pneumonia, though it's clear he'll recover, and it's unknown whether Officer Miglioriti knows about him and Rynn. But Mario was raving in his fever about how much he loved Rynn, and Rynn tells an unconscious Mario of her devotion. Lampshaded by Mario when Rynn wonders if his parents knowing about them would be so terrible.
    Mario: They're gonna want to know everything about you! I'm not as good at lying as you are.
  • Suicide by Sea: It's suggested that Rynn's father killed himself this way, so his body wouldn't be found.
  • Sword Cane: Mario wields one of these and threatens Frank with it when he shows up at Rynn's house.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Rynn, during the closing credits after watching Frank poison himself.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Rynn, yet again. She commits murders both before and during the movie. In addition, adults dislike her preternatural self-assurance, which threatens their authority. She also has sex with Mario at the tender age of thirteen, though it's clear in both the book and the movie Rynn's making a considered decision, because this is what she wants, rather than empty-headed lust or trying to manipulate Mario.
  • Villain Protagonist: Rynn. She is an interesting case, because her killing is more of a survival tactic than true villainy. At the same time, her actions are a little too extreme to classify her as a simple Anti-Hero. Plus, it's not primarily her physical survival that she’s preserving, but her (and her father’s) values of independence and autonomy.
    • Initially Rynn keeps the secret of her father's death to prevent both herself and her inheritance from falling into her mother's clutches (since the law would have automatically awarded both to Rynn's mother regardless of other circumstances). Up until that point, Rynn had committed no real crime other than failure to report her father's death. After her mother was no longer an issue, Rynn still had the problem of losing her independence and possibly all her money if she confessed what happened. She could either conceal her parents' deaths for three more years and enter adulthood with enough resources to put the past behind her, or she could admit what happened, spend the next three years suffering in foster homes (or longer, if she's sent to jail), and still end up with nothing. It could be argued that Rynn was fighting not only to preserve her values but her entire future.
  • White Anglo-Saxon Protestant: The Hallets, with Cora Hallet in particular being an overbearingly bossy, snobby, antisemitic Rich Bitch example. This also feeds into why Frank has been able to get away with being a child molester—he and his mother are accustomed to the town, including its police, deferring to their money and social position.