Thursday 21 June 2018

On a Thousand Walls #14: The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

Quite a few of the films I've written about in the last couple of years focus on the experiences of children and adolescents, and mostly by children and adolescents I mean “girls”, and the most usual way you see them navigate the uncanny landscapes in which they find themselves is through being forced to engage with the mechanics of adulthood. And OK, I can't skirt round the fact that this means sexuality. In some films, we have the classic monsters of gothic horror standing in as straight metaphors for sexual awakening, so in The Company of Wolves, the young protagonist, in embracing her sexuality, embraces the werewolf and in Lemora, it's a vampire, and both are deeply ambivalent endings, since in both cases there's an embrace of violence and in both cases there's a sense that sexual agency means, for the young woman, a sort of exile from safety, comfort, and the general discourse of society. It means to become a monster.

In folk horror, the sense of isolation in these situations is part of the deal. It's almost that in the hidden rural corners that sit just outside of the borders of our community, these new adolescent monsters can find a place where they're not really monsters.

On the other hand, in a less isolated setting, the adolescent monster needs to negotiate the society of the crowd in a different way. In the 1976 film The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, rather than a character who winds up amounting to a vampire or a werewolf, we have what amounts to a more urban monster, the serial killer.

I bet you got lots of boyfriends, pretty girl like you.
And that young person who accounts for all the dead people in the movie is played by Jodie Foster.

Now, Jodie Foster is one of a vanishingly small number of actors who have successfully managed to navigate growing up on screen, and to maintain a successful and lifelong film career well into maturity. But I think part of her longevity lay in the sorts of roles she took while still a kid, and in a lot of those films she consistently plays someone mature beyond her years. So in kid’s adventure Candleshoe (1977) she's cute as a button but also self-reliant, this borne from hardship; as the femme fatale Tallulah in Bugsy Malone (1976) she's playing a kid playing at adulthood; in fantasy comedy Freaky Friday (1976) she pulls off the role of a woman literally trapped in a child's body; and then there's Iris in Taxi Driver (also 1976), who bears the scars of some of the very worst things you can imagine happening to a child. And she sells that. All of these films followed close by each other. Jodie Foster worked very hard, probably harder than a kid of 13 or 14 should, in the mid 70s.

So what we have in Rynn Jacobs, Foster’s character in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, is another variation of the adolescent forced to be adult, left without a real parental figure, essentially adult roles that required a child who could be a grown up. In The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, we see that Rynn is without parental guidance in the first few minutes, but is also adept at faking the presence of adults, their traces, their odours.
We don't see much of you in the village.
Rynn claims that her father is out, or working, or resting. We know he's not there. And she navigates without him, managing his bank account, his rent, the upkeep of the house, but not a life at school. She survives, alone. But her home is not rural; it's suburban, and in suburbia, people notice (it's called a “village” but don't be mistaken, this is in an American sense, not how we'd picture it over here).

The action of the film begins with one such neighbour, Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen) coming by. And he's superficially friendly. And then he's creepy. And you know what he wants.

Soon after, Mrs Hallet (Alexis Smith), Frank's mother and Rynn’s landlady, comes by, and she's curious and cold, all at once, and has some stuff stored in the basement, and Rynn doesn't want to let her down there.

As the film progresses, Rynn has to navigate not only the increasingly intrusive demands of her visitors, but the community itself, most obviously in the shape of kindly local policeman Ron Miglioriti (Mort Shuman), around whom Rynn runs rings. Rynn's main area of competence lies in understanding the simple truth that adults lie. They lie to children, they lie to each other, and they lie to themselves. Officer Miglioriti demonstrates that everyone knows what Frank is; the community polices itself by managing him, since exposing the son of the most influential person in the neighbourhood just isn't done.

Rynn navigates the adult world so successfully by lying with adult facility.
We have to trust each other, because most people don't go through as much as we have.
The only person to whom Rynn levels is Ron's nephew Mario (Scott Jacoby), a slightly older kid, himself an outcast. He's from a big family, runt of the litter and forced to limp thanks to a bout of polio due to his parents forgetting to vaccinate him, which says a lot about him. He first appears dressed in a top hat and cape: he does kids’ parties as a hobby, since he can hardly take part in the high school football that everyone in the community is so obsessed with. And they inevitably embark on a romantic relationship, which is nonetheless on Rynn’s side, pretty calculated: in a lot of ways, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane follows some of the conventions of Film Noir, with Rynn as the femme fatale, and Mario the innocent schmuck drawn into her orbit and made to do terrible, incriminating things. Mainly this involves helping her dispose of bodies, about which Rynn is shown to be cold, matter-of-fact, and practical.
Mario: I don't understand. I mean... don't bodies...
Rynn: Decompose?
Mario: Yeah.
Rynn: You can put stuff on 'em.
The end credits roll over a continuous close up shot of Rynn calmly watching someone die, and it's amazing, real evidence that Jodie Foster has always been one of the great actors of mainstream cinema. Rynn, as played by Foster, kills without compunction: by the film's end, she's killed three people (or killed two and allowed a third death to happen), and while she's been shown how to do this stuff by her late dad, a poet, she took to it. She was made a killer but she remains a killer, and in one really telling scene the film fakes you out, convinces you that she might have murdered someone else, and you believe it for a minute because you've been led to believe, without anything really declarative or explicit, that she could. Everything about Foster’s performance, which is really subtle, draws us to the inescapable conclusion that this kid is dangerous.

(Rynn’s love of classical music and good food alongside her casual attitude to murder reminds me, by the way, of a more famous cinematic psychopath who appears in a later Jodie Foster movie.)
You should see the way the fire lights up your hair.
And this remorseless killer is enabled by the community. The community polices itself with explicit and implicit lies. The suburban area is shown to be a veneer of peace and politesse over something awful: the son of the area’s most influential person is a paedophile, and this must be managed; the disadvantaged minorities in the community (here, the Italian-Americans) receive routine bigotry, about which no one does anything other than shrug. Threats are made with empty implications of influence. The community is built on lies. And they're thin, thin enough that all it would take for a child to navigate it is an equal ability to lie, and worse.

My Patreon supporters got to see this last week! To support my work and read early, please consider donating. No donation too small.