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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (Blu-ray)
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (Blu-ray)
Kino // Unrated // May 10, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted June 22, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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They say in how-to books and classes about screenplay writing that the author must grab his audience's attention within the first 25 pages (roughly the first 25 minutes of screentime) or run the risk of completely losing their interest. One of the many qualities of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976), one of the best and most unsung films of the seventies, is just how quickly it generates tension, mystery, and utter fascination. Within even its first five minutes, it's difficult not to become totally hooked. There isn't a movie quite like it, nor is it easily categorized: it's sort of a horror movie (but not one, really), something like a suspense-thriller, and partly something else, something indefinable.

Jodie Foster stars as Rynn, who in the first scene is celebrating her 13th birthday on Halloween, lighting the candles of a birthday cake she has made for herself. There's a knock at the door of her small but attractive house (on the Canadian coastline), and creepy neighbor Frank (Martin Sheen), the wayward son of Rynn's unpleasant, racist landlady, Mrs. Hallett (Alexis Smith), pushes his way through the door and introduces himself.

Within minutes, it becomes clear that married Frank is a child predator setting his sights on Rynn. As he makes advances on her, she oddly dances around his moves rather than call upon her unseen father, a well-known poet apparently working in the study. Later, there are obvious clues that neither Rynn's mother (dead, so she says) or father is around at all, and that somehow she's been living in the house all by herself for some time. Where are they? What happened to them?

To reveal any more would spoil the pleasure and fascination of this unique film. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was a Canadian-French released in the U.S. by American International Pictures (AIP), the distribution company then famous for its exploitation films popular in the drive-in movie market. Perhaps shrewdly, they marketed the film as an ordinary horror film and quickly sold it to network television, which is where this reviewer first saw it.

The film seems to have been one of those lucky accidents, where the right combination of talent collided and everyone was inspired to give the project their all. Screenwriter Laird Koenig, adapting his novel, worked in television before and after this. During the seventies he wrote the interesting east-meets-west Euro-Western Red Sun (Soleil rouge, 1971) for director Terence Young, but then teamed up with Young again for the notably bad Bloodline (1979) and the even worse Inchon (1980). One of his novels served as the basis for the French film Careful, the Kids Are Watching (Attention, les enfants regardent, 1978), featuring Red Sun's Alain Delon. That film is generally well thought of, so maybe Koenig's strengths are in novels rather than screenplay adaptations.

Similarly, Hungarian director Nicolas Gessner, working mainly in Europe, made films and TV shows of variable quality, few of which were released in English speaking countries. Among his credits are 12 + 1 (1969), a version of the same story that Mel Brooks adapted as The Twelve Chairs the following year; and Someone Behind the Door (Quelqu'un derriere la porte, 1971), an intimate psychological thriller similar to The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane but which doesn't play as well as it should.

In any case, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is intriguing and suspenseful, with excellent characterizations and a story unlikely enough to be somehow believable, if that makes any sense. One big shock in the film packs a wallop but doesn't hold up to scrutiny (at least not as filmed) and Christian Gaubert's odd score mixes well-chosen bits of Chopin with completely inappropriate original music better suited to a Dirty Harry movie. Otherwise, the film is nearly perfect.

Some years back I caught a 1973 episode of the forgettable if unusual TV series Kung Fu in which Jodie Foster, then about ten, was so good in her guest-star role that it was almost creepy. For most child actors that age, they're pretty much limited to a sophisticated game of "Let's Pretend." But in Foster's case, it was clear she had carefully considered every nuance of every scene and even every line of dialogue. It was an adult performance emanating from a little girl, which is why her casting here is opportune to say the least. Martin Sheen, in his last role before journeying into Hell for Apocalypse Now (1979), is completely believable and equally subtle as the perverted Frank.

The film is essentially a five-character piece, much of it staged in long (but always mesmerizing) takes, mostly within a few rooms of the house. (It would be interesting to know if Gessner took long takes using multiple cameras - in the manner of Kurosawa - or shot it one set-up at a time like a conventional movie.) Alexis Smith is up to Foster and Sheen's level as the bitchy Mrs. Hallet, and Scott Jacoby is way above average as Mario, a teenage, polio-stricken amateur magician who befriends Rynn. But the real surprise is Mort Shuman as Miglioriti, a friendly local cop concerned about Frank's designs on Rynn.

Born in New York, Shuman wrote or co-wrote hit songs like "Viva Las Vegas," "Save the Last Dance for Me," and "This Magic Moment," and eventually co-wrote the hit play Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. He apparently stayed in Paris, working as a composer and sometime actor until his death in 1991. He's very good in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, and his relative inexperience as an actor is more than compensated by his verisimilitude.

Video & Audio

Although the end titles state "Filmed in Panavision," The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was in fact shot flat for 1.85:1 release, as it's presented here. The 16:9 enhanced transfer is very good, save for some ugly main titles that probably always looked as dirty and blotchy as they do here. The Blu-ray, like the earlier DVD version, is apparently sourced not from AIP elements but rather from the international cut of the picture, which includes a brief nude shot of Rynn (body-doubled by Foster's older sister) and perhaps other material, though a PG rating adorns the packaging. The mono sound is acceptable but, unlike the DVD, no English or French subtitles are included. Region A encoded.

Extra Features.

Unlike the earlier DVD, Scorpion's Blu-ray includes a number of good supplements. First and foremost is the unusually thoughtful, intelligent, and very clearly well-prepared-in-advance audio commentary by director Nicolas Gessner. Also included is a nearly half-hour interview with Martin Sheen, who praises the film and looks back fondly on the production without offering much beyond that. Somewhat bizarrely, a separate extra entitled "Conversation with Martin Sheen and Nicolas Gessner" actually has Sheen in the studio while Gessner is connected via Skype. Unfortunately, somebody messed up the lighting (or maybe this was a last-minute idea) and only a portion of Gessner's right shoulder is visible, and even that barely so). The two men are clearly delighted to reconnect but, again, little of consequence is said. AIP's cleverly exploitative trailer is also included.

Parting Thoughts

If you haven't seen The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, pick up a copy at once. It's original, captivating and full of suspense. A DVD Talk Collector's Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His documentary and commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, as is his commentary track for Arrow Video's Battles without Honor and Humanity boxed set.

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