There is a very particular subgenre of horror which I call the “Bad ‘70s Vibes” movie. These are films which capture the mundanity and malaise of the Me Decade– post-Nixon, post-Vietnam, Karen Carpenter keening out of an olive-green transistor across a shag-carpeted conversation pit– and amplify the sinister undercurrents into an inescapable dread. Examples of this strain include the is-she-crazy gothic hippie nightmare Let’s Scare Jessica to Death; George Romero’s vampire-deconstruction downer Martin; the little-seen regional sleeper The Witch Who Came from the Sea, whose hysterically over-the-top poster hides a deeply upsetting tale of trauma and sexual abuse; and, of course, The Stepford Wives, which brings the robotic oppression of the suburban housewife into the most literal terms possible. These movies are, of course, deliberate bummers, but I find them endlessly compelling; they serve as a time capsule not just of the fashions and decor of the time, but of a country in the midst of a deeply Bad Trip.
Of all the films in the Bad Vibes canon, few are as fascinating as Nicolas Gessner’s The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, which screens tonight as part of the Somerville Theatre’s Halloween Hullabaloo series. A very young Jodie Foster plays Rynn Jacobs, a wise, tow-headed thirteen-year-old who lives in a secluded cabin in Wells, Maine. She supposedly lives with her father, a poet of some renown, but whenever anyone comes by for a wellness check he’s sleeping, or having lunch with his publishers in New York, or translating some Russian poetry and not to be disturbed. Instead, concerned parties just find Rynn, making herself dinner, listening to her classical records, and rebuffing their questions with an impenetrable smirk. Her only real threats are nosy landlady Cora Hallet (Alexis Smith) and her son Frank (a shockingly against-type Martin Sheen), the town’s open-secret pedophile; her only friends, a hamster named Gordon and an eccentric local teen named Mario (Scott Jacoby) who walks with a polio limp and dresses like a stage magician. Rynn seems to be doing well enough without her parents– but where are they, and why won’t Rynn let anyone near the fruit cellar?
It’s tough to imagine a more stunning breakout year than Jodie Foster’s 1976. Apart from Little Girl, Foster– then just thirteen herself– starred in Bugsy Malone, the beloved-but-bizarre screen musical in which a cast of children play 1920s gangsters; the original Freaky Friday, in which Foster and Barbara Harris play a body-swapped mother and daughter; and, of course, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which Foster plays the child prostitute who accelerates Travis Bickle’s descent into madness. All four of these roles trade on Foster’s eerie, preternatural maturity, and, indeed, it’s tough to imagine another thirteen-year-old who could come anywhere close to mastering a role like Rynn. Foster plays Rynn with a delicate mix of wry humor, fierce intelligence, and very heavily guarded vulnerability, deftly talking circles around any interloper who threatens the balance of her little world. It’s an astounding performance that presages Foster’s career as one of our greatest actresses; even if this were her only performance of 1976, it would have clearly announced her as a major talent.
Sheen’s role, meanwhile, gives absolutely no indication of the stately performances that would become his calling card– but it’s one of the best of his career. Sheen’s Frank Hallet is one of the most despicable villains of the 1970s, a ruthless child predator shielded from consequence by privilege and power. Frank is just as keenly intelligent and quick-tongued as Rynn, but he has the wild, shifty eyes of a fisher cat on the prowl. In the opening scene, he makes his way into Rynn’s sanctum on Halloween, insisting with faux-friendliness that his kids will be stopping by to trick or treat (in a horrifying reveal, we later learn that he’s telling the truth). Sheen had, of course, played a serial killer just three years prior in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, but his work here is far more vicious and terrifying; one can imagine an alternate timeline in which Sheen had Christopher Walken’s career (which, in turn, conjures the image of Walken playing the president on The West Wing, but I digress).
But while Rynn and Frank are the most memorable characters, they fit perfectly into the strange Maine of the film which is seemingly populated by oddballs, from Smith’s Mrs. Hallet, who storms through the house with WASPy authority under the pretense of retrieving some jam jars, to a kindly but dim police officer (played by Brill Building songwriter Mort Shuman, who also supervised the soundtrack). Jacoby is particularly memorable and charming as Mario, who spends much of the film biking around town in a top hat and cape*. The screenplay is dense and idiosyncratic, with characters snapping barbs back and forth with lightning precision. It all plays into the weird, hermetic world of the film, which often feels something like a groovier Shirley Jackson story. It’s a wonderfully offbeat, feel-bad Halloween selection; it may not have spooks, but the final image of Foster will haunt you for a long, long time.
* – I should probably mention here that The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane also belongs to that Blue Lagoon cycle of films which attempted to push the limits of onscreen sexuality in children; though presented as daring and progressive at the time, these films now often play as decidedly icky. The relationship between Rynn and Mario is genuinely sweet and by no means explicit, but it is undeniably sexual, and there is a scene of brief nudity which would absolutely not fly today. This is a relatively minor aspect of the film (so to speak), but if this subject matter is a dealbreaker for you, consider yourself warned.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
dir. Nicolas Gessner
Screens on 35mm Thursday, 10/27, 8:00pm @ Somerville Theatre
Part of the series: Halloween Hullabaloo 2