There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, you never know what you may find if you wander too far away from the main road…
Distributed by: American International
Directed by: Nicolas Gessner
So, you probably have heard a story where there’s something sinister, and there are kids involved. Some reworking of a story the Brothers Grimm have told or something by or inspired by Stephen King with the kids coming face-to-face with something disturbing or unsettling.
But what about a story where the kids are the unsettling thing?
It’s hard to summarize this film’s plot objectively in print, especially for people who haven’t seen it before, because there’s something lost in doing so. Because the movie unfolds in dialogue through characters relating their own secrets, or secrets held by others and used against them, there’s an aura the film builds through their words, like blood spatter dripping down softly colored paper and making intricate patterns, which can’t be appreciated in the retelling. It’s like photos of unfamiliar food; yes, you know what it may look like, but without the aromas there’s no context to what you’re seeing.
We can give some sense of what the film is through describing its elements, while encouraging that you watch the film itself for the full effect. We can start with the setting: Wells Harbor, Maine, an out of the way town built on quaint isolation and underlying racism, where the well-heeled hate those outsiders, all those Italians coming in and all and can’t accept anything that’s too outside their experience.
We have 13-year-old Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster), who is very outside their experience. She’s a young lady who lives in a rented house with her father, a man who we never see for reasons we’re ultimately allowed to know. She behaves like an adult many years older than she states her age to be, and one who’s clearly cleverer than anyone else whom she runs into.
We have Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen), whose mother (Alexis Smith) rented the house to the Jacobs. While his mom is snobby and takes airs with Rynn, Frank is into the young tenant, and would like to get to know her better. Intimately, in a very pervy manner.
Then there’s Mario (Scott Jacoby), a young man Rynn’s age, who limps and does magic for children’s shows. He has an immediate connection with Rynn, because like her he doesn’t defer to adults either, and only seems to get along with one, his uncle, police officer Miglioriti (Mort Shuman) — and yes, we mean that Mort Shuman, who with Doc Pomus and others would write many of the songs that made up the early canon of rock and roll. Originally, Shuman was asked to do the score for the film as well, but his arranger Christian Gaubert ended up taking on the task. Shuman does, however, end up in the credits as “Music Supervisor.”
Speaking of writing, the screenplay by was adapted by Laird Koenig from his 1974 novel of the same name, which started out originally as a play. The fact that so much unfolds through character monologues, going at its own pace to catch you up with the backstory and accompany you along with the unfolding action, shows its DNA quite plainly and could have been a fatal flaw in the wrong hands.
Which the material was certainly not. Foster was seven years into her busy career, and had just finished doing Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese; going straight to Quebec where the film was shot (one of the first productions encouraged to shoot up north thanks to Canadian tax credits, which are common today) right after playing Iris, the street-smart child hooker, made her the most qualified actor at the time for the role. She could pull from places for her character few known actors at the time could have, and the character fits her well.
In terms of handling the material placed before them, most of the rest of the cast does quite well with the passages they have to unpack, but Sheen’s Frank is of special note. He brings the right level of menacing and pathetic to give us the full worth of his Frank, such as it is; the way he plays off of Foster’s Rynn propels the film into a final showdown with considerable tension as the two square off with dialogue that moves like a well-choreographed duel.
The end result of such fortuitous casting did manage to get some notice. While many professional critics were unable to warm up to a story about a precocious young girl fending off a child molester on her own, the film was recognized at the 1977 Saturn Awards, and won that year for Best Horror Film and Best Actress for Foster, a good 15 years before she would be in a similar position at the Academy Awards for The Silence of the Lambs.
It’s an accomplishment, however, that most people lost sight of; that year, the ceremony was syndicated on television, and host William Shatner burned himself into our psyches with an audacious bit for the audience:
That’s what sometimes happens when you go places too far off the main path. And while we could do as Sheen would advise while playing Willard a few years later in Apocalypse Now, “Never get out of the boat,” we’d probably miss something if we did.
NEXT TIME: So, how did you survive the horrifying musical dystopian world of 1980?