Written by: David Loucka (screenplay), Jonathan Mostow (story)
Directed by: Mark Tonderai
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Elisabeth Shue and Max Thieriot
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Fear reaches out for the girl next door.
Just about everything about House at the End of the Street--from its title (how many houses have we visited since the last one on the left?) to its psycho-next-door setup--is so rote and mechanical that itís almost shocking when the film takes an interesting turn about midway through. For the briefest of moments, its direction is uncertain, and it has just enough goodwill built with its cast to intrigue with this mid-movie hook. Unfortunately, it turns out itís just the bait, as House at the End of the Street switches to preposterous tedium and PG-13 schlock that diffuses whatever unnerving impact the film might have given its various psychological twists and turns.
As the trailer itself intones, however, letís backtrack to the beginning: Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) and her mother (Elisabeth Shue) have moved to a small town, where theyíve decided to rent a spacious house out in the woods. Mistakenly, the two believe the house next door to be vacated after a heinous double murder involving a young girl killing her parents occurred there four years ago; however, it turns out that Ryan (Max Thieriot), the family son who was sent away to live with an aunt for several years, has returned to his childhood home. He and Elissa hit it off immediately, much to the dismay of her mother, but it turns out that her maternal instinct is right since Ryan is actually keeping his brain-damaged, deranged sister in the cellar of the house.
Even though that sounds like the filmís big hook, there are plenty of secrets left to discover as the film crawls ahead. It doesnít make it easy on itself since it seemingly unpacks everything early and often--we open on the murder scene featuring 13 year old Carrie-Ann stabbing her parents to death, and the story is retold ad nauseam, even when Ryan finally shows up in the movie. After their first encounter, Elissa visits Ryan at his home and essentially has him retrace all of the tragic steps leading up to his parentsí murder at the hands of his sister. Because the script wants to spoon-feed the information to its audience, it has its characters (particularly Elissa, whose conversational ice-breaker is ďyour parents were murderedĒ) act nothing like normal human beings. While itís natural that Elissa would be curious about something like this, it comes off as stilted and unnatural, as if the film would rather just bury you under an avalanche of exposition instead of truly liking its characters.
The obviousness of it all nearly lulls you to sleep, so much so that House at the End of the Street feels more like a typical teen movie. Elissa and her mom are constantly clashing because the latterís just now decided to be a decent mom after Elissaís dad has raised her all this time. No real details are provided to flesh this stuff out (a flaw that permeates throughout the script), but Shueís character was apparently a bit of a wild child, so sheís grown up to be the overprotective type. Elissaís first few days in town reveal some pretty slim social prospects; during a potluck, sheís set up with what seems like the townís most upstanding young citizen, a guy who started a famine relief club and everything. However, one date rape attempt later, and the weird, brooding boy next door suddenly seems pretty appealing. Itís either Night of the Living Bro or a college guy housing a psychotic, long thought-dead sibling down in his basement.
She chooses the latter, and, in doing so, seemingly hinges all the suspense on the central dramatic irony--just how long will this budding romance last until Carrie-Ann bursts forth from her prison to wreck everything for her brother? Instead, the film takes a hard left just when it looks resigned to trudging through all of the motions, and it treads into exciting territory for all of five minutes before utterly careening into the wall is it attempts to wind and wend through a series of ludicrous twists. Each is more absurd than the last, and the film ultimately pilfers from a few different (and mostly better) horror flicks from the past, and they come at such a rate that everyone involved must have counted on the audience simply refusing to think about the logic behind it all. None of it stands up to the faintest of scrutiny, but even thatíd be forgivable if the film had anything in the way of genuine scares or imagery; instead, it just boils down to another scantily-clad girl in peril poking around a creepy house, a recipe thatís only full of loud jolts and tame violence. Whatever interest it might have actually had in its characters is sacrificed for inane plotting that actually contorts the character dynamics into an unappealing position that almost justifies a savage mob mentality that emerges out of left field (can you tell Iím tip-toeing around spoilers here?).
Anyway, I guess itís true that most films like this canít boast Jennifer Lawrence as its girl in peril, and sheís pretty good here. Anyone whoís seen her in Winterís Bone knows sheís the real deal, and that shows through here too, even when sheís saddled with unbearable dialogue and character beats. Shue is also solid, while Thieriot can effectively brood in the role of the sad guy with the sad story that everyone wants to repeat for maximum sadness. For a movie thatís so ridiculous, House at the End of the Street sure is dire and severe; had it any sort of manic pulse, Iíd say itís destined to be future bad-movie classic (I think My Soul to Take is inching towards that status as we speak). However, itís never really that bad, so itíll instead go down in the same category as stuff like Dream House (which shares screenwriter David Loucka in its credits, so go figure): movies that waste an enormous amount of talent both on screen and off of it, as the fine cast goes wasted along with the involvement of Jonathan Mostow, who penned the original story. Ultimately, itíll probably just serve as a footnote and the answer to future trivia questions that ask which horror movie Jennifer Lawrence starred in early in her career. Just about everybody has at least one--some are lucky enough to land in some worth claiming many years later, but House at the End of the Street will be forgotten by the time you exit the theater lobby. Rent it!
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