‘House at the End of the Street’ Review
A toothless, imagination-free, entertainment dead zone is what 'House at the End of the Street' is; the kind of movie that seems to find inspiration not from great films but dull, similarly derivative ones. It shamefully wastes the obvious talents of its young actors with material so paltry that you feel bad for everyone involved. Except for the filmmakers who are trying to put one over on the audience, of course.
The film's troubles are quite apparent from the opening sequence, which sees a creepy girl murdering her parents with a crowbar. Sounds creepy, sure, and it could have been a thoroughly disturbing scene if executed well, but directed Mark Tonderai isn't content to let the eerie idea work on you alone; he has to set his cameras to “freak out” mode so that they're shaking, zooming, blurring in and out of focus and generally acting so spastic that the audience is left disoriented for all the wrong reasons. A bad sign for 'House at the End of the Street' if this is what passes for scary.
Cut to four years later, and we meet the mother-daughter team of Sarah (Elizabeth Shue) and Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence), recently moved to a nondescript small town from Chicago on one of those “this will be good for us” moves that city people make in films like this. Dad has fled the scene (he was a rocker), and mom is still getting used to being responsible (she was a rocker chick and is only now taking her parental duties seriously), while Elissa just... is. The film flat out forgets to make Elissa interesting; in fact, it's so very lucky to have a natural like Lawrence at its disposal, because Elissa would rate as the most colorless teenaged girl in the world otherwise.
But I digress. The mom-and-daughter show move into a very nice house, one that happens to sit not too far away from the opening sequence's murder house. The only remaining member of the tragic family is Ryan (Max Theriot), the disturbed daughter's brother who was away at the time of the horrific incident. Ryan doesn't have many friends in this town, everyone treats him like a freak (he is pretty odd), but Elissa, who we learn has a penchant for “fixing” people, is immediately drawn to the shy lad. He in turn is drawn to her, because, well, he doesn't have anyone else with whom to talk. He's ashamed of his legacy, and Elissa isn't afraid of it... even though there is a rumor his sister is still hanging around.
For you see, young “Carrie Ann” was never found after she bludgeoned her folks. She ran off and presumably died somewhere in the forests that surround the town, but the locals have taken to spooking each other with tales of Carrie Ann wandering the woods. But that's crazy talk, of course. She's actually in Ryan's basement. At least, that's who the strange young girl he keeps locked up there must be...
All of this is played out in monotonous expository sequences; before long, the movie firmly settles into a dreary pattern of Elissa-Ryan scene, Elissa-Sarah scene, “Carrie Ann” gets into shenanigans scene, repeat. The story is stunningly devoid of any hint of ingenuity when it comes to its central idea; melodrama or outright cheesiness would be preferable in place of the bland way 'House' goes about business. Even the obligatory jump scares are carried out halfheartedly, each one of them telegraphed a mile away. The only thing working hard behind the camera is the score, which blares overbearingly throughout every suspense scene as if trying to will some life into it. The effect is laughable.
And let's not even discuss the third act, at which point the film abandons any pretense that logic or credibility exist in this world. It's actually kind of pathetic watching the movie as it gives up and flails about, trotting out weary cliches the 'Scream' series lampooned into the ground over a decade ago. (Really? Are you really going to walk up to the unconscious villain and reach for something right next to them?)
The truly depressing thing about the film is watching its actors flounder. Lawrence shot this before her star-making turn in 'The Hunger Games' (though after she emerged on the radar with her tremendous 'Winter's Bone' performance) and frankly, there's no way in hell she'd appear in this sorry production if she were already a household name. She does the best she can with a one-dimensional character, though she's too often reduced to standard horror movie heroine cliches. (The camera ogles her sweaty body like a perv in the third act.) You just want to pull her out of this mess and take her to a better movie.
Theriot is not quite in the same league as Ms. Lawrence, but he's well cast here, even if the Ryan character becomes more predictable with every passing moment. He's not a bad actor, he just needs to fire his agent: In this and Wes Craven's regrettable 'My Soul to Take,' Theriot works sturdily to overcome trite, drastically undercooked horror junk. It's a losing battle, but it's only because he can't make something out of nothing. And 'House at the End of the Street', at the end of the day, is nothing much at all.
'House at the End of the Street' hits theaters September 21.