House at the End of the Street (review)

House at the End of the Street red light Jennifer Lawrence Max Thieriot

I’m “biast” (pro): love Jennifer Lawrence

I’m “biast” (con): very tired of unimaginative horror movies

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

As I awoke myself* and stumbled from the multiplex after my public screening of the not-screened-for-critics** House at the End of the Street, I tweeted that the scariest thing about the flick is wondering what on Earth possessed the awesome and powerful Jennifer Lawrence to take on such a role. And I was almost instantly alerted, by my wonderfully clued-in Twitter followers, to the fact that this movie actually predates The Hunger Games. In fact — as I discovered during some Googling — shooting on House began only weeks after Winter’s Bone got its initial very limited release, and months before the wholly warranted Jennifer Lawrence lovefest commenced during 2010’s awards season, culminating in the actress’s well-deserved Oscar nomination. So she wasn’t yet the golden It Girl she is today.

And still… the scariest thing about House at the End of the Street is that this sort of junk is considered a good career move for a young actress who’s just come off a small film from a respected indie director and, indeed, already had a slew of respectable TV and indie credits before that. Options for commanding young female actors should not be so limited in Hollywood. How is it possible that no one has the vision to carve a regular space for badass girls?

Because this right here? This is banal, lazy filmmaking that cannot even be bothered to be cheerfully cheap and cheesy, which is, for some horror fans, more than enough. It is, however, still stuck in the same-old put-the-pretty-girl-in-jeopardy rut, which means that Jennifer Lawrence is trapped in something that is constitutionally unable to allow her to be the strong, competent young woman she arrived as. It’s just not within the genetic makeup of a story like this.

But wait! Here you get two women in jeopardy! There’s Lawrence’s high-schooler Elissa and her mom, Sarah (Elisabeth Shue: Hope Springs, Hamlet 2), who’ve just moved into this unnamed semi-rural neighborhood, where the next house down, the house at the end of the street, was the scene of a double murder a few years earlier. (IMDB commenters celebrate a “hot” mother-daughter pairing. I despair of yet another fantastic actress and screen presence, in Shue, who should be getting meatier roles than what she’s saddled with here.) Both mother and daughter think it’s weird and creepy how the other oh-so Stepford residents villify college student Ryan (Max Thieriot: Chloe, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl) for living in the house where his little sister allegedly killed their parents… but still, Mom does not want Elissa hanging around with Ryan too much, and certainly not the two of them alone in either house. And as for Ryan’s family… well, you don’t even need to have seen many horror films to know that there’s more there than we’ve yet heard.

Helicopter parenting and how kids fight it is as close to a theme or a subtext that screenwriters David Loucka and Jonathan Mostow (U-571, Breakdown) aim for, and it’s about the only thing that connects the first chunk of the film — the narcoleptic initial 60 minutes — with the WTF finale, which turns on a “twist” you will have guessed within about 30 seconds of hearing Ryan’s story if you’ve seen any horror films before. Not that I mean to imply that the film deals in any sort of interesting way with overbearing parents: it does not. Indeed, House commits the most unforgivable crime of any movie: it’s about what it’s about in the most obvious, uninteresting way possible, offering us no new ideas to ponder and not even a slight variation on any old ideas. It’s hard to see what, if anything, director Mark Tonderai was trying to convey beyond, Uhhh, pretty girl! Pretty girl in danger! Uhhh! like some sort of cinematic Igor compelled to put her in danger yet powerless to stop it.

Seeing a talent like Lawrence — and Shue, to a lesser degree, if only because of her smaller role here — plopped into the umpteenth repetition of this familar charade only highlights its limitations. And it doesn’t even do that in an unintentionally interesting way, either.

*Disclaimer: I’m exaggerating. I have never actually fallen asleep during a movie.
**In the U.K. In New York and Los Angeles, at least, there was a screening on the evening before it opened.

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