House at the End of the Street: Film Review

Feisty girl + troubled young man + house full of ugly secrets = hackneyed horror movie you've seen a hundred times before, even if Jennifer Lawrence keeps it watchable.

Jennifer Lawrence, Elisabeth Shue and Max Thieriot grapple with the legacy of a double parricide and a whole lot of other nasty business in Mark Tonderai's horror thriller.

NEW YORK -- The pointedly generic title sounds like either a remake or a genre-bender along the lines of The Cabin in the Woods. But despite an intriguing setup, sharply drawn central characters and a lead performance from the luminous Jennifer Lawrence that elevates the material a few notches, House at the End of the Street is a by-the-book horror thriller that’s low on scares and suspense.

Directed by Mark Tonderai, who made the 2008 British indie chiller Hush, the slick-looking film is stronger on production values than storytelling. Following the Jim Sheridan dud Dream House, it marks the second botched attempt by screenwriter David Loucka to juice up tired horror conventions in less than a year.

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Working from a story by Jonathan Mostow, Loucka samples from a variety of sources that range from Psycho to The People Under the Stairs. But from the moment Plot Point A is disclosed in a big reveal almost exactly a half-hour in, the film becomes first inane, then dull and then ludicrous. While the screenplay works overtime to keep throwing convoluted twists at us, it becomes increasingly easy to stay a few beats ahead.

The principal saving grace is Lawrence as Elissa. The classic modern horror heroine, she’s an independent-minded, fearless, whip-smart high schooler who looks sizzling in a tank top. Following her parents’ divorce, Elissa moves from Chicago to small-town Pennsylvania with her mother, hospital worker Sarah (Elisabeth Shue), looking for a fresh start in a house that backs onto lush state forest. But wait a minute, what’s that eerie place just beyond the trees?

Turns out that house was the scene of a double murder four years earlier, in which a young girl hacked up Mom and Dad one night. She must have had her reasons. In any case, the kid was presumed drowned, but her body never found. Local teens like to feed rumors that she’s still alive, wandering the forest at night, while their parents just bitch about the notorious crime’s drag on property values.

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But the house is not empty. The girl’s loner brother Ryan (Max Thieriot), who was reportedly away at the time of the killings, still lives there and forms an attachment with Elissa. His aura of vulnerability and hurt clicks with her history of collecting damaged kids and making them her project. “Sometimes people can’t be fixed,” frets Sarah, a former high school slut now making a belated effort to be a better parent. But Elissa won’t be deterred. She’s also too cool to be creeped out once Ryan starts acting weird.

While Lawrence is such a magnetic presence that she holds your attention even as the story takes a dive, the actress also highlights the weakness of the script. Why a girl as savvy and street-smart as Elissa would stick around in situations long after the danger alarm has sounded makes less and less sense, even within the elastic logic of the genre. And Lawrence projects such kick-ass strength that she seems a match for any menace.

Sadly, Shue’s Sarah is denied the requisite redemptive “Get away from my daughter!” line in the climactic violence. But pretty much every other cliché of the formula is mined. What’s more irritating, however, is the absence of foreshadowing for key plot triggers like the extreme violence that preppy scum Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk) and his buddies unleash upon Ryan, or the failure even to mention any investigation when it appears that more than one girl from the area has gone missing. And why is well-meaning cop Weaver (Gil Bellows) so trusting and protective of Ryan?

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In lieu of sound plotting and actual tension, Tonderai attempts to amp up the atmosphere in postproduction, with jump scares, flickering lights and frequent manipulation of sound, visuals and image speed as Theo Green’s music thunders away. But these are all standard tricks in a banal entry that pretends to be something more complex.

The digitally shot movie does have a sleek look; cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak makes good use of the widescreen frame with some unsettling low angles, edgy handheld work and beautiful lighting of the forest scenes. And with a couple of minor exceptions, the actors are all more than capable. What’s lacking is an intelligent script.

Opens: Friday, Sept. 21 (Relativity Media)
Production companies: FilmNation Entertainment, A Bigger Boat
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Elisabeth Shue, Max Thieriot, Gil Bellows, Eva Link, Nolan Gerard Funk, Allie MacDonald
Director: Mark Tonderai
Screenwriter: David Loucka; story by Jonathan Mostow
Producers: Aaron Ryder, Peter Block, Hal Lieberman
Executive producers: Allison Silver, Sonny Mallhi, Steve Samuels, Anthoni Visconsi II, Dominic Visconsi Jr., Ryan Kavanaugh, Tucker Tooley
Director of photography: Miroslaw Baszak
Production designer: Lisa Soper
Music: Theo Green
Costume designer: Jennifer Stroud
Editor: Steven Mirkovich
Rated PG-13, 101 minutes