Families in Crisis in 'House at the End of the Street'
Stuck in a sort of perpetual first gear, the mother and daughter relationship is at the center of House at the End of the Street.
"That house," says Sarah (Elisabeth Shue), "Is the reason we can even afford to rent this house." Just moved in to this house, Sarah and her daughter Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) are gazing across a stand of trees at that house, which would be... the House at the End of the Street.
The trees are thick, the houses are large, it's midday, but still, the sky is dark. Sarah and Elissa don't know exactly what happened in that house, but they've heard stories that, years ago, a little girl named Carrie Anne knifed her parents to death. (Here Elissa notes that when she and her mom lived Chicago, someone was shot every day on their block, but their rent did not decrease.) The lore goes on: the little girl disappeared into those dark woods, and it's only after Sarah and Elissa move in that they learn of a survivor, the psycho-killer's brother Ryan (Max Theriot), who oh-by-the-way is currently living in that house.
If her mom's creeped out by this news, 17-year-old Elissa is inclined to sympathize with the boy. Like him, she imagines, she's spent much of her life on her own, her dad being on the road with his rock band and her mom being an alcoholic (their divorce is the subject of one brief conversation, the point of which is Sarah's lingering resentment). While Elissa goes to the local high school, Sarah goes to work at the local hospital, a job defined her by phone calls home announcing that she's been assigned night shift after night shift, which mean leaving Elissa alone night after night. ("I like being at the hospital," she jokes, "I like the drama"). On one such evening, Elissa finds herself at a party with a liar and bully named Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk), which leads to the obligatory scene where she's trying to walk home on a lonely road just as it begins to pour down rain: Ryan suddenly appears in his dad's creaky Cadillac to offer her a ride.
Apparently unschooled in how to initiate friendships, Elissa clambers into the car and announces, "Your parents got killed." She knows enough to apologize, but Ryan appreciates her honesty: "You only said what you're thinking," he observes, the same and only thing everyone thinks when they meet him. As the incipient couple appears in a series of close-ups, their tense faces suggest they're not quite sorting out their mutual attraction and repulsion. They exchange a few notes on music -- she's a singer, he's heard her singing in the morning, he's still using cassette tapes, she's going to make him a mix CD -- and then they're arrived in her driveway, the rain stopped, so they can now observe how quiet it is out here in the boonies. Ryan likes the quiet, he says, he likes to sit outside at dawn and "write stuff, like stories."
All this is to say that Elissa, if she's seen a horror movie recently, should know not to hang out with this kid. He says he's taking courses at a community college (and you see him typing something on his laptop late at night) and he doesn’t say what we see early on, that he's keeping a secret in his basement, a secret named Carrie Anne. In fact, Ryan's story is prodigiously uninspired and predictable, even if he's rigged an elaborate system of locked doors and stairways and straps and injections to keep his secret. Elissa's story might have been made for a less convoluted film, as she begins to make friends at school (she joins a band) and also feel conflicted about her mom. Sarah doesn’t help Elissa's careening from anger to desire, tending to be both obnoxiously overprotective (she calls home a lot) and generically obtuse, absent or drunk whenever the moment calls for her to be very present.
Stuck in a sort of perpetual first gear, the mother and daughter relationship in House at the End of the Street recalls a few other rather infamous and similar relationships, say, Nancy and her mom's in Nightmare on Elm Street. In this, it both opens and closes down possibilities, as the point of such tensions is to isolate Sarah and Elissa. When Sarah suggests her concern about a boy who's been so traumatized so early in life, Elissa pushes back: "He's really sweet and sad and lonely," she says, then, when her mom frowns, not hearing her, she turns sarcastic: "We dropped shrooms and had unprotected sex." While Sarah recognizes her own communication problem (and, you gather, probably spent her adolescence doing exactly what Elissa just said), she's unable to repair it.
Elissa's frustration with her single mom is exacerbated when she starts comparing her experience with a photo she spots in Ryan's home, a photo of a smiling nuclear unit. Because you see that this photo is abjectly false (his parents were crack addicts, a point made in warpy, light-flashy, ugly flashbacks that can’t actually be his), you know how wrong Elissa's fantasizing has gone, but as she continues to seek out a romance with Ryan, you also see that her choices have more to do with her efforts to reach her mom than with an actual affection for him. And as Ryan's affects begin more and more to resemble Norman Bates', Elissa's dilemma only turns more vivid and silly. It's helpful though unnecessary that Sarah states the obvious, that her daughter wants "to save him," that she's always trying to fix people (a familiar description of children with alcoholic parents that hospital employee Sarah should recognize).
This dilemma is necessary to get Elissa to where she needs to be, in the scary house with the scary monster. As she makes her way through dark rooms and perversely long corridors, wounded and dirtied and wearing a clingy wife-beater, Elissa is that girl in that house: you know where she's headed, even if she doesn't.