Jennifer Lawrence didn’t need this. Not now. After all, this is an actress who has scored so much commendable career cache in the last few years that a bland and boring offering like The House at the End of the Street can only lessen her apparent value. From her Oscar nod for Winter’s Bone to her turn as Katniss Everdeen in the cultural phenom known as The Hunger Games (with a stop off as Mystique in the new X-Men franchise), her current creative import extends way beyond the stupid genre junk pile you see here. This is the kind of recycled scary movie mediocrity that still believes in the telegraphed shock, the slow burn subterfuge and a killer who may, or may not, be dead. Toss in a pointless twist, slapdash high school hijinx and a ridiculous core premise and you’ve got something that can’t help but stink to high heaven.
Having been uprooted from her life as a wannabe rocker in Chicago, 17-year-old Elissa Cassidy (Lawrence) joins her newly divorced mom (Elisabeth Shue) in a wooded area in the outlying suburbs. There, they find a ridiculously cheap rental located – wouldn’t you know it – near the scene of a horrific double murder. Apparently, a young girl named Carrie Ann took a hammer to her mother and father, killing them both. She then ran off into the forest and is considered dead…or is she? Now, the last remaining member of the family, a quiet and sensitive boy named Ryan (Max Thieriot), has moved back in and is trying to restore the home to sell it. Elissa becomes infatuated with the sullen outsider while the rest of suburbia thinks him a scandal. Of course, he is keeping a secret, one which could threaten not only the safety of our heroine, but the truth behind that terrible night.
The House at the End of the Street is like a young adult novel which fell into the fright zone by accident. If offers up the typical alienated teen tropes, an adolescent angry at her ‘groupie-whore’ mother, absentee if still bad-ass musician dad, and a world made up of privileged classmate pukes who want to do little more than party and pet. As this overlong excuse for scares meanders about, Elissa gets to insult her parent, play miserable shoe-gazing songs, and cast her permanently jaundiced eyes on everyone and everything she sees. It’s like an episode of Dawson’s Creek with occasional bows to someone like Jack Ketchum. There is nothing remotely scary about Ryan, even if he is frequently traveling to the cellar under the basement to deal with ‘something’ in a locked room. Even that very fact, introduced within the first 20 minutes or so of the film, does little except confuse.
In fact, the biggest problem with The House on the End of the Street is that British director Mark Tonderai (the cat and mouse car chase effort Hush) doesn’t understand the basics of fear. You have to establish threat before any level of suspense can be achieved. Seeing a night-gowned ghoul girl running through the trees in the moonlight is not as compelling as learning what she’s capable of, and then witnessing her witching hour journey. Since Ryan is apparently capable of inhuman control, we never once worry that our lead and this babbling banshee will meet. More terrifying are the John Hughes rejects, a group of rich ditch teens who think nothing of flaunting their faked community service and sexual battery tendencies for muddled mutual admiration.
Then there is Ryan’s relatively illogical situation. He’s been living in the house that his parents were killed in. There’s a secret passage under the basement which leads to a room that would make any cop sit up and take note, and yet no one has been around to question him since his return? Or look downstairs? Eventually, the concept of missing persons comes into play, and yet he’s not the prime suspect? Ever? Naturally, there’s a brief attempt at an explanation (the local sheriff, played by Ally McBeal‘s Will Bellows, comments about “covering” for him) but it doesn’t wash. One suburban policeman couldn’t keep an infamous case like this quiet, nor does his complicity make much sense. Since the movie doesn’t establish such things as previous connections or concerns, it’s just a throwaway in a film filled with same.
You can tell Lawrence knows she’s in a lost cause. Her performance is often rendered in one disinterested facial expression. Even as she’s battling for her life (though we never once fear for it), the disdain is ever present. It’s as if she is sending a secret message to her managerial staff, suggesting that the next time a script like this comes across their desk, they pass..with extreme prejudice. After all, there’s nothing here that will make her more bankable. There’s three more Hunger Games films to fill her wallet and an Academy nom to negate such purely commercial credence. It’s as if, right before making it HUGE, the actress agreed to help out some friends. The resulting ridiculousness, dumb as a bag of hammers, becomes that unwarranted question at every junket from now on.
Perhaps the underage crowd, already willing to give Katniss and her cult the benefit of the doubt, will sit through this slop and find it frightening. After all, we are living in an age where the aggressive nature of horror has been rendered inert by pathetic, PG-13 pretenders. As kids, we are all warned about staying away from the creepy old house at the end of the street. In this case, audiences would be wise to heed such advice. The only thing you will find there is boredom…and a baffling career choice.