What is it that induces up-and-coming young actress to gravitate toward movies about spooky old houses? First Elizabeth Olsen chose the single-take bomb “Silent House,” and now Jennifer Lawrence, straight off the double whammy of “Winters’ Bone” and “The Hunger Games,” is seen to much lesser advantage in this thriller.
To be fair, “House at the End of the Street” is superior to “Silent House.” It actually has a coherent story and is shot in a way that doesn’t make it seem as if cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak’s primary purpose was to cause nausea (though he does overuse hand-held close-ups) But ultimately it’s just an old-fashioned shocker—“Psycho” crossed with “Jane Eyre,” and reworked for the teeny-bobber crowd. But it lives up to neither of its exalted models. The problem is that screenwriter David Loucka (working from a story by Jonathan Mostow) is no Bronte or Bloch, and director Mark Tonderai is certainly no Hitchcock or Robert Stevenson.
Lawrence stars as Elissa, a high-schooler who moves into a “dream house” with her mother Sarah (Elisabeth Shue). They can afford the place, beside a nature preserve, because the house next door was the scene of a brutal crime in which a young girl killed her parents and then abruptly disappeared. Now only the family’s son Ryan (Max Thieriot) lives there, a semi-recluse who’s shunned by the entire town.
Against Sarah’s wishes, Elissa strikes up a relationship with sad-eyed, reticent Ryan, which sends Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk), the slimy son of a nearby rich couple whose advances Elissa had already rebuffed, into a rage against Ryan. But luckily the boy has a defender in a good-guy cop (Gil Bellows), who also takes a shine to Sarah, even though she’s a really emotional sort. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal all the contortions to the plot, but suffice it to say that they’re all derivative, starting with the frantic girl locked away in a basement—which isn’t much of a spoiler, given that it’s revealed within the first thirty minutes—and proceeding from there. Some of the twists you can easily predict from the better movies we’ve all seen that it’s copying.
Still, by the standards of the largely plotless, anything-goes psychological thrillers the studios produce nowadays, this one is nearly classical in terms of its construction, even if the level of implausibility is astronomical. It’s a violation of trust with the audience, however, to use a deliberately misleading flashback, even if it’s eventually explained.
The cast is better than what usually finds in genre pieces. Lawrence brings some welcome shading to Elissa, who’s more than a little estranged from Sarah, and though Shue indulges in her tendency to overact, she’s a pretty classy choice for the mother part. Thieriot, who’s matured substantially in the two years since “My Soul To Take,” is fairly effective at maintaining ambiguity about Ryan, so long as the script allows him to. The rest of the cast is okay, as are the other technical aspects of the picture.
Film fans might enjoy the homage to past masters that “House at the End of the Street” represents. But it lacks the imagination to transform its inspiration into a movie that’s satisfying in itself.