Jennifer Lawrence is one of the best young actresses out there. She came on to the scene in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, which gave her an Oscar nomination. We all know about her take as Katniss in The Hunger Games, where she somehow gave a strong performance despite the role being originally built mostly from inner dialogue (in the book). And her upcoming turn in The Silver Linings Playbook is already garnering Oscar buzz for both her and co-star Bradley Cooper, as well as the film itself.
In late 2010/early 2011 Lawrence headed to Canada to film a horror movie. It was originally due out in theaters in February, pushed back to April, and then pushed back again to September. It hits theaters this weekend and with all that being said, you can almost assuredly guess at the direction I’m heading. When filmmakers hold a film back from release, the movie-loving public generally has a good idea about the quality of your film and House at the End of the Street, in this particular case, will not disappoint the cynics. It is not a terrible movie, as it does offer some tense moments and Lawrence is strong despite her character being about as naive a girl I’ve seen, but it is far from good, and ultimately unravels quicker than you can say “the-image-above-doesn’t-actually-appear-in-the-movie.”
Lawrence plays Elissa, a high school girl who moves into a rural Pennsylvania town (I assume – a girl wears a Penn State sweatshirt at one point, so I’m either going with Pennsylvania or the director was just a really big Joe Paterno fan) with her single mom (Elizabeth Shue, who plays the role with genuine concern, but some noticeable apathy). The only reason they can move into the beautiful home is that it is next door to a home where a double murder occurred four years prior. And yes, we get to see that horrific event, in a prologue that sets an eerie precedent for the remainder of the film. A young girl (we’re told she was 13 when the murder occurred) suffering from brain damage murdered her parents on a dark and stormy night and is rumored to remain living in the woods surrounding the home. Her brother, Ryan (all growed up in the form of Max Thieriot) wasn’t there then (shipped off to live with an aunt) but he now lives in the home that his parents were killed in. Because…. well, there’s really no good reason. He says it’s because it was all given to him when his parents died and that’s he wants to fix it up and re-sell it. Fine. But it definitely doesn’t make him popular with his fellow citizens, as he is branded an “animal” and a “weirdo” by them when they discuss him at potlucks.
But he seems nice enough to Elissa, who starts hanging out with him against her mother’s wishes. She says she “likes the way he sees things” and this young love/lust/rebellious-teenage-phase thing begins to take up both of their time. When she’s not around, however, Ryan has other responsibilities, as very early on in the film, we see him fixing a meal of chicken noodle soup, put it on a tray, and take it down into the basement. Maybe that’s his TV room, you’re thinking… nope. A spiral staircase (because when you’re building down into a dingy basement, why not do it in style?) leads to a hallway with a door at the end. He grabs a key off the top of the door, opens it up, and who attacks him but his darling sister, still in her nightie. He pins her down, shoots her up with some calm-the-hell-down drugs and sighs sadly. “Feel bad for me” is what his demeanor says but “that’s just sad” is what comes to mind first.
So now we have a murderous teenager to be worried about, especially when she gets out, which happens, I kid you not, TWICE! It’s not spoilery to reveal that Ryan has to chase his deranged sister down and stop her from carrying out her evil whims on his new flame, Elissa. And for all that, the first hour of the film is actually decent. There are a couple nice jump scenes for the easily scared and both the direction and the score keep the tension at a high level. But then something happens (I won’t give it away, but I will upon request!) that sets in motion the final 30 minutes or so where Ryan’s mysterious brothering is shown in a brand new light.
I will say this about the film: for all the cliches that it uses (Hey, is that a rug-covered door in the floor? I think I should go down there!) it does keep you guessing. My issue with the film in its entirety is that it snowballs with the side-stories/twists. It’s almost like the writer was moving along with the script and had light bulbs go off like crazy. A perfect example of this is a heartfelt moment where Ryan reveals what happened to Carrie Anne (his sister) to make her brain-damaged. They were on the swings together, holding hands, and he accidentally lets go, which leads to her falling off the swings. Sounds pretty normal, right? Well what if you throw in two heroin addict parents not paying attention to their kids? It just seems out of place and it’s just one example of where the creators of the film out-thought themselves.
What it all really comes down to is that at the screening I was at, unintentional laughter was heard more often than gasps or screams. And when it comes to horror/thrillers, that can’t be the grand design. For every tense scene, there’s a dumb cop with a broken flashlight. For every moment where Lawrence holds it down, there’s another where she’s left to whine and whimper and make her about as stock as possible, which is hard to do with someone of her caliber. And ultimately, for me, any hope that the film had for being recommendable goes out the window with the final minute. The last scene, unnecessary and another victim of that already mentioned over-thought, derails so much of the previous 100 minutes that it’s impossible not to just shake your head.
It’s almost ironic that a film that gives itself the acronym of HATES is as rough as this, because believe me, I’m not the only one out there who isn’t going to like this one. And while I didn’t hate the movie, it does nothing to be memorable in a good way and at the end of the day, could have been delayed indefinitely and no one would have ever noticed.