Jennifer Lawrence has come far as an actress these past two years, thanks to her gutsy breakout performance in Winter’s Bone – which snagged her an Oscar nod – as well as her roles in the blockbusters X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games. She even managed to leave an impression while playing paper-thin love interests in such indie titles as Like Crazy and The Beaver, thanks to her livewire presence and bombshell appearance. Lawrence is currently generating awards buzz for her performance in The Silver Linings Playbook, which arrives later this fall.
However, it’s pretty much an unofficial rule that every big-name actor and actress out there has some lackluster horror title on their resume, which they made either before or around the time their Hollywood star began rising. House at the End of the Street has the makings of just that, judging by its unimpressive marketing campaign and delayed release date. But does the film exceed expectations, lifted up by yet another engaging performance from its starlet?
In a word… no.
House at the End of the Street is an underwhelming film that lifts story elements straight from other, superior, works, but fails to do anything interesting or creative with them. David Louka’s screenplay suffers from many of the same problems that plagued his script for last year’s Dream House – including, a cumbersome three-act structure and predictable plot twists that don’t add much to the proceedings. Lawrence does as well as one can reasonably expect – given what she has to work with – but the remainder of the cast proves to be less capable of breathing life into what are, admittedly, weakly-written characters.
The story revolves around divorced nurse Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) and her teenage musician daughter Elissa (Lawrence), who are able to afford their… well, dream house in an upscale rural town, since it borders an apparently-abandoned home where a girl named Carrie Anne murdered her parents four years earlier. Sarah, however, is not pleased when she learns the property is occupied by the family’s grown son Ryan (Max Thieriot) – a wounded artistic soul who moved back home after his parents were killed – not to mention that crazy Carrie Anne vanished without a trace (nudge, nudge).
Elissa encounters Ryan (after running afoul of Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk), a high school stud who shows his true colors when he drunkenly hits on Elissa) and the two artists are immediately taken with one another, much to Sarah’s further chagrin. It’s not a spoiler to say Ryan has been keeping a lid on some dark secrets, which threaten to harm Elissa as she grows closer and closer to the mysterious boy-next-door.
If you read that synopsis and were left wondering whether House at the End of the Street is a thriller about the dirty truth behind a prosperous town’s shiny veneer – or perhaps a drama about a mother looking for a fresh start with her daughter – or maybe even a Jane Eyre-style tale about an enigmatic man who’s got something to hide – the truth is, it wants to be all that (and more). HATES (as the trailers have dubbed it) clumsily shifts gears moment-by-moment throughout the first two acts, before culminating with an overly-repetitious third act that pours on the goofy horror/thriller cliches like there’s no tomorrow.
Director Mark Tonderai doesn’t do the messy script any favors, as he often seems more interested in experimenting with filmmaking techniques than just telling the story. For example, there are a handful of sequences – such as a brief dinner scene with Sarah and Elissa - shot with unsteady handheld camerawork and hectic editing for no apparent reason. Similarly, there are several beats where Tonderai employs visual trickery (slow-mo/fast-mo, shifting lens focus, Dutch camera angles) in such a way that it calls unnecessary attention to the style. To be fair, the prologue does entertain as a piece of Hammer Horror, while there is a a clever use of POV and lighting during the climax. However, those two instances don’t really fit with the style employed throughout the majority of the film.
Lawrence, as mentioned before, is likable as Elissa, but the character doesn’t have much of a personality. She is defined foremost through her actions and feelings about others for the first two-thirds of the film, before being reduced to the archetypal blonde-in-jeopardy during the last half hour. Sarah, by comparison, has a bit more depth, and Shue does well playing as someone who doesn’t have a clear handle on how to be a responsible parent. Unfortunately, she and Lawrence do not have much screen chemistry as a convincing mother-daughter pair.
Ryan is often characterized through dialogue - Elissa constantly refers to him as being quiet and sweet – but Thieriot fails to communicate much more than what’s apparent on the surface. It’s a challenging role, for sure, as the audience must be able to understand the turmoil bubbling beneath Ryan’s nonthreatening exterior, but it cannot be so apparent that Elissa seems completely oblivious for failing to notice. Thieriot, sadly, is not up for the task – though, it does not help that his backstory ultimately proves to be a half-cooked riff on… well, let’s just say that of a more famous movie troubled man who may or may not live alone.
There are other people who get substantial screen time in House at the End of the Street – like Allie MacDonald as Elissa’s new friend Jillian, or Sarah’s would-be love interest Weaver (Gil Bellow) – but their characters either prove to ultimately be superfluous to the story or serve little purpose beyond moving the plot forward. That’s especially true for the aforementioned Tyler, who mostly ends up being a plot device disguised as a one-note jerk (a thankless role, for sure).
House at the End of the Street marks another overly-ambitious effort from Louka to tackle multiple genres within the same script. The end result is a film that borrows so liberally (and strangely) from other movies that it could have been kind of fascinating to watch, but due to confused direction and a mishmash of acting, it’s ultimately kind of bland and forgettable. Unless you really believe getting to see Jennifer Lawrence in a tanktop for the majority of a film is worth the price of admission, this one’s a rental at best.
If you’ve seen the film and want to discuss it – head over to our House at the End of the Street Spoilers Discussion, please.
House at the End of the Street is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and terror, thematic elements, language, some teen partying and brief drug material.