Directed by Mark Tonderai
Written by Jonathan Mostow
Featuring Jennifer Lawrence, Alexandra MacDonald, Elisabeth Shue, Max Thieriot
I don’t need to tell you the twists and spoilers of House at the End of the Street to tell you what the movie’s like.
I have another story just like it:
One morning, I got up. I took a shower and got dressed. Then I drove to work and worked.
That’s House at the End of the Street, right there—it’s the workday of horror films: A pedestrian, paint-by-the-numbers thriller that manages to overshadow its stellar talent with a featureless script.
After slogging through it like a Subway footlong, I’m under the impression that screenwriter Jonathan Mostow pounded House at the End of the Street out as a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle between other projects. The story of a strained mother-daughter pair moving next door to a suburban murder house and befriending the sole survivor of the slaughter, the creepy post-teen Ryan, could have been produced by skills like Mostow’s on his BlackBerry during bathroom breaks.
The script’s central flaw isn’t that it fails to entertain. It’s that it deals out its scares with as much creativity, romance and enthusiasm as a “Lie Back and Think of the Queen” lover. House at the End of the Street’s screenplay just lines up its reveals, shocks and twists along a braid of exposition and bangs away at the audience. The formula for a thriller is followed as purely as Walter White’s meth recipe, but without any of the zip.
That’s not for lack of trying on the part of the talent, though.
Director Mark Tonderai, a relative rookie with only four other films under his belt, did his damnedest to make this taxidermy bird sing. There’s the customary smash cuts, a scene plunging the audience into darkness and eerie multi-second close-ups on ominous empty spaces. He gets what makes a thriller exciting.
Tonderai even steps up his game with a few stylistic choices I liked. In dialogue scenes, he often keeps the camera within kissing distance. It’s near enough to reveal our character’s flaws, pores and all, and it firms up intensity like a fist. He also uses action at the periphery of a scene particularly well, insinuating threatening actions just at the edge of the screen. That makes full use of the anxiety from the audience’s role as observer. Figure in a talent for bringing beauty to certain shots of the tawdry and the morbid, and you’ve got an impressive effort by Tonderai.
Unfortunately, effort isn’t enough for House at the End of the Street. That’s abundantly clear from any good listen to the dialogue.
Several times throughout the film, I’d dig the lively delivery of a line, only to wince at how bad the actual words are. “I need to protect her” and “he likes you” are given as much emotion, vitality and authenticity as they can hold. Problem being, lean lines like that can only hold so much.
Jennifer Lawrence drifts through the picture like an apparition, sometimes seeming a substantial character and sometimes just a faint echo of the lines she’s given. Lawrence’s mediocrity is still more forceful overall than many a star’s great performance, but if there’s one thing that House at the End of the Street didn’t need more of, it’s flatness. Elizabeth Shue does as fierce a job as she can, rendering single-mom anxiety with a mousetrap’s tension, but she’s also shrouded with pale lines and pitifully predictable situations.
I’d say the real star of the performance is Alexandra “Allie” MacDonald. She’s a wonder worker when it comes to turning screenwriting lead into onscreen gold. Her role of cookie-cutter quirky sidekick to Jennifer Lawrence is about as canned as it gets, but MacDonald brings something special to lines like the aforementioned “he likes you.” Combine lame lines with limited screen time, and I don’t think the part of Jillian will be winning any Golden Globes for Allie. Still, it deserves to win her looks from casting agents. Her facial expressions and intonations made monotone seem to perk, if only for a moment.
If I feel anything about House at the End of the Street, I feel bad for its talent. The script was such obvious ballast, it was like watching puppies drown in a sack. Otherwise, I felt nearly nothing: Not amused, not terribly disappointed, not thrilled and certainly not surprised.
I’ll spare the spoilers, because I know a few fans of the psychological thriller genre will still want to see it. Psycho III hauled in $14 million of viewers, after all. But for the 99%--see what I did there?—I’d lay this additional warning: This plain McDonald’s hamburger of a picture telegraphs its “twists” like a low-level Mike Tyson’s Punchout opponent. I saw the whole thing coming from about five minutes in, and I’m not even patting myself on the back for that. Unless you’ve been living in a Mongolian yurt all your life, or are simply too young to have attended Health Class, you’ll see the shockers coming from a mile off.
Only die-hard fans of flicks like the Psycho series or I Know What You Did Last Summer will find House at the End of the Street to be entertaining. Everybody else will realize that they could have spent the time surfing YouTube and been better off in the amusement department. This just-add-water thriller has very little water in it, save for a handful of good performances and a cleverness or three from the director. Otherwise, it’s as lifeless as reading a Wikipedia synopsis.
Spare yourself a featureless stroll and don’t bother visiting the House at the End of the Street.