(by Dustin Putman
When "House at the End of the Street" was first announced, studio Relativity Media said that their aim was to make a modern thriller in the vein of "Psycho." The similarities are there, some more overt than others (and some that should definitely go unspoken for spoiler purposes), but to compare a distaff, half-hearted genre piece like this to Hitchcock is almost like comparing "Meet the Spartans" to "Airplane!" in the annals of slapstick comedy. The bare framework is there, but the people behind the camera have no idea what it was that worked so well the first time around. Article continues below
Hoping to get away from the big city and start fresh following a divorce, Sarah Cassidy (Elisabeth Shue) gets a great deal on a house in the small Pennsylvania burg of Woodshire. Teenage daughter Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) is well aware of why: the house next door to them is where a double homicide occurred four years earlier. The legend goes that a 13-year-old girl murdered her parents and escaped into the woods, never to be seen again. She was presumed to drown, but a body was never recovered. That left the elder son, Ryan (Max Thieriot), with the property and their inheritance. The other people of the town gossip behind his back, but when Elissa meets him - he offers her a ride when she's left stranded in the rain - she can't help but feel sorry for him and be drawn to his quiet sensitivity. Sarah, overprotective because she doesn't want her daughter to make the same mistakes she did at seventeen, is not so sure about Elissa hanging out with a guy in college. She has a reason to worry, all right, but not about their age difference; unbeknownst to them or anyone, Ryan is keeping his thought-dead psychotic sister locked downstairs.
"House at the End of the Street" is the first theatrically released film by director Mark Tonderai, and it is marred by all the mistakes of a novice who has watched a lot of horror movies, but never quite figured out the key ingredients that made a good one effective. The prologue, depicting the killings of the Jacobson parents by their own little girl, should get the picture off to a boldly chilling start, but it is figuratively and almost literally bloodless and far too stylistically braggy - enough with the overexposed film flashes! - to have the desired effect. As the present-day story proper gets going, wimpy attempts at jump scares are tossed in out of fear that viewers won't be able to sit still for a careful, methodic build. Walking through the woods, Elissa is jolted when a flock of birds screech off-screen and are heard flying away. In another scene, the snapping of a single twig as Elissa walks up her driveway is enough to make her visibly suspicious.
Credit is due to screenwriter David Loucka (2011's "Dream House") for cursorily developing a pair of plausible relationships, one strained and the other abuzz with the sensations of possible first love. Unfortunately, the material between Elissa and mother Sarah, at odds with each other as the latter tries to be a more available parent, and Elissa and Ryan, who share a few sweet bonding moments together, is undermined by director Mark Tonderai's heavy hand. He tosses in false alarms and instrumental stingers, a subplot that goes nowhere in which Elissa joins a "Battle of the Bands" competition, and - oh, yeah - that rascally sister down in the cellar. When it comes time to deliver the horror goods, though, he's like a shrinking violet so deathly afraid of overstepping his PG-13 boundaries that he comes close to making it a PG-rated fright-fest fit for the whole family. Cue Elissa wandering around foreboding places and investigating strange noises. Later, a kindly police officer, and then a worried Sarah, do the same thing. Cat-and-mouse games ensue - they, finally, are rather taut - but the simultaneous plot holes and gaps in logic take precedence the more one thinks about them.
Jennifer Lawrence, who shot this before 2012's "The Hunger Games," holds attention and makes for an amiable protagonist, albeit one who is strikingly nosey; when she first goes to Ryan's house, she opens the door herself, walks in, and proceeds to explore every room as he scurries behind her. What's most important here is that she looks fit and appropriately curvy when she strips down to the bare essentials in time for the climax. As Sarah, Elisabeth Shue (2010's "Piranha") brings class to a part that's slightly less thankless than the usual parental unit, while Max Thieriot (2010's "My Soul to Take") gives Ryan a polite, disarming quality easy to root for. His dirty secret, as it were, is revealed very early on, and yet the viewer still pulls for him. This may be less the case once some key additional revelations come to light during the third act.
The more one thinks about certain plot developments in "House at the End of the Street," the more questions that arise. There is a throwaway line spoken by a police officer shoehorned in to hopefully silence the biggest oversight of them all, but let's just say it's not exactly airtight. In regards to the aforementioned "Psycho," it's impossible to miss the references and borrowed ideas. In fact, Brian De Palma did something similar and far more auspicious in the superbly lurid 1980 shocker "Dressed to Kill." What was psychologically complex and perverse decades ago and remains so today, however, is treated here like it's come from the simplistic, superficial hands of a grade schooler in search of a cheap thrill. "House at the End of the Street" isn't without a heart, as glimpsed in a final teary exchange between mother and daughter as Elissa remembers something special Ryan shared with her that she chooses to keep for herself. Alas, too much of the film doesn't know what it wants to be or how to go about doing it. When in doubt, it drops its IQ to pander unsuccessfully to teenyboppers, then calls it a day.