House at the End of the Street is pretty much everything I expected, and no more – an atmospheric teen thriller that gets in a few good scares but is on the whole implausible, unoriginal, and not all that memorable. There are aspects of it I appreciated, though. Consider the opening sequence, which effectively establishes mood on nothing more than visuals; a barefoot and nightgown-clad teenager, whose face barely peeks out from behind a veil of greasy black bangs, lumbers awkwardly down a dark hallway before entering the parents’ bedroom and murdering them savagely, presumably with some kind of knife or cutting instrument. Rather than wallow in blood and guts, which would have been far too easy, director Mark Tonderai takes a more artful approach with the scenery, letting images like falling pillow feathers and the sounds of wet body blows do the explaining.
But atmosphere is only part of the reason why the movie held my interest, if only for a while. The unconvincing plot notwithstanding, an effort is made with character development. I’ve seen far too many teen slasher films where the characters are given no personalities and exist primarily as sacrificial lambs for the amusement of gore hounds. I prefer it when we’re actually made to care about them. That way, should something bad happen, our response is one of genuine horror. I also appreciated a thematic undercurrent, namely the idea that sometimes, parents really do know what’s best for their children. It may seem like they’re being nosy or overprotective or disapproving for no apparent reason, but in general, their actions stem from a place of love.
The central character is Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence), a seventeen-year-old high school student who has just moved with her mother, a nurse named Sarah (Elisabeth Shue), from Chicago to an upscale small town in a heavily wooded area. They could afford to rent their dream home, a spacious house nestled in the middle of a state park, only because the neighboring house has driven down property value. That was where the aforementioned murders took place four years earlier; according to the official story, a teenage girl named Carrie-Ann, who suffered brain damage after falling off a swing set, went berserk one night and brutally killed her parents. She then disappeared without a trace. Her older brother, Ryan, was away living with his senile aunt. Upon his return, he was ostracized by the community, a reliable grab bag of rich snobs. He now lives alone in his old house, and according to legend, Carrie-Ann still lives in the woods.
Elissa soon meets Ryan (Max Thieriot), who’s perhaps a bit withdrawn but also seems sweet. Sarah, a recent divorcee who made many mistakes as a teenager, doesn’t completely trust him and feels Elissa’s attraction to him comes from a maternal need to help poor souls. Does she have a reason to mistrust him? His reputation with the intolerant upper crust notwithstanding, she would prefer to know where he came from and why he lives alone in a big house. Elissa, who has a cordial but tense relationship with her mother due to her long shifts at work, feels she’s being judgmental and controlling. Ryan has had it rough and needs to be cut some slack. Officer Weaver (Gil Bellows), a recent acquaintance of Sarah’s, feels the same way. If the townsfolk would just stop harassing Ryan, maybe he could finally get some closure and reintegrate himself in the community.
What no one knows is that there’s a reason why Ryan stays home for extended periods, one that has nothing to do with the way he’s treated. I actually could tell you why, as the secret is revealed fairly early on. But I’m going to keep my mouth shut, in large part because it’s so tightly woven into the fabric of a second plot twist that cannot be revealed. What I can say is that it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to figure either of them out, especially if you’re intimately familiar with the conventions of movies like this. The first twist is intended to misdirect you. The second twist is intended to shock you while at the same time lay the groundwork for the climactic final act, which involves a lot of sneaking around through dim corridors. The last shot is a third twist of sorts, intended to provide a convenient explanation for earlier events.
Regarding the second twist, the biggest of the film, it’s not all that plausible on an emotional level and is even less plausible on a technical level. It’s the kind of revelation that forces one to dwell on logistics, not just as they apply to that particular scene but also to scenes from much earlier on. I can’t say that I accepted the flaws, but because the film is just as much a mother/daughter story as it is a teen thriller, it allowed me to at least tolerate them. I grant you that movies worse than House at the End of the Street have been made, and paying to see it at your local multiplex will certainly not be a great shame. But it won’t be a great honor, either. It’s nothing more or less than what it so obviously is – a jumpy, moody, predictable, unrealistic horror story. Even for a movie you can’t quite recommend, sometimes you can’t ask for anything more than that.
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