House at the End of the Street received what I like to call a “go away” screening for critics. Unless they open cold (i.e., without screenings), most movies screen the Tuesday or Wednesday before their release, with kids’ films running on Saturday morning. House at the End of the Street screened on Thursday night in L.A., just a few hours before public showings started. So instead of having a day or two to write up the review, critics get just a couple of hours… which suggests that the film stinks to high heaven. In some ways, it’s just easier to skip the press screening and write the review up on Friday. Hence, “go away.”
That actually does the film a grave disservice, because while it’s no one’s idea of great, it has more going for it than such shabby treatment suggests. It features a big twist handled with reasonable wit and a pair of leading ladies who actually seem to invest something in the proceedings. The rest of the film can’t close the deal – it’s too soapy and problematic to really work – but I guarantee you’ve seen worse this year.
House at the End of the Street actually has more in common with Gothic novels of the 19th Century than the slasher flicks the previews evoke. It comes complete with family secrets, walled-up rooms, unruly townsfolk, and a heroine (Jennifer Lawrence) too plucky and brave to realize the danger surrounding her. She and her mother (Elizabeth Shue) arrive in a rural Pennsylvania town ready to make a fresh start. They carry their share of wounds between them, as evinced by snippy dinner conversations and dark hints at the absent father. Luckily, they can afford their sumptuous house… thanks to the one next door, whose owners were beaten to death by their crazy daughter four years ago. The surviving son (Max Thieriot) occupies it now, trying to live down the past despite the nasty attentions of the local townsfolk.
We take our time getting to the juicy bits, which forms a big part of the film’s problem. Indeed, the first half moves at an almost glacial pace, featuring unpleasant emotions that serve no purpose beyond proving that these characters are really real instead of convenient prop dummies. The structure hinges on revealing one big secret early on, leaving us with a seemingly predictable arc to follow. Things improve in the second half, but even then director Mark Tonderai struggles to find the right tone… and relies on undue clichés when he can’t.
On the plus side, Lawrence reminds us why we’re all making such a fuss about her, while Shue halts her slow descent into pay-the-rent genre quickies to remind us that she once earned herself an Oscar nomination. Tonderai seems far more comfortable in the coming-of-age drama than the thriller material, and while his plotting becomes unduly mechanistic, he makes great use of his cast in setting us up for the inevitable rope-a-dope.
Sadly, once we learn what’s really going on, House at the End of the Street descends into a lot of running-around-in-the-dark silliness. Doomed characters advertise themselves from far away and the inevitable psychological motivations create as much laughter as thrills. The director comes very close to pulling them off, but with material like this, a near-miss is as good as a mile. The missteps pile up swiftly as the film enters its final stage, creating a sense of the routine that not even Lawrence can break.
We tend to expect works like this in September, when demand is low and expectations are modest. House at the End of the Street wins points by not totally sucking, then loses them by failing to rise higher. The film never blows our socks of quite as much as it thinks… and our collective shrug over the closing credits condemns it to middling afterthought status.