The PG-13 horror movie is a tricky prospect. On the rare occasion such a work is successful (i.e. The Ring) it’s usually due to a carefully constructed plot and strong, evocative direction. House at the End of the Street, the first American film from British-African director Mark Tonderai and based on a short story by Jonathan Mostow, has neither of those qualities.
A newly divorced mother, Sarah (Elisabeth Shue), and daughter, Elissa (The Hunger Games’ Jennifer Lawrence), relocate from their Chicago home to a secluded house in a rural town—despite knowing that a young girl brutally and mysteriously murdered her parents in the house next door several years prior. They soon learn from neighbors that the girl was, supposedly, never found after the incident, and that her brother, the mild-mannered but reclusive Ryan (Max Thieriot), still lives in the house, the only surviving member of the family. While friendly cop-on-the-make Danny Peters (Gil Bellows) vouches for the boy’s decency, everyone in town seems to think Ryan is a “monster.” But of course Elissa takes a liking to him, against Sarah’s will. And then all kinds of “scary” stuff happens.
If this sounds kind of thin, that’s because it is. There’s simply not enough plot here to justify a feature-length film, so Tonderai stuffs it full of cookie-cutter teen-drama points and more tired horror-flick tropes than you can shake a faulty flashlight at. (Really, though, why couldn’t anyone in these movies afford a decent flashlight?)
Lawrence—Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence, that is—has done vulnerable-but-tough so well in the past, it feels as if the filmmakers expected that to disguise her character’s blinding stupidity. Does she open the back door when she hears a loud noise outside in the darkness? Of course she does. We’ve seen this before, but done so much better. And that’s just one of a series of tired “gotcha” moments that House employs to bill itself as a “thriller.”
House is no good for Lawrence, who deserved better, or for Shue, who spends most of the picture looking like she’d rather be somewhere else. (Who could blame her?) Up-and-coming actor Thieriot may have promise, but his performance here is blank and directionless. For Tonderai, who has referenced films like Psycho and Citizen Kane (seriously!) in interviews, the only take-away is that he’ll probably get to make another movie.