As an overused phrase once said, it's never wise to judge a book or movie by its cover (or, in this case, title). However, in the case of the horror/thriller "House at the End of the Street," the name sums up the film quite nicely: it's a clumsy title for an equally clumsy thriller. That isn't to say "House at the End" doesn't do certain things pretty well; it just isn't particularly consistent, especially when it comes to being scary.
"The Hunger Games"'s Jennifer Lawrence stars as Elissa, a young, cynical Chicago high schooler coping with a move out into the middle of nowhere. Coming along is her caring but busy nurse mom (Elisabeth Shue). The two have a typical horror movie relationship in which the parent is attempting to become more involved, and the child is having none of it, leading to several angry dinner arguments. If only some horrible life-threatening dilemma could bring the two of them together.
Conveniently, there's a house at the end of the street (though it looks more like a cabin in the woods, but I suppose that equally vague title was already taken) where a handsome young stranger (Max Thieriot) with a terrible past lives. Years ago, in an over-directed opening sequence, his sister brutally murdered his parents and disappeared. He begins to hit it off with Elissa, which unnerves her mother and some of the preppy townsfolk. And considering it's a horror movie, they're probably onto something.
The screenplay, based on a story by "Terminator 3" and "Surrogates" director Jonathan Mostow of all people, throws a number of twists at the audience. Surprisingly, most of them are actually pretty effective. The whole story, despite its seemingly generic front, keeps viewers guessing a decent amount, and while none of the turns are particularly new, they do keep things far more interesting than the typical PG-13 horror flick.
"End of the Street" is also nicely anchored by its two star performances, Lawrence and Shue. They're not particularly challenging roles, but they look sufficiently scared, and Lawrence has a light, comfortable ease with writer David Loucka's dialogue, even when it makes her do something dumb like strum mopey pop songs on a guitar or awkwardly pester Thieriot about his dead family. The fact that her character is any bit relatable is more a tribute to Lawrence's likeable on-screen presence rather than anything on the page.
It's unfortunately an ease that not many others in the cast possess. While sometimes Loucka's script sounds smarter than the average thriller, when someone other than Lawrence or Shue is speaking, the movie sounds like it's trying too hard to sound intelligent and snappy. Normally, it just comes off as silly.
It doesn't help that as "End of the Street" moves toward its climax, Loucka starts indulging himself in some of the genre's most groan-worthy clich√©s. The most egregious of these is the neighborhood cop (Gil Bellows) who seems to be the only policeman in the city and can't seem to afford some new batteries for his flashlight. He probably couldn't get a signal on his cell phone either.
Another clich√© plot development involving the high school's smug womanizer takes a hilariously over-the-top turn when he suddenly decides to take up beating up Thieriot, destroying his car and arson. "End of the Street" has several decent twists; the overheated schoolyard antics aren't included amongst them.
Besides the random bullies from hell, director Mark Tonderai sets up the twists interestingly. He just doesn't know how to make them scary or even that intense, other than to throw on a bunch of blurry filters and other ineffective camera tricks. The audience spends a lot of time watching the characters interact, act cute and look at trees, which I'm sure was intended to build tension, but it seems more like mildly diverting padding.
It's too bad because there's actually promise in "House at the End of the Street." It's got an above average cast with a few above average lines and plot twists. It's just impossible to fully recommend a scary movie that's not, you know, scary.
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