Friday, September 21, 2012

Review: "House at the End of the Street"

Just a quick review. Joe Shearer is handling the main review over at The Film Yap, so head over there to check it out.

I am not a fan of the PG-13 horror film. Yes, a couple have been decent -- notably "The Others" and "The Ring." But by and large, the experience is like going to a steakhouse and ordering a salad. If you enjoy the things that make scary movies scary, then dialing back on them so the studio can hook in the under-17 crowd automatically turns it into some kind of Horror Lite.

"House at the End of the Street" is not awful, but it's not outstanding, either. The only thing that makes it stand out from the other dreck being flushed into theaters during these dark days of September is that it stars Jennifer Lawrence, an Oscar nominee from a couple years back.

She's solid enough in it, but is restricted by the parameters of the story that require her character to do amazingly stupid things. It's the time-honored tradition of horror flicks to entice the audience to yell, "Don't go in there!" and similar warnings. It often seems like the people populating scary movies are collectively about 50 I.Q. points lower than those watching them.

The story has familiar themes: a teen girl and her single mom move from Chicago into an idyllic rustic town where everything's Not Quite As Perfect As It Seems. The cute neighborhood boy that all the grown-ups love turns out to be a jerk with date rape inclinations, and mom (Elisabeth Shue) is a doctor who's working all the time and sloshing down wine when she isn't.

The big mystery in town is the house next door, where a girl horrifically butchered her parents four years ago. The body was never found, so...

Property values have plummeted as a result, which is why poor Elissa and her mother can afford to rent such a huge, fabulous house in the woods -- because we all know how criminally underpaid physicians are. It's a wonder they could afford gas for the trip!

Turns out the son of the murdered family is still living there quietly, ostracized from the community. Ryan (Max Thieriot) turns out to be dreamy in an awkward, shy sort of way, so it's not too long before Elissa and he are hooking up.

I'm not going to bother hiding the fact that Ryan's sister, Carrie Anne, turns out to be still alive and living in a secret room under the house. The movie reveals this about 20 minutes in. The true mystery is in revealing the relationship between her and Ryan, why she murdered their parents, why he's determined to protect and hide her, and why he keeps leaving her door unlocked or the key in an easily accessible place so she can keep escaping and causing havoc.

Director Mark Tonderai and screenwriter David Loucka occasionally get a few flashes of inspiration. But mostly they feel like they're going through the paces, relying on a whole heap of boo-gotcha moments to generate momentary scares rather than carefully crafting a pervading sense of dread.

"House at the End of the Street" is the sort of movie a young actress stars in when she's just starting out, hoping to land meatier roles and develop some real acting chops. Lawrence, an Academy Award nominee at 20, has already been down that path. This role feels like a step backward for her artistically and career-wise.

I guess we shouldn't blame her too much. Unfortunately, there just aren't a lot of great parts out there for ingenues. Next week, another Oscar nominee, Anna Kendrick, is starring in a "Glee" knockoff called "Pitch Perfect." Ah, the cinematic ides of September...

2 stars out of four

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