Sunday, September 23, 2012

Neighborly Concern: THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET


The House at the End of the Street starts out by introducing materials so standard that I found myself wondering if the movie could possibly be heading to such conventional territory. Oh, just you wait. The opening scenes introduce us to a single mother (Elisabeth Shue) and her teenage daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) as they move into a new house in a new town. They get the new place for cheap on account of the neighbors, who, four years ago, were murdered by their young daughter. The girl went missing that same night and now the only one living in the big empty house is their justifiably morose son (Max Thieriot). The poor kid’s avoided by the townspeople who monger rumors about his long gone sister and generally behave rather badly when the topic of the boy comes up at, say, a welcome-to-the-neighborhood picnic.

The eerie house with a mysterious history causing mild discomfort for new neighbors isn’t exactly new territory. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit, I suppose, that the whole thing ends up operating at a reasonably workable level. The script from David Loucka (based on a story concept by Jonathan Mostow) has some fun playing around with audience sympathies. Thieriot’s troubled guy is understandable for a while; it’s the townspeople who are generally awful. For once, all the foreboding and ominous red flags seems to point away from the guy who’d be the suspicious creep in many a horror flick.

The first half of the movie may be mostly unpolished exposition spoken half-naturally, but the actors are likable and talented enough to make it all seem more or less convincing and soon enough the situation grows enough mild interest that it doesn’t seem so bad. What’s too bad is that the movie doesn’t seem too good, either. There’s a lot of talent here, but the film never finds a good reason to make much use of it. Lawrence is called on mostly to wear a tight white T-shirt. (Hey, there are worse reasons to see a movie.) Shue gets to act intensely concerned about her daughter and the boy next door, but not concerned enough to stop the plot in its tracks. Everyone is suspicious, but there’s really not all that much to be leery about for a while.

Because of the movie’s sometimes agonizing scarcity of imagination, the whole thing starts to feel like a watchable bore. There’s not a whole lot of suspense happening for a very long time as the film sets off a long fuse of characterization and build up that’d work better if the flimsy material could rise higher than the actors can take it alone. The bulk of the film is only a notch or two scarier than what you’d find on the Disney Channel during October as we patiently wait for Big Secrets to be revealed. Director Mark Tonderai turns in the one of most stylistically generic horror movies in recent memory, bland PG-13 Hollywood slickness that leans on the crutch of sudden orchestration anytime something vaguely suspenseful is occurring. By the time it goes through a couple of genuinely surprising (well, it got me, at least) twists, it’s all too self-serious to go off the rails properly.

And these twists to which I refer are certainly a little nutty. I won’t spoil them here, because you just might have the TV on in the background one day a few years from now and this movie will come on and you won’t have enough willpower to change the channel so you’ll just let it play out while you, I don’t know, fold laundry or something. Anyways, the twists are silly and they undo a lot of what little I found of interest in the first half of the picture, but the actors are on board to sell them. Tonderai treats it all so reverently, so tactfully, and with such restraint that the effect is more or less negated. By the time the material grows dark and weird and a little predictable, but still functionally dangerous and tense simply through the sheer will of talented performers, it’s basically a moot point. The movie completely trades in what little I was enjoying for a badly executed climactic sequence derived from a jumble of influences from (mostly) better movies without even the slightest intention of enjoying itself.

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