Friday, October 24, 2014

House at the End of the Street Review

It being the Halloween season, I was in the mood for a mildly scary movie. I have also become something of a fan of Jennifer Lawrence. Fortunately there is a movie that features both these qualities, House at the End of the Street (2012). For a psychological horror thriller, the movie is pretty tame and overall poorly executed, but provides a few scares and atmospheric foreboding.
Seeking a fresh start, newly divorced Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) and her daughter Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) find the house of their dreams in a small, upscale, rural town. But when startling and unexplainable events begin to happen, Sarah and Elissa learn the town is in the shadows of a chilling secret. Years earlier, in the house next door, a daughter killed her parents in their beds, and disappeared - leaving only a brother, Ryan (Max Thieriot), as the sole survivor. Against Sarah's wishes, Elissa begins a relationship with the reclusive Ryan - and the closer they get, the deeper they're all pulled into a mystery more dangerous than they ever imagined.
House at the End of the Street is, at face value, pretty straight forward. The characters are simple, the story is direct and uncomplicated, and the cinematography is usually standard by-the-book fare. It's not until we learn about our villain's back story that things start to get convoluted. Most everything ends up fitting together by the end of the story; the villain's twisted motives are probably going to be understood, even if the back story is presented out of sequence. But it still leaves some pretty major plot points unexplained. Unfortunately I can't really be more specific than this without giving away spoilers. Suffice it to say the story isn't fully explained by the end of the movie, and not because it was hoping to make a sequel eventually.
The characters are remarkably simple. The writers tried to give Elissa and her mother some depth by having them still emotionally reeling from a recent divorce, yet it's pretty cliché and uninspired. Jennifer Lawrence is phenomenal as usual, but she's got some pretty lame material to work with here. Elissa is a teenage girl, she's interested in boys, she enjoys and writes music sometimes, and she's snarky to her mother sometimes. That's everything that makes up Elissa. None of the characters are complicated or interesting. In fact, our villain even seems like a needlessly complicated rip-off of Psycho's Norman Bates. One of the closing scenes even closes in on the hospitalized villain who looks into the camera much like the closing scene in Psycho. That really burns my cookies since this villain isn't nearly as interesting and the movie isn't even half as good.
Most of the cinematography is pretty standardized and bland, but there are a few moments that were above average. We have a knife welding girl running through the woods towards Elissa's house with Ryan in pursuit trying to stop her. The camera pans around outside the house and we see through the windows Elissa moving about and doing some evening chores and we get brief peeks of the knife welding girl closing in. This was a pretty elaborate shot that was pretty good, not great, but pretty good. The two or three brief moments like this don't make up for the lackluster camera work used in the rest of the movie.
This is a psychological horror thriller, but it's also rated PG-13. It's a fairly tame scary movie. Most of the scares come from very cheap and predictable jump scares. There are a few foreboding creepy atmosphere scenes that are actually pretty scary. Elissa is walking home at night and has an old car slow to a stop and idle for a moment or two before backing up. The fact that she's a teenage girl alone in a wooded area and an unknown car stops is a bit unnerving, but the background music makes it seem all the more unsettling. There's another scene late in the movie when Elissa is trapped in the basement and has a handgun to defend herself, then the villain cuts the power off. She is left trying to find her stalker with a flickering flashlight. Of course you know someone's going to jump out at her in the flashlight beam, yet this scene had become so tense that I had to turn the volume down until the inevitable jump scare had passed. Because it's PG-13 there's no graphic violence, no gore, no grotesque stomach churning imagery. What little violence that actually happens takes place off screen.
House at the End of the Street is a tame horror movie with weak characters, a flimsy story, full of cheap jump scares, and apart from Jennifer Lawrence has a mediocre cast. Other than a few moments where the movie unexpectedly manages to do something good, House at the End of the Street is a study in mediocrity. None of it is likely to stand out in your memory as being very good or very bad after a few days; it's very forgettable. If you are in the mood for some PG-13 level scares, I recommend The Others or Dark Water.

R rated horror movies tend to be too much for my tastes, but once in a while a PG-13 scary movie is kind of fun. Can you think of some other notably good PG-13 scary movies that are worth seeing? Comment below and let me know!

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