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House at the End of the Street

September 23, 2012
House at the End of the Street

Scary movie season continues with House at the End of the Street, an unassuming, Psycho-inflected thriller that finds freshness in familiar territory. Good fundamentals, good performances, and even a couple formula-bucking twists; what more could you ask for?

First, we need to take our protagonist out of her comfort zone. Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) and her mother Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) move from a rough neighborhood of Chicago into a Pennsylvania exurb. Their beautiful house backs right up to an expansive state park. The local kids are overrun with self-entitled preppy jerks, and their parents’ main worry is their property values. But Sarah is still a doctor — maybe a nurse, but she’s wearing a white coat and no scrubs — and the hospital gives her one late shift after another, leaving Elissa alone.

Next, we need creepy. They can only afford to rent this house because the one next door was the site of a vicious double-murder four years ago. A disturbed girl named Carrie Anne (Eva Link) attacked her parents and fled. Officially, she drowned in the nearby reservoir, but the body was never found and local rumor has it she still lives, feral in the woods. Her brother, Ryan (Max Thieriot), lives in the house now, slowly fixing it up for sale, and reviled by seemingly everyone but the even-tempered officer Weaver (Gil Bellows).

Finally, we need danger. Early on we learn that Ryan is not alone in the titular house: he still cares for Carrie Anne, who is very much alive and locked in the basement for her own protection. All the pieces are in place for a perfectly serviceable thriller when Carrie Anne inevitably escapes, but this script still has a few surprises in store, even for a seasoned moviegoer.

It’s not certain how much credit is due to Jonathan Mostow’s original story and how much to David Loucka’s screenplay, but since the latter was responsible for last year’s Dream House I’m inclined to lean in Mostow’s direction. Either way, it’s Mark Tonderai’s capable direction that brings it so effectively to the screen. And some of the best work is in how he knows when to use Theo Green’s brilliant score to deftly underscore the action, and when to work in silence, letting distant noises raise our tension along with the characters’.

It would also be easy to overlook the cast. Lawrence is competent — this is not her greatest part ever — as is Shue. Thieriot, however, is the heart of the film, though not its biggest box-office draw. All the action rises and falls on Ryan’s evolving story, and Thieriot nails every twist. Finally, the underappreciated Bellows plays a crucial role in guiding the audience through the path Loucka and Tonderai lay out for us.

House at the End of the Street isn’t revolutionary, but it’s executed well and changes things up enough to keep audiences guessing. As for the sections copied from such masterpieces as The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho, at least they show Tonderai knows where to look for inspiration. And besides: great artists steal.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: it’s close, but I’m going to give it a pass.

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