Horror movies are notorious magnets for unruly audience members. The common wisdom is that this is because they are generally made for the demographics most likely to disrupt the viewing experience with loud chatter, bright cell phone screens, and/or overly mobile children. But perhaps it is more a sign of the quality of the movies themselves. Mark Tonderai’s “House at the End of the Street,” for instance, seems tailor-made for a distraction-prone audience: it is utterly devoid of tension and scares, so there is little that uncouth viewers could ruin for those actually interested in paying attention to the film.
“House at the End of the Street” tells the story of Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence, slumming for a paycheck) and her mother, Sarah (Elisabeth Shue, just happy to still be earning a paycheck), who move to a quiet town, next door to the creepy Jacobson house, in which a young girl slayed her parents four years prior, then allegedly drowned in a dam. Elissa strikes up a friendship with Ryan (Max Thieriot), the surviving son of the family, whose shy, sensitive exterior belies the fact that he is holding his still alive (and still homicidal) sister, Carrie Anne (Eva Link), hostage in the basement.
The above revelation is not a spoiler; director Tonderai tips his hand well within the first act of the movie, leaving Elissa’s potential discovery of Ryan’s secret as the story’s only source of conflict. There is nothing inherently wrong with this—Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” hinges on a similar scenario, in which Norman Bates must hide his dark secret from the prying eyes of Lila Crane and Sam Loomis—but Tondurai problematically does not give the audience a clear idea of the of the danger posed by Ryan. For all the viewer knows, he could just be misunderstood — an ambiguity that robs the film of any potential dread. The majority of “House at the End of the Street” finds Ryan nearly compromise the fact that he is hiding his sister, until a third-act twist—which reveals the full truth about the Jacobson family—sends the story spiraling into unbelievable theatrics.
The actors sell the material the best that they can, mostly by downplaying the ludicrousness of the material to keep the characters believable. Even though their roles are as shallow as puddles, Lawrence and Thieriot do convince the audience of their developing relationship. There’s a nice scene in which Ryan comes out of his shell a bit, as the actors successfully spark up chemistry together. They rise above the cheap writing (“My mother always said that everything has its secrets”) and bring a rare moment of credibility to the movie. Alongside them, Shue is not given much to do other than be a poor mother to Elissa. It is a one-note role, but Shue does not embarrass herself by devolving into histrionics, which the script flirts with when she and Lawrence argue.
The film flies off the rails especially when it takes on the style of a straight-up horror movie, when it’s really just a shadow of a thriller, if only because of Tondurai and the writers’ inability to create the tension required for horror. The cinematography by Miroslaw Baszak predictably evokes the genre, but fails to scare or immerse the viewer. For instance, Baszak’s shots from the point-of-view of the murderous Carrie Anne attempt to plunge the viewer into the mind of a madwoman with a strobe-like effect, but come across as more of a put-on than an enhancement. Further, on the directorial front, Tonderai squanders opportunities for jump scares by often cuing the sound too early and delivering underwhelming visual payoffs.
Never is “House at the End of the Street” so bad its good; it’s just so bad, lacking the hallmarks of an entertaining train-wreck. It is too tame to work as a horror film and too suspense-less to work as a thriller. One is better off not seeing “House at the End of the Street” for the same reason that one is better off not eating Saltines for dinner: the movie will only leave one feeling empty, unfulfilled, and entirely unchanged.