Silver Screen: House at the End of the Street *
House at the End of the Street is terrible, but I'll say this for the filmmakers: It's terrible in such awkward, implausible ways that it's consistently tough to predict. If that counts as novelty, well, at least House at the End of the Street has one thing going for it other than a talented lead stranded in a third-rate project far beneath her talents.
Newly minted megastar Jennifer Lawrence makes a big misstep into this bland bit of teen-horror schlock, starring as sexy singer/songwriter Elissa, whose beleaguered single mother (Elisabeth Shue) moves her from hip Chicago to a sleepy small town in her final year of high school. Elissa is sullen about her new situation, but she's intrigued by their new neighbor, who lives all alone at the end of the block in the house where his sister murdered his parents.
Ryan (Max Thieriot) is the town outcast, despised because he refuses to move out of the infamous murder site that lowers the value of the surrounding properties, and because he reminds them of the town's most grisly chapter. The waspy white neighbors from central casting tell legends about the killings, and the local kids claim that Ryan's murderous older sister did not in fact drown but still resides in the woods nearby.
The tales are enough to concern her mother, but rebellious Elissa falls hard for Ryan, who seems sensitive and tormented. What she doesn't know is the trap door in the basement leads further down to a locked room where Ryan keeps a secret.
You can pinpoint the exact location that House at the End of the Street veers off course and goes from semi-engaging lite-gothic melodrama to hysterical mishmash: It's Ryan's sepia-toned flashback to his sister's early childhood accident, when she received the brain damage that would drive her to madness. As Thieriot awkwardly mumbles his lines, the camera cuts to a shot of his white, middle-class parents sharing hits off a homemade tinfoil crackpipe. It's the first of many absurdities to come, although sadly there aren't enough of these inspired moments of unintentional comedy to put it into hallowed territory with the likes of The Butterfly Effect or The Wicker Man.
Instead, House at the End of the Street is a mostly bland, largely scareless movie that takes too long setting up a plot that's so dumb it kills any actual suspense once the audience gets wise to it. It does remain somewhat unpredictable, if only by dint of shoddy logic, although it's predictable enough in its petty thievery. The final shot, a painfully on-the-nose homage to Psycho, only serves to remind us how many times this sort of thing has been done, and done better. The most disastrous effect is to contrast Anthony Perkins's classic performance as Norman Bates with that of Thieriot, who has the kind of flat, vaguely confused delivery of Ryan Phillippe on Ambien. The crux of the movie should be his contrasting charm and menace, but he lacks either, giving Lawrence nothing to play off of as she works to flesh out a role that ultimately and inevitably reduces her to running terrified in an increasingly wet and dirty white tanktop. This one should only be scary to Lawrence's management team, who might find themselves the Agents at the End of Their Contract.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.