DIRECTOR: Mark Tonderai

CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, Elisabeth Shue, Gill Bellows and Max Thierot



RATING: 2 stars (out of 5)

David Rooney

The pointedly generic title sounds like either a remake or a genre-bender along the lines of The Cabin in the Woods. But despite an intriguing setup, sharply drawn central characters and a luminous lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence, House at the End of the Street is a by-the-book horror thriller, low on scares and suspense.

Directed by Mark Tonderai, the slick-looking film is stronger on production values than storytelling.

It also marks the second botched attempt by screenwriter David Loucka to juice up tired horror conventions.

Working from a story by Jonathan Mostow, Loucka samples from a variety of sources that range from Psycho to The People Under the Stairs. But from the moment Plot Point A is disclosed in a big reveal almost exactly half an hour in, the film becomes first inane, then dull and then ludicrous. While the screenplay works overtime to keep throwing convoluted twists at us, it becomes increasingly easy to stay a few beats ahead.

The principal saving grace is Lawrence as Elissa. The classic modern horror heroine, she’s an independent-minded, fearless, high schooler. Following her parents’ divorce, Elissa moves from Chicago to small-town Pennsylvania with her mother, hospital worker Sarah (Shue), looking for a fresh start in a house that backs on to lush state forest. But what’s that eerie place just beyond the trees?

Turns out that house was the scene of a double murder four years earlier, in which a young girl hacked up mom and dad one night. The kid was presumed drowned, but her body was never found. Local teens like to feed rumours that she’s still alive, wandering the forest at night, while their parents just bitch about the notorious crime’s drag on property values.

But the house is not empty.

The girl’s loner brother Ryan (Thieriot), who was reportedly away at the time of the killings, still lives there and forms an attachment with Elissa. His aura of vulner- ability and hurt clicks with her history of collecting damaged kids and making them her project.

“Sometimes people can’t be fixed,” frets Sarah, a former high school slut now making a belated effort to be a better parent.

But Elissa won’t be deterred. She’s also too cool to be creeped out once Ryan starts acting weird.

While Lawrence is such a magnetic presence that she holds your attention even as the story takes a dive, the actress also highlights the weakness of the script. Why a girl as savvy and street-smart as Elissa would stick around in situations long after the danger alarm has sounded makes less and less sense, even within the elastic logic of the genre.

And Lawrence projects such kick-ass strength that she seems a match for any menace.

Sadly, Shue’s Sarah is denied the requisite redemptive “Get away from my daughter!” line in the climactic violence. But pretty much every other cliché of the formula is mined. What’s more irritating, is the absence of foreshadowing for key plot triggers like the extreme violence that preppy scum Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk) and his buddies unleash on Ryan, or the failure even to mention any investigation when it appears that more than one girl from the area has gone missing. And why is well-meaning cop Weaver (Bellows) so trusting and protective of Ryan?

In lieu of sound plotting and actual tension, Tonderai tries to amp up the atmosphere in post-production, with jump scares, flickering lights and manipulation of sound, visuals and image speed. But these are all standard tricks in a banal entry that pretends to be something more complex.

Cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak uses some unsettling low angles and edgy handheld work. With a few minor exceptions, the actors are all more than capable. What’s lacking is an intelligent script. – Hollywood Reporter

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