All of the promotional materials for the woeful new horror film “House at the End of the Street” promote it as your standard cheap-o chiller – a plucky blonde with a fondness for clingy cotton T-shirts, Jennifer Lawrence is doggedly menaced by backwoods psychos after leaving her urban upbringing for a life of rural serenity. Except that’s not what it is. No. It’s far, far worse. Instead, “House at the End of the Street” is like one of the “Twilight” films mixed with “The Devil’s Rejects,” full of half-baked psychology, borderline inept filmmaking, and an undercurrent of deeply ugly misogyny that is scary, but not in the way the creative team intended. Forget about what happens in the movie, the mere act of watching “House at the End of the Street” is an act of torture.
After a title sequence deeply indebted to “Se7en,” we get a brief prologue that we can barely make out because of a number of twitchy editorial effects that (mercifully) more or less end here, save for a party scene that looks like it was lifted out of “Project X.” In the prologue, a young girl, her hair in her face (which makes her look like a Japanese ghost or a guitarist for Hoobastank), brutally kills her parents with a hammer, the feathers of the bed glacially drifting down to the carpet, spattered in blood. (It might be giving the filmmakers too much credit to suggest that this is a “True Romance” reference, but hey, we just did.) We then flash ahead four years later and Lawrence, as high schooler Elissa-with-an-E, and her mother Sarah (Elisabeth Shue), newly divorced, move in across the street from the murder house.
At a potluck the neighbors throw for the new arrivals, Elissa and Sarah are filled in on what happened in the house and the rumors surrounding the home’s lone inhabitant – Ryan (Max Thieriot, ready for his Tiger Beat cover). He was away from the home when the murders occurred and is currently fixing up the house to be sold. The neighbors are very grumpy that the house’s mere existence is driving down property values in the neighborhood, and spin tales that the murderous young girl actually fled into the woods, where she could still be living now. Sarah is repulsed but Elissa is intrigued. Maybe this boy is being unfairly vilified and actually is a kind soul?
The next section of the movie plays like one of the “Twilight” movies in the sense that Elissa – who sings and plays keyboards and is all hyped up about performing in the high school’s battle of the bands – and Ryan start falling for each other. They take walks through the forest and really get each other, despite the quite obvious presence of danger surrounding Ryan. This is deepened when, about forty-five minutes in, we see that Ryan is keeping his psychotic sister chained to a bed in the house’s sub-basement, bringing her milk and cookies and occasionally injecting her with some unidentified serum. The movie poses the idea that maybe Ryan is still a good guy. His sister is mentally unwell and he’s doing his best to take care of her, away from the prying eyes of the townspeople, who will quickly label her a loon and, in the tradition of small town mobs, burn down the windmill, er, creaky old farmhouse.
Of course, one night the sister escapes with a knife and, in trying to subdue her, Ryan accidentally kills her. Things start to take a turn for the weird, here, and don’t let up until the preposterous climax, which involves the aforementioned sub-basement, an intrepid sheriff played by Gil Bellows (where has that guy been?), and all sorts of PG-13 rated torture-y violence that’s reminiscent of Rob Zombie‘s “The Devil’s Rejects,” if that film were robbed of context and charm. It’s during this prolonged climax that the movie goes from being inoffensive but humorless and terrible to being an outright assault, clumsily staged and photographed and thematically repugnant, a deeply misogynist twist on what it means to be a “kept woman.”
“House at the End of the Street” had some pretty tantalizing beginnings. It was originally supposed to be a collaborative horror movie, written and directed by “Donnie Darko” filmmaker Richard Kelly and Jonathan Mostow, who helmed the creepily effective “Breakdown” (before drifting into more conventional studio material like the comic book-y Bruce Willis robo-noir “The Surrogates“) and still retains story credit despite being surgically removed from the final film. At the time, the two directors promised one of the scariest horror experiences in the genre, and we believe they could have delivered.
When the movie begins, there’s actually some pretty good banter between Shue and Lawrence, mostly about the absent father, who was some kind of rock musician. There are some deeply unsettled feelings between the two women and it’s a pleasure to see them spar, sometimes with a kind of barbed wit, other times with more active resentment. Either way, the actresses equip themselves gamely and it does provide some kind of emotional bedrock to develop any kind of horror movie tableau on top of. What director Mark Tonderai and screenwriter David Loucka have decided to do, instead of anything remotely interesting, is engage in all the worst instincts of horror filmmaking, both in content and form. We get leery shots of Lawrence’s cleavage, but it also gives us women who are tortured, kidnapped and injured simply because they’re women. In a weird way, the Lawrence character is like an inverse of Joss Whedon‘s standard female lead – she’s a woman who starts out strong but gets progressively weaker as the story moves along. “I’m sorry I couldn’t keep you,” a villainous character, mired in quack psychology that seems to shift depending on what the narrative requires, snarls towards the end of the movie. It sums up the movie’s thoughts on women: they’re objects, to be admired and placed on a shelf, to be enjoyed periodically but not heard from or listened to.
You can tell that “House at the End of the Street” was made a while ago – Lawrence’s face is more cherubic than in this past spring’s “The Hunger Games” and characters use an iPhone that’s at least three generations old. Someone must have gotten the sensation that Lawrence was headed for superstardom and knew that, if they released it after she hit, it had a chance of making some money. It still does stand a chance to make some cash, but we assure you, it’s not worth taking a trip to down to the “House at the End of the Street.” Something horrible might have happened there, but it can’t be worse than this movie. [D-]