The House At The End Of The Street borrows the framework from a famous horror movie, and though giving away the name of that movie reveals too much—though not all, to the film’s credit—it’s sturdy enough to support a new interpretation. Based on a story by Jonathan Mostow, who once upon a time directed the superb Kurt Russell thriller Breakdown before returning to earth with the third Terminator, the film pulls off a few surprising twists while introducing some compelling themes about fraught parent-child relationships and the way fear and paranoia can turn a whole town sinister. But working from a solid template is only half the battle; the other half is filling in the details, and it’s here that The House At The End Of The Street goes flat and generic, substituting jump-scares and visual twitchiness for the psychological complexity that might have sold the horror.
Bringing the requisite toughness to the “Final Girl” role, Jennifer Lawrence stars as a sullen teenager who moves to a new house with her mother, played by Elisabeth Shue. (Shue playing the mother of a 17-year-old is a sobering moment for middle-aged Karate Kid fans.) After living with her father for most of her life, Lawrence has trouble warming to her mother, and that mistrust foils Shue’s attempts to protect her. Lawrence and Shue live large and live cheap in the new place, thanks to the deep discount of moving next door to a house where a young girl murdered her parents four years earlier. The girl is supposedly dead—she drowned in a dam, but somehow her body was never found—but her reclusive older brother, Max Thieriot, has taken up residence and become the town pariah for it.
Lawrence takes sympathy on Thieriot and the two strike up a relationship, suggesting the possibility that the real terror isn’t the murder house, but the narrow townsfolk who’d like to raise their property values by burning it to the ground. But The House At The End Of The Street eventually falls back to its title and draws the pair into the mysteries of what happened four years ago and what’s happening now. For those who recognize what film is being reworked, the script smartly offers a turn or two to throw them off the scent, but director Mark Tonderai favors a shallow depth of field in a literal and figurative sense, fiddling with Mr. Magoo-like tricks of focus while shortchanging every key relationship on offer. What’s left is yet another tough girl running down the wrong staircase—nothing that hasn’t been done a hundred times before.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit The House At The End Of The Street’s Spoiler Space.