Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: House at the End of the Street (2012)

Note: Below there be spoilers a plenty.  Proceed accordingly.

House at the End of the Street’s narrative feels like it arose from the early 1960s (think Psycho), and the film is titled as if it emerged from the 1970s (think Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane or Last House on the Left). 

Alas, the film’s questionable execution is very much a product of today’s slick filmmaking culture, trading on tricks, gimmicks, and hollow, surface values.

In short, this is one of the shallowest horror films imaginable, so much so that in its final moments House at the End of the Street actually encourages shallowness. The movie’s final message is -- undeniably, given the film’s symbolism -- don’t look for layers of meaning in life or in other people, look only at surfaces.  

Don’t reject the mob mentality.  Be the Mob Mentality.

This pitiless commentary is all the more shameful given that the first half-hour of the film actually reveals genuine promise, working hard to develop distinctive human characters and intriguing conflicts. 

By the time of the third act, however -- when a veteran police officer goes into a dangerous house without calling for back-up, and the killer rises from the dead for one last kill -- House at the End of the Street finds itself on automatic pilot, driven entirely by creaky clichés and genre conventions.

The film is a crushing, dispiriting disappointment.

“I think this place is going to be really good for us.”

House at the End of the Street finds single-mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) and her teenage daughter, Elyssa (Jennifer Lawrence) moving into a new home in a new town.  The rent is cheap, and that’s because just across the way an old, dilapidated house blots the landscape.  It is home to the shattered Jacobsen family, which suffered a terrible incident there some years earlier.

Specifically, the Jacobsen girl, Carrie Ann went on a killing spree one dark and stormy night, murdering her Mother and Father.  Only Carrie Ann’s brother, Ryan (Max Theriot) survived, though urban legends suggest that Carrie Ann is still out there “somewhere.”  Today, the college-age Ryan is the town pariah -- shunned by school mates and dismissed by neighbors because his presence lowers their property values.

Elyssa begins to develop a friendship with Ryan, who is sensitive and sweet, but secretive.  Sarah grows enraged at her daughter’s new relationship with the derided outsider, and asks the local police sheriff, Weaver (Gil Bellows) about Ryan. Weaver knows that the entire community hates Ryan, but notes that he has always stood up for the boy in the name of fairness and decency.

As Elyssa grows close to Ryan, she learns a deadly secret about him.  Carrie Ann may not be dead.  In fact, there is a room in Ryan’s basement…where an adolescent girl is locked up…

“They like to bitch about him and their property values…”

In broad terms House at the End of the Street attempts to ape Psycho’s creative equation, but without any of the shocks or surprises we associate with Hitchcock’s landmark film. 

For instance, this film possesses no surprise on a par with Marion Crane’s death, and no shock on a par with the bloody shower murder.  Instead, House at the End of the Street plays it safe so far as gore and violence, and thus lacks much visceral punch.   Adding insult to injury, the film’s final sequence -- with a camera prowling an asylum corridor and falling upon on an insane character’s visage -- is a direct call-back to the Hitchcock classic.

Now, there is a way that House at the End of the Street might have worked, I submit. 

Conceivably, the film could thrive as a kind of high-minded, meditative character study instead of a psychological thriller.  But for that approach to work, the writing would have to be sterling.  And, simply put, it isn’t.  The characters don’t have enough depth, and they frequently spout clichés such as Shue’s dreadful line that she just knows the new house will be good for the family. Ugh.  

How many times have we heard a character make that silly comment in a horror movie before?

Thus House at the End of the Street is not surprising enough to authentically tantalize, and not smart enough to play on a deep, intellectual playing field.   Instead, it clumsily plods along its sullen way, only vaguely coughing up moments of interest. 

Worse, there’s no indication in this film why Jennifer Lawrence is such a special talent.  She sleepwalks through her performance here, making few if any interesting choices in terms of her characterization.  I write that as someone who was wowed by her performance in The Hunger Games.

Yet in the final analysis, House at the End of the Street goes from being merely a mediocre film experience to an absolutely insulting one because of the way it ultimately chooses to expresses its theme.

I noted in my introduction how House at the End of the Street encourages shallowness.  This quality of the film can be seen in the way characters respond to the outsider/misfit, Ryan, and how they, in turn, are treated for their unsympathetic attitudes and actions.

Two characters in the film show sympathy and humanity towards Ryan. One is the police officer, Weaver.  His trust is repaid by Ryan with bloody murder.  Weaver sticks his neck out for the boy, and the boy repays him with a bloody end.

Elyssa, similarly, puts herself on the line for Ryan and is rewarded for her humanity with torture, pain and suffering.

By contrast, the townspeople completely shun Ryan, and this point-of-view is shared by Sarah, Elissa’s mother.  She invites Ryan over for dinner one night just so she can, essentially, read him the riot act and throw him out.  She doesn’t trust him.  She spies on Ryan, and sets the police on him.

But here’s the point: the movie’s violent events validate the viewpoint of suspicion and even paranoia. 

Weaver and Elyssa were wrong to give Ryan the benefit of the doubt, and Sarah was right to be distrustful.  Ryan was a monster all along!  

And the mob out to get Ryan?  On some level it somehow knew he was “wrong” inside.

By making Ryan the film’s reprehensible irredeemable, unreachable villain, House at the End of the Street validates bullying and paranoid behavior.  It’s okay to pick on someone if he’s wrong, doesn’t wear the right clothes, drives an old car, or his house brings down property values.   

Now, some of you may insist I’m reading too much into the film.  I might agree with that assessment if the story stuck merely to the general twists and turns I enumerate above without underlining the thematic through-line I’ve pointed out.  The narrative’s outcome -- that Ryan is a monster -- need not necessarily be seen as a vindication of Sarah’s parochial, prejudiced view point.

But the film goes out of its way to provide an explicit metaphor so that there is no other way to see the outcome. 

Specifically, half-way through the film, Ryan informs Elyssa that everything in the world has a “secret.”  To prove his point, he takes her to a gnarled tree on his overgrown property.  He asks her to look at it.  She stares at the tree for a good long time, and finally sees something new, something previously undetectable.  There is a shape on the tree that looks like a human face.  But you can only detect that hidden face if you are willing to really study the tree, to really look below the surface of things.

At the end of the film, after Ryan is revealed as a monster, Elyssa returns to that self-same tree and asks her Mom, Sarah, what she sees. 

Sarah replies, deadpan, “a tree.” 

End of story.

The lesson, of course, is that it is better to be a person who can only see the tree, and not anything underneath, anything of deeper value. 

By seeing only the tree, you spare yourself the discomfort of a three-dimensional world view. 

The movie actually -- incredibly -- makes spectacularly explicit the notion that Elyssa’s journey has been to assure that in the future she will conform to the narrowness of her yucky, well-to-do neighbors, classmates and Mom, and not attempt to help people who don’t share her socio-economic demographic.  

It’s better to be with “dick-holes” to co-opt the movie’s terminology, than to face the possibility that by probing beneath the surface, you might find something unpleasant or difficult to contend with.

This is one of those cases where it’s not about “reading too much” into a film.  The tree metaphor is undeniably presents for all to see, understand, and process.  Thus House at the End of the Street encourages conformity, group-think and superficiality.

Early on, I felt the film wasn’t going to go that way.  Sarah was positioned in the drama as a flawed character that could not seemingly trust her daughter, and could not see that Elyssa’s desire to treat people like Ryan humanely was a great quality…one all parents should instill in their children.  But instead, the film completely validates Sarah’s narrow, parochial point of view.  She becomes the hero for sticking to her guns and only seeing “the tree.”

You can’t rescue all those misfits, honey.  Better not to try.  Those misfits can hurt you.  Now how about another glass of red wine?

I have rarely, if ever, encountered such a despicable message in a mainstream horror movie, and one so easy to pinpoint to a specific moment within the film’s text (the tree symbolism).  

One of the qualities that I love so much about horror in general is that the genre has often demonstrated sympathy for outsiders, misfits, and the monsters (think King Kong, The Frankenstein Monster or even Leatherface in his original incarnation).  They may be villains, monsters, and killers.  They may need to be punished. But they are worthy of our humanity, our mercy, and our understanding. 

As soon as we lose those qualities of empathy and compassion, we are the monsters.

But by House at the End of the Street’s reckoning, a wounded, abused kid like Ryan got what was coming to him, the little bastard. 

This is a movie that replaces human values with property values, and thinks that’s a fair exchange.


  1. Nearly everyone in this film had some serious character flaws. A snob, a mean drunk, a wannabe rapist, thugs, and I am not even talking about the killer! I mean seriously, I have been more emotionally involved watching infomercials. This was a cash grab by the studio, slopping some PG-13, psuedo-horror film together to cash in on Lawrence.
    Anyway.....at least Lawrence looked like she could be Shue's daughter.....kudos to the casting director I guess.

  2. Look at her face, she didn't give a damn about this film!

  3. Lawrence tries to do what she can with this crap, but she even seems like she’s falling asleep at times. Actually, it’s the same feeling I had during the whole dang flick. Nice review John.

  4. Anonymous4:31 AM

    Actually having worked on the film I know the intention of that last shot, whether it came across correctly or not is another matter. What was intended is to show that really there was no face on the tree in the first place. When Ryan told Elissa about the face, she said she saw it - and believed she saw it. But only because she was in love. When we fall in love we tend to see what we want to see in a person. If they see a face in the clouds, if we look hard enough, so do we. But there never was a face in the tree. The final scene is Elissa learning this difficult lesson about love and how it can affect your judgement