Thursday, October 4, 2012

Horror Show

Normally with so many options out there for things to see, I wouldn't bother with the likes of House at the End of the Street. While there are a few good horror films that come out every year, you can usually tell to a reasonable degree which those will be. More often than not, you'll see the bad ones coming, and in the coming months we'll be subjected to some really horrid-looking titles, including The Collection and the delayed 7500. I know not every horror flick can be as good as Insidious, and every so often I have even been surprised by a strong production. But the genre has a habit of films feeling as cheap as their budgets, and very rarely do they succeed in standing apart from the huddled masses.

One sub-genre of horror that never seems to change much is the teen slasher movie. They have a normal formula, whether they're Slumber Party Massacre or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream: psycho kills pretty young people until he/she is finally brought down (or in some recent fare, utterly succeeds). It's a tale older than my life, with nobody willing or wanting to mess with that magic. And why not? Movies like this are often inexpensively made (no-name actors and almost no special effects), so even a moderate success can reap major profits for a studio.

I like your fashion sense.
The only reason House at the End of the Street even remotely stands out is its star, Jennifer Lawrence. Unless you've been hiding completely under a rock the past couple of years, you might have heard of her. She broke out and easily earned an Academy Award nomination for her leading role in 2010's Winter's Bone. She succeeded in supporting parts in 2011 with X-Men First Class and Like Crazy. And 2012 has turned her into a megastar, as she held the lead role of Katniss Everdeen in March's The Hunger Games. In fact, Lawrence did her work on House before Hunger Games, and it's obvious this movie is now hitting theaters in order to capitalize on her new found  status. She is the only reason you might be tempted to see this movie over anything similar, and that's certainly why I elected to see this one over other fare.

...and your choice in friends.
Seventeen year-old Elissa (Lawrence) and her newly-divorced mother Sarah (Elizabeth Shue) have left Chicago to rent a dream home in a rural suburb. While they love the new house, it does come with a caveat. The house next door was the scene of a brutal double homicide; a mother and father butchered in their home by their daughter, who was never seen again. The only surviving family member, Ryan Jacobsen (Max Theriot), still lives there, repairing the house and is generally considered the pariah of the town. Elissa and Max become attracted to one another, despite the wishes of her mother, and begin a relationship, but something is wrong. Max is keeping a dark secret, one that might not just damage their relationship, but could harm Elissa and her mother as well.

Don't worry, be happy!
What's surprising about this movie is just how original the story manages to be. Okay, original might not be the right word; psychotic, homicidal family members are probably standard fare for tons of films that never reach the big screen. That's the point, though; this kind of story rarely gets proper big screen treatment. Typically this type of movie warrants a huge body count to cover all the plot holes, but a a story House stands on its own nicely. There's no murder spree but an interesting tale of what drives a little girl to murder her parents, and the results are honestly more than a little creepy, especially because you can believe such things would (and perhaps do) happen. It's a shame though that director Mark Tonderai can't quite pull it off, failing to scare the audience for more than a few tense moments. He also falls into the cliches of horror moviemaking, including stunts that for all intents and purposes Scream had shamed out of most modern horror directors.

Freeze, Jump Street!
As expected, Lawrence's talent as the film's protagonist proves to be invaluable. Mixing a classic scream queen with a bit of her role in Winter's Bone, she deftly maneuvers from scene to scene, consistently and believably carrying the whole movie. There are only a few scenes in which she does not appear, but thankfully we never become weary of Elissa, a multi-dimensional character with very solid reasons behind her decisions. It also doesn't hurt that Lawrence is a stone-cold fox, ensuring that any men in the audience will be unable to take their eyes off of her. She's the complete package, and will have absolutely no problem making her mark in the industry. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, residing firmly in the "good enough" category for horror acting. Elizabeth Shue and Gil Bellows play the requisite authority figures, while Nolan Gerard Funk and Allie MacDonald fill the roles of teenagers who develop friendships with the new girl. They're all fine, playing their nevertheless rote characters with enough conviction to get by. Max Theriot is probably the weakest of the bunch, his face frozen in a "they kicked my puppy dog" look while delivering lines in the same dull tone throughout. Theriot certainly has the look for the part he plays, but never strikes the audience as all that sympathetic, at least not to the degree necessary to attract Elissa to him.

Hoping that biting her lip is the worst thing that happens to her.
The result is a horror film not all that scary and clearly looking to clean house thanks to its main star. House at the End of the Street was made for about half of what Lawrence will be earning in the Hunger Games sequels, and while it manages to do more than a few things right, it's not enough to completely save what could have been an original, haunting story of rural America. Lawrence is enough reason to tough out a cinema visit, but if you can wait you're probably better off waiting for the DVD. Still, it's not nearly as bad as perhaps it should be, with a lead that hauls it a slight step above the rest of the horror pack.

No comments: