House at the End of the Street is the story of teen Elissa and her mother Sarah, who move to a new home to try to start a new life after past troubles and a divorce. They move in next door to a house where a murder took place, and find that the people in town don't like to talk about it. A relative of the murdered people, Ryan, is still living in the house, and Elissa ends up befriending him...but there's a dark secret in the house as well.
So basically, this is just about a film that I've seen twice already for Project Terrible. Points for the mom and daughter not moving into the house where the murder took place, but this isn't exactly a particularly unique film.
Here's the thing, though...it's not really a terrible film either.
Let's start out with what goes well, which is...kind of a lot, actually. For starters, this film has a really great cast. Jennifer Lawrence, better known for The Hunger Games or X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, does a really great job as Elissa, with a very obvious charisma that more than anything else was keeping me in the film. Max Thieriot, as Ryan, also brings a lot of emotion to his role, and has an excellent quiet, polite, and very likable manner about him that really makes you feel for him. It was also quite nice to see Elisabeth Shue as Sarah--I honestly recall not particularly buying her performance in The Saint years ago (though I found the film overall fun), but here, she feels quite real and is very sympathetic as a mother who is trying, but really doesn't quite know how to be a mom.
I also can't really find any fault with cinematography or direction in general. This feels like a high-quality film. There's a difference in the way some films are shot that just seems to raise the level of what's going on on screen. This film doesn't go artsy with shots (too many times, anyway), but there is an artistry to them, with some nice, creative choices of angles and framing. There are times it gets a little blatant with zooming in on something to make sure we catch it, but other times it manages to be really subtle or time things amazingly well so we do catch something, but only for a moment and in such a way that it feels real that the character we're rooting for doesn't. I particularly love one shot early on where Elissa is inside having a conversation, and just as she turns her back, the film's "creepy girl" races through the forest outside, visible for only a split second at quite a distance. Pretty nice timing!
The plot is...a mixed bag. I'll get into this later, after my spoiler warning, but...this film is at best generic and at worst a little bit stupid. It definitely didn't feel boring or make me want to stop watching it, so this is another film that at least kind of accomplishes the goal of making me want to find out what happens next. The trouble is that it also has a tendency to make me regret wanting to find out what happens next, because what happens next has an increasing probability of being stupid, obvious, or generic as the film goes on. There's not much here you haven't seen before, and the things you may not have are either kind of silly or revealed with great drama even though you pretty much understood them already from subtler hints the film dropped. So...I'm kind of in conflict about the plot. It has an okay overall structure that's serviceable but not exceptional, but it very much drops the ball at some places and just utterly ignores some things that might be at least a little bit interesting to explore in more detail. It has a one-track mind as far as what it wants to continue exploring, but it does at least choose an interesting thing to keep bringing up. It's...mediocre, but it's at least the kind of mediocre that didn't bore me half to death.
Okay, so, here's a warning. I actually want to discuss some things about this film, and unfortunately in order to discuss the things it does get wrong, I am definitely going to have to at least hint at spoilers. So, consider yourselves warned: this is a decent enough film that I think some people might want to see it, and if you are one of those people, don't read any lower than this.
House at the End of the Street basically concerns the relationship between Elissa and Ryan and the major question of whether it is a good idea for them to be friends. It has elements of horror/suspense, but also of one of those small-town dramas with the guy nobody likes and the kid that wants to befriend him. You know the type of film I mean. The great thing about that approach is that it allows the very talented cast to raise the level of the film just by being endearing in all the small-town drama parts. You get a pretty nice portrayal of a troubled relationship between mother and daughter with Elissa and Sarah, with the daughter blaming the mom for the divorce, but both of them kind of trying to get along. It's not a healthy relationship but they seem to be trying to make it one. Elissa and Ryan, then, provide an effective counterpoint, as Elissa kind of pities him and wants to fix what's hurting him, and that gives us some further tension between Elissa and Sarah. It's kind of nice because this is one case where the daughter is acting irresponsibly but isn't just being a brat. We can sympathize with her view of things somewhat, because Sarah does overreact to Ryan at times and Elissa is honestly kind of trying to do the right thing by helping him. And yet we can also easily see Sarah's side, as she's just trying to keep her daughter safe and we totally understand why she might be worried, here. It's a familiar tale, but it's pretty effective.
The trouble is that the horror/suspense parts of the film really aren't all that good. There's not much unique here, but that's not the main problem. The main problem is that in order for several portions of the plot to work, people kind of have to be cripplingly stupid. Especially Elissa, who is forced to react...almost entirely idiotically for large portions of the last half-hour of the film, and to miss a few things that are blatantly obvious a little earlier on. Honestly, this is kind of why I have trouble enjoying horror films (other than my weak stomach for gore)...a lot of them depend on the characters either being jerks or idiots or both. I know it's the trope, but I don't find it entertaining.
This is most obvious in the film's ending sequence, in which Elissa makes multiple discoveries--both in Ryan's favor and against him--all of which should immediately trigger a "call the police" response pretty easily. Not only does she not contact the authorities or even her mom, she actively lies to her mother and utterly fails to do anything remotely like acting in self-preservation. It's all so she can be taken captive to lead up to the film's chase scene, but...it just doesn't seem plausible. Let's go through this in some detail...and there will absolutely be spoilers here, so again, please stop reading if you don't want them:
- Ryan attends her Battle of the Bands at school, is almost immediately attacked by teens who don't like him, and breaks someone's leg and runs away. Elissa doesn't call the cops or her mother to stick up for him. Okay, I kind of get that...she's going to chase after him and see if he's okay.
- She gets to his house and finds someone breaking his window and lighting the place on fire. She puts the fire out, but again does not contact the authorities or her mother, even though she's done nothing wrong here. In fact, her mother calls her, and she lies about where she is and doesn't mention the fire. Even though it would be rather good for Ryan if she mentioned it.
- So she finds a package of tampons and colored contacts in the trash while she's cleaning up the fire. She knows Ryan lives alone and is, y'know, male. At the very least this should weird her out to the extreme. She instead just kind of looks confused.
- She hears something banging further in the house, and of course decides it must be perfectly safe to investigate it. Keep in mind she just saw the house vandalized and Ryan attacked earlier...at the very least, you would think she might be concerned there was another violent teen inside who might hurt her and think to contact the authorities, right? Nope. Let's go exploring!
- She finds that the noise is the laundry machine, into which Ryan evidently put his shirt and shoes from an earlier event,so the shoes were banging around. So she knows what the noise is now, right? Well, why not go ahead and open the basement shelter hatch that she saw earlier, just for fun?
- Oh, hey, a locked door at the end of the hall! Well, surely Ryan won't mind if she takes a peek, right?
- So she gets attacked by "Carrie Ann," supposedly Ryan's brain-damaged sister who went crazy after an unlikely swing accident when they were kids, and killed their parents later. Ryan arrives suddenly and rescues her by sedating Carrie Ann. Elissa runs upstairs at his urging.
- So now, I must note, at the very least she knows for certain that Ryan is keeping a woman hostage in his basement. Me, that would make me run the heck away immediately. Nope, Elissa doesn't do that and doesn't call anyone...she goes to investigate those contacts she saw before, because one of "Carrie Ann's" contacts happened to slip out, revealing her eyes weren't really blue, but brown. Again, this is something she could leave to the cops after she ran screaming from the house while Ryan's very nicely given her a lengthy amount of time. By the way, she drove his car there, so she even has an easy way out.
- But of course she's cripplingly stupid, so she wastes all her time digging...very...slowly...through...the...trash...can until she finds a college student ID proving that "Carrie Ann" is actually Peggy, a girl Ryan kidnapped. She stares at that so long that Ryan comes upstairs, and she makes poor excuses that she has to go home, so he knows she knows the truth and knocks her out.
So you'll notice that's 9 items there leading up to her capture. 9 times that the character acts without any display of self-preservation or rational thought. It starts out kind of understandable, but moves very quickly to the ridiculous. It goes beyond the "don't go in that door, you idiot!" thing some people love about slasher films and to the utterly idiotic. The character is given plenty of chances to make it out, and utterly fails to take advantage of any of them.
It's not even the only time! Later in the film, she manages to escape and temporarily block Ryan in the basement by pulling the dryer over the hatch. Why she doesn't also pull several other readily available heavy things over the hatch to make sure it's inescapable, I don't know. She also finds the body of a cop friend of her mother, doesn't find his gun on him, and just kind of gives up on that instead of looking around the room for it. Then she goes to the garage, finds his car again, searches for the keys...and gets distracted by slowly looking through a box of that has chloroform in it, staring in disbelief at the bottle and rag like she can't comprehend that the man who kidnapped her moments ago might be using that to kidnap people. So of course she gets caught by Ryan, and chloroformed. Irony?
Honestly, the rest of the final sequence isn't bad at all, but I do have to say I will never understand why heroines in these sorts of films don't just shoot the bad guy one more time in the head to be sure he's actually dead before they approach the body to get something they need. If you're nervous about it, just make sure! It's a trope that really needs to go away. If the killer's actually supernatural, fine, he can do the "whoops, I'm still alive" bit, but in stories with very human menaces...no. Please stop using this stupid trope.
(To give the film a little bit of credit, once she's done being stupid, Elissa really starts to fight hard for survival, and kind of won me over by starting to make fast, intelligent decisions again.)
So, let's talk about something that's...kind of...good and bad. The "twist" of sorts to the film, as noted above, is that Ryan actually is a really disturbed individual who kidnaps girls and pretends they are his sister. His sister wasn't brain-damaged in the accident, she died. The film handles this both well and poorly. On the good side, it's actually at least moderately honest, in contrast to films like Ninja's Creed.
It's necessary to talk a bit more about the plot here, so...we actually find out about Ryan keeping his "sister" locked up early in the film, but it looks like she actually is his crazy sister because she keeps attacking him and never speaks. She escapes twice, and both times sprints out of the house and gets chased by Ryan. It looks quite nicely like him trying to keep the town safe from his crazed sister (enough that I was criticizing the film for not explaining why he didn't have her committed rather than keeping her in the basement, but I had to retract that criticism because of the eventual reveal). Anyway, when she escapes the second time, he accidentally kills her (by breaking her neck...I swear, with his speed of attack from the shadows to grab her both times he has to be Sam Fisher, and I was just joking to myself about that when he snapped her neck. I was kidding!).
So when we see another "Carrie Ann" later, it's immediately clear something's up, and the film handles the dropped contact reveal pretty nicely (though it lingers on her brown eye for far to long, like it's pointing it out just to be sure we get it). We can immediately put together what's actually going on. It's a nice twist, and what makes it nicer is a reasonable degree of honesty earlier in the film. Looking back, "Carrie Ann" never actually attacks anyone but Ryan. She grabs a weapon at one point, but sprints right out of the house. She's not trying to attack people, she's running for freedom. She acts all crazy because she's been locked up for years. It works!
The one point where the film may not be entirely honest is that I'm pretty sure they do still use the same girl (Eva Link) to play Carrie Ann in the beginning of the film where they show the parents being murdered...when in fact it should be a teenaged Ryan dressed as a girl, basically. Since the Eva Link Carrie Ann is just a kidnap victim and was kidnapped later, it definitely shouldn't be her in that sequence, but I'm thinking it was. So, the film isn't quite honest, and seems to give at least one misleading shot...though honestly, I'm not totally sure of that one since they film it with hair over face quite a lot and all. If I'm wrong on that, I'll be happy to admit it.
So that's what it does well. What it does poorly is the actual reveal. Honestly, the film hints at what happened in Ryan's past really well. Ryan says just a couple things to Elissa that pretty much tell you exactly what happened: Elissa died, Ryan was forced to become her by his parents, and he later killed his parents in revenge. He doesn't state it right out, but it's still clear. But the film still feels the need to slap a flashback at the very end of the film that makes it utterly blatant. Similarly, it's pretty clear that the second "Carrie Ann" we see is actually a kidnapped girl, and the slipped contact is all we needed as evidence...we didn't also need a lingering shot of the Penn State shirt the girl was wearing earlier in the film, and then a Penn State wallet, and then a lingering shot of her driver's license just to really drive the point home. It's irritating...the film manages excellent subtlety, and then screws it up.
So really...this would be an okay suspense film with a nice twist, but some screwups and stupid behavior on the part of the hero (and villain, in a few points...seriously, Ryan actually just leaves the door unlocked at one point, which makes no sense once you know he's actually a kidnapper) make it middling to poor. There are some other minor points...I would have liked to see a bit more from Elissa's other school friends, maybe a bit of the Battle of the Bands plot, and more of an explanation of how the childhood switch of Ryan having to pretend to be Carrie Ann was actually pulled off without people knowing. I assume it's basically just the parents just saying she was mentally ill after the accident and not letting people see their "daughter," and they do say Ryan was shipped off to live with an aunt as part of the excuse...but really, if no one was allowed to see the "girl" for several years, don't you think Child Protective Services would get a call? Especially if the excuse for not being allowed to see her made people think the kid might need extra care for a mental condition? And then if someone did come to see, well...I don't think it'd take too long to determine that the kid's actually male...and, if I'm remembering correctly, a few years older than "she" is supposed to be (I think somewhere it's stated that Ryan was 7 and Carrie Ann 4 or 5 when she died). Also, what exactly happened when he killed his folks off? Somehow he runs off into the woods, throws off his disguise, and either concocts or uses an elaborate cover story about having just returned to town after the aunt he was sent to live with had a stroke, and apparently no one checked on this? And he managed to kidnap a girl and...did anyone ever look for her? So yeah...some things that are either plot holes or at least...things that should have been explored a tad more.
One other thing worthy of note...I mentioned above that Ryan's attacked pretty much immediately on arrival at the Battle of the Bands, and...it's amazing how out of nowhere the sequence feels. Sure, we get the impression folks don't like Ryan earlier, but here's what happens: he arrives, someone makes a snarky comment, and he ignores them and goes to see Elissa...where he's informed by one of her friends that his car is being trashed. He goes outside and finds people busting it up with baseball bats. Then they attack him and start beating the ever-loving crap out of him until he manages to grab one's leg and snap it. Then they drive to his house and set it on fire. I mean...I get it. These are jerky teenagers who hate this guy. But...immediate destruction of property, assault, and arson, just because he's "that guy from the creepy murder house?" I don't buy it. Not with dozens of witnesses, at the least. And especially not since there's a character in law enforcement that spends most of the movie sticking up for Ryan. Pretty sure that would be well known and these teens would know that it'd be trouble if they started busting up Ryan's stuff and Ryan himself, you know?
I could also talk about the pace a bit...but...honestly, I didn't find it that bad. There aren't a lot of scares, but with this story, there really can't be that many scares or it won't work. It's less a horror movie and more a mystery or some such, and I'm okay with that. There was enough going on in the film for me to find it entertaining enough to keep watching, so I didn't feel it dragged too much. Some more characters would have helped, but...overall, the film keeps chugging along steadily.
Look...this isn't a bad film. It's mediocre thanks to its flaws, but not bad. At worst, it's a little bit goofy and too convinced that it's clever. The strong performances by the cast and some creative shots and sequences raise the quality level a bit, but unnecessary reveals and outright stupid characters drag it down. You'll note a lot of my complaints above focus on the ending portion, where it becomes outright horror/suspense, and that's because the rest of the film is fairly inoffensive, without problems really worth talking over in any detail. The film's very much defined by the last half-hour or so, where Elissa becomes stupid as a rock just so the film can continue to have a plot. It's...not terrible, just a bit silly. Still, I can definitely see it being a pretty entertaining watch, and this is one of those films that, while it isn't that good, shows you the clear potential of just about everyone involved. I didn't mind watching this, and though I ended up with some complaints, it was pretty easy to get through. I can't recommend it, but...it's a reasonable enough film to spend some time with.