House at the End of the Street sure sounds like a typical horror movie title, the kind with a stereotypical dose of slasher killings and rowdy teenage antics.
But then something unexpected happens. Eerie opening credits drop viewers right into the middle of a brutal murder that sets the stage and pacing for the rest of the film. It soon becomes obvious that this is no ordinary horror picture; it is something much smarter and way more intense than its PG-13 rating lets on.
The plot seems simple enough. Jennifer Lawrence stars as Elissa, a 17-year-old student and songwriter who moves to rural Pennsylvania with her divorced mother, Sarah (Elisabeth Shue). They make for a highly attractive pair, so the film can check “eye candy” off its conventional horror to-do list.
Then the neighbors come in. They seem nice enough, and among them is Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk), a high school jock who throws parties and thinks he can hook up with Elissa based on nothing more than his overinflated ego. Add another check onto that horror film to-do list.
It turns out, though, that this peaceful little neighborhood has a dark history, one that the neighbors believe brings down the values of their homes.
The story goes like this: A teenage girl by the name of Carrie Anne Jacobson murders both her parents in a violent rage and flees into the surrounding woods, where police say she died. The catch, however, is that they never found the body. Potential psychotic killer on the loose? Indiscernible rustling in the woods at night? Check and check. This film completes the horror to-do list in the first 15 minutes.
But viewers should not be fooled by the presence of these stereotypical conventions. House at the End of the Street swiftly takes expectations and flips them upside-down, taking the plot to unexpected and pulse-pounding territory.
The only Jacobson family member left is Carrie’s brother Ryan, who was living with his aunt in another location at the time of the murder. Now, however, Ryan has inexplicably chosen to live in the very house where his sister murdered their parents, hoping to fix it up and sell it one day.
Played masterfully by Max Thieriot, Ryan is good-looking, soft-spoken and quite understandably disturbed by what happened to his family. He comes across like a lost puppy, and Elissa can’t help but take him under her wing.
Lawrence and Thieriot capture the spirit of awkward young love with an undeniable chemistry that frightens Elissa’s mother into banning them from being alone together, an order which they, of course, they ignore.
Perhaps Sarah’s ban of their relationship is not the biggest hurdle they have to overcome, though. It turns out that Carrie Anne is not only alive and just as psychotic as ever, but Ryan happens to be holding her hostage in the basement of their house.
What follows is a tale with so many twists and turns that it’s almost hard to remember to take a breath. This exhilarating, unconventional narrative is not something that waits until the final minutes for a big reveal. Instead, it intricately weaves in more and more details as the horror of the situation unfolds.
Why is Carrie Anne so hostile? What are Ryan’s plans for her? Is Ryan just damaged from the trauma his sister caused, or is there something more sinister to it? These questions are the ones the film gradually answers to tie everything together for a knockout ending.
The cinematography is top-notch throughout, and director Mark Tonderai incorporates some interesting point-of-view camera angles in addition to swirling character close-ups that create an undeniable sense of dread as the film progresses.
All of this is not to say that the film doesn’t have flaws, but they mostly exist in regard to the secondary characters. Elissa’s friend Jillian is practically useless as a character, and a convoluted love story between Elissa’s mother and a cop ends up slowing the film down at random points when it should just be firing on all cylinders.
The horror genre has been suffering a noticeable drought in recent months, and there is no better way to fix it than with a film like this — one that defies typical conventions and brings something totally unexpected to the table. It is scary, suspenseful and mysterious; Alfred Hitchcock would be proud. It might have a generic title, but House at the End of the Street is just the surprise horror fans have been waiting for — whether they know it or not.