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Arts Old - DO NOT USE - The Coast News Rancho Santa Fe

Film Review: ‘House’ has some scare, but mostly a dead end

PG-13 rating notwithstanding, the ample chilling twists and turns in this “House at the End of the Street” prove the film’s worth as an effective, if not out of the ordinary, genre keeper. 

Although my attitude towards horror films has been irregular, to say the least, there is one guideline I believe they should adhere to: Every title should be stamped with an R-rating. Anything less means the horror aspect is not doing its job, especially since the macabre and the disturbing are not exactly family-friendly material.

Besides, why should we dilute the scares for a more accessible audience when the objective is to frighten people? To have a horror film be designated as PG-13 is not only an insult to the genre, but also an act of condemnation to the project itself.

Fortunately, this death sentence does not pertain to “House at the End of the Street,” for it manages to compensate for the limitations of its intermediate rating and ends up as a not-half-bad title in the scary department.

Divorced mother Sarah Cassidy (Elisabeth Shue) and her daughter Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) move into an upscale rural town in hopes of starting over.

They learn from their neighbors that the house next door was the site of a grievous murder years ago, in which a little girl killed her parents in the night and disappeared. To this day, only Ryan Jacobson (Max Thieriot) is the sole surviving family member. When Elissa befriends the reclusive Ryan, she finds herself being pulled into the clutches of a horrifying secret known to only a select few.

What should have been a watered down, pathetic excuse for a horror-thriller instead turns out to be a mostly competent psychological scare fest. As much as I do not consider myself a diehard fan of the genre, I admit that I do take occasional interest in titles that derive dread and revulsion from moods as opposed to bodies.

“House at the End of Street” exudes an eerily nuanced atmosphere that would make its R-rated relatives proud. OK, so there are no gallons of blood dripping down a psychopathic killer’s weapon, but since when has that formula achieved a worthwhile victory? For the horror genre, subtlety is more useful than brute force.

I liked how the film decided to approach the story through a “Hitchcockian” lens to elicit terrible apprehension and sickening revelation: Staircases as a motif for suspense, the use of darkness to signify impending danger, ordinary persons being thrust into life-threatening scenarios; the action taking place in a single location to increase tension — you name it.

The voyeuristic nature of the camera — tracking Lawrence’s every move outdoors and indoors — is particularly handy in bringing out the audience’s enjoyment of seeing the lead character trapped in a dangerous situation where vulnerability could not have been more amplified.

That being said, I could not help but notice several of the interior scenes in Ryan’s house were a tad too reminiscent of the climax in Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” with not enough distinction to be unique in its own right.

Also, a couple moments involving either Lawrence or the girl who murdered Ryan’s parents may look like they’ve been borrowed from the hide-and-pray-you-don’t-get-discovered scenes involving the Velociraptors of “Jurassic Park” without undergoing necessary tweaks for the sake of originality.

These bold borrowing of elements from other films don’t necessarily merge well together alongside the Hitchcock components.

The dialogue is not exactly what I would call attention-grabbing; there is no way I can even begin to compare it to the ingenuity exhibited throughout “The Cabin in the Woods” earlier this year.

When Shue’s character talks, you immediately get the impression her Sarah is the generic parent you’ve seen countless times. As for Lawrence, her lines are mostly what you would expect from the young female lead in a horror film, but at least she makes an effort to infuse Elissa with more depth than what she’s given in the screenplay. The same goes for Thieriot, who conveys a tragic yet mysterious edge during Ryan’s speaking moments both inside and outside of his house.

Speaking of Lawrence, she is as accomplished and versatile as she is young and learning. As much as I admire and respect her work, I kept thinking to myself that she could have done better to enable this film to rise above its conventions.

Perhaps in the future she’ll take what she gained from her experience here to show the horror genre the true measure of her abilities a second time, but for now, I believe it is safe to assume she is not quite ready to delve into a scream queen role.

If you’re in the mood for a decent scary tale that relies more on psychology than blood to elicit a repulsive response, as well as seeing Lawrence take a stab at the horror movie, then “House at the End of the Street” is the kind of early Halloween trick-or-treat item you’ll go for.

But if you’re wondering whether or not this film will be one of Lawrence’s lasting projects for future generations to see, I’d say the chances of that happening are unlikely.

2 out of 4

Where: Wide release

When: Now playing

Rating: PG-13

Length: 1 hour 41 minutes


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1 comment

Robin Smith September 28, 2012 at 11:27 am

Good review!

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