Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Cinema File #158: "The House At The End Of The Street" Review

Somewhere, my fellow podcaster Nate Zoebl is masturbating furiously. 

I know I'm more than a little late with this one (though technically it was still released in 2012 so its not past my cut off), but considering my previously stated distaste for America's newest sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence and her recent historic (and historically undeserved) Oscar win, I was inspired to watch a movie I initially skipped based on the assumption that it would be terrible. Oh, and it certainly was that my friends. If you've seen House At The End Of The Street and still harbor the delusion that Jennifer Lawrence can act, than I frankly don't know what can dispel you from the twisted mesmerism she has you under. And if you love the woman and haven't seen this yet, please do so, because I'm starting to feel like Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers on this issue.

House At The End Of The Street follows a mother and daughter starting a new life in a new town only to find that the house next door bares a dark history that threatens to come back to haunt them in the form of its sole remaining resident. Despite that somewhat ominous synopsis and the way this film was marketed, I don't know if I could even call this movie a horror film, or even a thriller, at least predominantly. It eventually gets around to introducing traditional elements of the genre, but spends so much time attempting to subvert expectation that what would have been a novel twist on the concept just left me wondering what the point of all this was. Until a late game twist that I will admit was fun if entirely predictable, I was almost of the mind that this was a deliberate and subtle parody of the kind of movie all the commercials for it suggested it was. The result is that any excitement I might have had is replaced with confusion, that invariably leads to boredom and frustration.

For most of the movie, though it limply tries to throw in a few jump scares for padding, what I expected to be played for suspense gives way to what I can only describe as a burgeoning Twilight-esque romance, if you replaced Edward Cullen with Norman Bates. Lawrence's angst-ridden teenage musician (and yes, she sings, badly) has a need to fix broken hunky men, so when she finds the mysterious creepy neighbor living alone (she thinks), the last survivor of his sister's Lizzie Borden style childhood parricidal rampage, she falls instantly in love. Matters become complicated when we quickly learn that this deep sullen loner is not living by himself, but rather keeping his insane sister locked in the basement while the rest of the community thinks she died after the murders. Again, this isn't really played for horror as much as tragedy, and I think perhaps sometimes comedy, though that may have been unintentional. You are meant to sympathize with characters that in any other movie would be little more than human monsters, which sounds interesting until you realize that it fakes you out of an antagonist until the third act.

Said third act is where this movie tries to become the horror thriller it should have been for the first two thirds, but by then its too little too late, and the execution of a more tried and true formula so late in the game has its own problems. For one thing, once we have a clear villain and it becomes a cat and mouse game between Lawrence and the killer, it just goes on way too long, like they had a whole movie's worth of false endings and action turns and just tried to cram them all in to twenty minutes. Because it ultimately comes down to two people of relatively equal skill at catching and evading respectively acting in a series of small spaces, the back and forth between them just becomes repetitive, naturally interspersed as so many thrillers are with the occasional introduction of another character who represents possible salvation, only to be killed or injured before they can save the day. I can forgive a movie for going through the motions if it at least does it well, but once it starts going through them again and again, then I just want the whole thing to be over.

And as for that romance I talked about, well going back to the more famous pop culture pairing I mentioned earlier, these two young leads bring a special kind of woodenness and lack of passion that even puts Edward and Bella from Twilight to shame. When they are together and I gather I'm supposed to be engrossed in two young people falling in love against all odds and against the wishes of a community that hates and fears them (or one of them at least), I can't get past how lifeless, awkward, and monotone they both are. Its like if you took dialogue from Romeo and Juliet and ran it through the male and female Microsoft computer voices circa 1995 and then just dubbed over the lines read by two stand ins who were told at the last minute that the main leads had walked off the set, and now they have to do their best to fill in on the spot. As bad as Lawrence is, I was surprised to find her male counterpart to be even worse, playing a character whose actions are predicated on at least three deep dark secrets, the last of which is so stupid, I want to spoil it by referencing the shitty 80's movie it steals from, but can't in good conscience ruin for you the one moment I could at least appreciate ironically.

Oh, and about the community that hates them, this is a subplot that just pissed me off. For some reason, the town hates the guy who lives in the titular House At The End Of The Street, even though everybody knows it was his sister who killed their parents. I never understood why everybody just reflexively loathes this sad victim of terror. "You're whole family is dead, fuck you!" It makes no sense. There are some vague references to property values going down because of the house's history and a belief in an urban legend concerning the killer still being alive, but its never explained why any of this should come back on him. Okay, I guess it would make sense that people might be afraid of the house and the surrounding woods, and by extension him in so far as he lives there, but the character himself is outwardly normal and yet whenever he comes into town, everyone pulls out their torches and pitch forks like he's a freaking monster despite giving them no reason to do this. I get why they do this from a narrative perspective, but it just defies common sense. And the stupidest part is, this behavior is basically rewarded in the end, with the only member of the town other than Lawrence's character who does defend him punished for his trouble.

Overall, while House At The End Of The Street should be applauded for at least trying something different within the thriller wheelhouse, it fails to deliver on actually doing it well. If the third act had been the entire movie, it probably still would have been tiresome, but at least I would have known what the hell I was watching. This take, while admittedly unique as far as the genre goes, just meanders around for an hour before exploding into a flurry of activity that isn't earned by what came before it, and even if it were, isn't convincing due to the terribly boring or just plain terrible actors playing the main leads. Bringing it back to Jennifer Lawrence, whose scared face looks just like her happy face, and every other face, because she can't emote her way out of a paper bag, all I can say is, this woman now has an Oscar, and if anything goes to show what a sad mockery of its former self the Academy is at this point, its that fact alone.

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