There are lots of ways to make a movie. “Badly” was the one that House at the End of the Street chose, and I’m going to go on record as suggesting that this may have been a mistake. It’s been a while now since we’ve had a thriller so poorly conceived, so judgmental, and so laughable at every turn that slack-jawed bewilderment seems like the only rational response. The fact that it stars Jennifer Lawrence, who miraculously emerges from this stinker with the lemony scent of “Pine,” isn’t so much a consolation as it is the only reason why a movie this awful could see the inside of a movie theater.
Lawrence stars as Elissa, the latest teenager to be dragged to a new city by her single parent, only to fall in love with the cutie next door. Said hunk-a-dunk is Ryan, played by Max Thieriot, and he’s bad. So says the snooty neighborhood conservatives. Ryan’s parents were killed by his psychotic little sister – who then went mysteriously missing, wink-wink – and now he lives in their dilapidated but enormous house all by himself. Clearly he’s not to be trusted, this single guy living all alone in his sole inheritance during an economic crisis. Elissa is warned not to trust Ryan, and is expressly forbidden from being alone with him, so naturally she goes the Twilight route and falls head over heels for the dude. He’s psychologically damaged. Obviously, she can change him.
Did you ever wonder if Harper Lee could have improved To Kill a Mockingbird by making Boo Radley a maniac, justifying all the kneejerk paranoia of the ignorant townsfolk and teaching children that you should always judge a book by its cover? Well, that’s House at the End of the Street, without the criminal trial or heroic voice of reason to justify its existence. By the end of the first act, we know that Ryan has his homicidal sister locked up in the basement, and well before the end of the film it’s clear that he, too, is officially cuckoo, and not of the adorable “pro-Cocoa Puffs” variety. Elissa’s mother’s warnings about strange boys are completely justified, and the events of the film are therefore transformed from a rote horror thriller to a cautionary tale meant less to educate young daughters than to placate their conservative middle-aged moms, reassuring them at every turn that, yes, they are right about everything.
House at the End of the Street has all the condescension of a Lifetime Original Movie and only half the ironic entertainment value. If director Mark Tonderai had gone full Reefer Madness, espousing a laughable morality with vim, vigor and utter ineptitude, we’d at least have a cult classic on our hands. Instead, House at the End of the Street gets stymied by a clunking plotline that reveals too much too soon – robbing the story of any suspense – and unconvincing dialogue that only sparingly dabbles in the unintentionally hilarious. (“Your parents are dead.” Yes, that’s how you break the ice.) And the twist endings make no sense whatsoever; not in a fun, bugnuts impossible way, but in a headscratching “If _____ really was _____, and claimed they were _____, then nobody would even think it was _____ in the first place” kind of deal.
There’s something to be said for a film that plays devil’s advocate for an unpopular social ethos, but I’m not sure xenophobia deserves such a ringing endorsement. House at the End of the Street tells its target demographic that overprotective parents are always right and young men are never to be trusted. Okay, maybe it’s a scary movie after all. It’s just too bad it’s not a good one.