It’s always interesting to watch strong actors in weak movies, if only to check out their efforts at damage control. Usually, they just lean more heavily on their trademark style – theatrical actors crank up the theatrics, method actors contract an even more acute case of the mumbles. Of course, neither strategy works. Instead, it’s the quiet actors, the ones blessed with that intrinsic gift of withholding, who tend to fare the best in these lean circumstances. Since their natural gift is to do more with less, scripts that offer next-to-nothing are less damaging to their performance. With that in mind, let’s follow Jennifer Lawrence – so exemplary in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games – into the thin air of House at the End of the Street.
Astute title readers will know it’s a fright flick, in this case the kind that tries awfully hard to keep us guessing about the exact nature of the horror – psychological, supernatural, or simply your basic axe-and-hatchet job. To that end, it holds out a grab-bag of borrowed tropes, swiping from Psycho and The Collector at the classic end of the spectrum right down to The Demon Seed and A Nightmare on Elm Street. So we start with the Strangers in Town – that’s single mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) and her teenage daughter Elissa (Lawrence). They move in perilously close to the Haunted House – the dingy abode where, four years past, a girl murdered her parents in the dead of night. Conveniently, Strangers in Town and Haunted House are separated by the Deep Dark Woods – lore has it that the never-found girl may yet be lingering in these arboreal shades.
More empirically, the family’s lone survivor remains a palpable presence amid the dinginess. Twentysomething Ryan (Max Thieriot) is ostracized by the townsfolk, but that just makes him more attractive to newcomer Elissa. Both are sensitive types – she’s an aspiring musician, he’s an accomplished brooder. They soon bond and romance pops up. Oops, so does Ryan’s lethal sibling, whom he’s locked Gothic-style in the basement, wrapped in her nightie, safely tranquilized and far from the law’s long reach. Apparently, it’s what good brothers do for bad sisters.
From there, under the mechanical direction of Mark Tonderai, the picture grinds toward the surprising twist followed by the scary climax. The latter is flat, but say this for the former – the twist sneaks up on any semblance of logic and definitely takes it by surprise.
Consequently, with nothing much else to do, we watch Lawrence, especially in the mother/daughter scenes. This is the backstory: Wild and irresponsible, more child than parent, Sarah was never much of a single mom. Her current wish to make amends is sincere but late – Elissa has essentially raised herself, and quite well. Okay, what does Shue do with this role? Basically, just flails around in it. And Lawrence? Now comes the magic: Drawing on that inner quietness, her eyes flashing a wisdom beyond her years, she sharply observes Shue’s flailings and, by extension, the film’s too, seeming to judge both with a wry detachment. In that sense, Lawrence is perfectly in character yet somehow outside it too, floating above Elissa and the weak movie alike.
I doubt that Lawrence is conscious of this process. Nevertheless, stuck in a dull commercial feature, a very good actor happens upon a new solution to an age-old problem: She improves the script by transcending it, and steals the picture by abandoning it.