Lately it seems like people want their horror movies to be especially horrifying. Horror movies are sort of like porn: as the audience grows, niches emerge and we choose what we prefer. That’s why we have the Saw franchise for torture-mongers and the Paranormal Activity franchise for fans of the supernatural and Screams 1 through 4 for people who like to laugh at the notion that scary movies are anything less than totally predictable.
Scream is a good reference to have for House at the End of the Street, the PG-13 scary flick that follows every cliché like a pupil with a shiny red apple. Everything familiar element is already in place: strained family dynamics, high school cliques, mysterious-but-cute neighbor, luxurious abodes tainted by recent violence. Jennifer Lawrence plays Elissa, a Taylor Swiftian teenager who moves from Chicago to a new town with her mother (played by Elisabeth Shue). Mommy wasn’t around when Elissa was a kid, and daddy was a deadbeat, but all that’s going to change now that they have a fancy house with a magical forest for a backyard and neighbors who host potlucks. Then Elissa discovers the story of her next-door-neighbor Ryan Jacobsen (Max Theriot): four years ago, Ryan’s little sister Carrie Ann killed both their parents; after the murders, Ryan keeps living in the house. The woods start seeming creepier. Did Carrie Ann drown, or is she still alive, running through the woods like a fast zombie? And how damaged is Ryan, really? Secrets! Intrigue! Disapproving neighbors! Jennifer Lawrence playing acoustic guitar!
House plays on well-trodden fears, like houses that hide things, and flashlights that die at precisely the wrong moment, and boys who look kissable but are actually psychopaths who wouldn’t think twice about gutting you with a Williams-Sonoma kitchen knife. There’s nothing wrong with playing on these fears. Horror movies have been doing it for decades. But House does it with such blandness, with no style whatsoever—the inexplicable booms at moments of peril aren’t fear-inducing, and the violin shrieks that occur at every instance of panic have the same effect as a lullabye. Handheld cameras, scenes shot in total darkness save for occasional bursts of flashlight, woods that look friendly in the day and creepy at night: intriguing, sure, but about as scary as someone saying BOO.
Lawrence is a treat to watch; she has an awesomely pliant face and seems to relish her role as The Girl Who Appears Tough and Smart But Ends Up Doing Stupid Things. She opens every door she shouldn’t open, walks down every shadowy staircase with her lips all pouty. (At the screening, right at the moment Elissa stands over a trap door wondering if she should go in [she shouldn’t] [she does anyway], a sarcastic moviegoer shouted, “Walk AWAY!” to much laughter.) When Elissa and Ryan meet for the first time, she can’t help blurting out, “Your parents got killed!” The actors have fun with the pulpier lines: “Ooh, I just got a bad feeling”; “Double-murder...real drag on the real estate market.” The twist in the middle of the movie is pretty effective too—effective, and not especially horrifying at all.
This film is targeting girls who don’t like horror movies but were into The Hunger Games, and in that sense, it will succeed. The PG-13 rating means the gore is minimal (blood? gross!), sex is more or less nonexistent, and you won’t have any nightmares once you leave the theater. When the best scene in a horror movie is Jennifer Lawrence singing “All You’ve Got To Do Is Fall In Love,” and it turns out that she’s actually lip-synching, that pretty much says it all.