Some horror flicks are designed for the young and communal experience, and that's perfectly fine. There's more than enough room under the genre umbrella for family films, "tween" films, young adult films, and hardcore horror junkie films. And while the new thriller House at the End of the Street earns a few points for trying to appeal to the teenage audience without resorting to remake or sequel stuff, the simple truth is that there's very little here you haven't seen before. As an excuse for 15-year-olds to get together on a Friday night, the film may work rather well, but as a cohesive or compelling tale for anyone over the age of 20? Pass.
We start out in familiar but generally appealing territory: a teenage girl and her widowed mama have moved into a lovely (isolated) house, but they quickly learn that the creepy house next door is populated by the only survivor of a horrible massacre from a few years back. Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) and Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) are curious and a little creeped out by poor, lonely Ryan (Max Theriot), but it doesn't take long before the young and sweet Elissa takes a slight shine to her unloved neighbor ... and that's pretty much when House of the End of the Street goes from "passable set-up with two good actresses" to something we've seen so many times before that it's hard to even pay attention to it anymore. (To be honest, it's a nice switch to see mom and daughter move into a new house and work together. 97% of the time, the kid is a rotten jerk and the poor mom just has to deal with it.)
Director Mark Tonderai (he also made the underrated road thriller Hush) does what he can with an almost painfully anemic screenplay (there's some mildly strong eeriness in Act I) and Ms. Lawrence continues to prove that she's a young actress with true charm and screen presence, but by the time House at the End of the Street gets into its inventory of Act II "teen drama" histrionics, you may wish that this PG-13 affair would kick-start some attitude and deliver something shocking, thrilling, or unpredictable. (To be fair, one of the flick's two or three halfhearted plot twists is actually pretty novel. I didn't see it coming, anyway.) What started out as a teen take on Psycho (much like Disturbia was a teen take on Rear Window) quickly transforms into a chat-heavy CW pilot about dull, angry teens before suddenly switching gears to focus on basic stalk 'n' slash material. Very little of it works.
The lovely Jennifer Lawrence is able to salvage much of the film's muddled mid-section through sheer force of quiet class, and she shares a few solid early scenes with Ms. Shue, but rare is the leading lady who could make this screenplay seem fresh or exciting. (A film's best idea should not be provided by flashback alone.) By the time Gil Bellows checks in as a local sheriff who exists mainly to provide ancient back-story and clunky exposition, House at the End of the Street might have you wondering when the next commercial break is due. Occasionally well-shot but more often simply flat and listless, the movie jolts (audibly!) to life on a few occasions, but mostly it's a "sleepover night" horror movie made for young people who haven't seen many good horror movies -- and crave a movie they can socialize to and not actually watch all that closely.
(Note: "House" producer Peter Block is a friend of mine.)