Review: 'House at the End of the Street' Condemns Itself to Convention

Usually, when someone reacts to a movie by saying “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” it’s intended as a compliment, but when a new piece of bland, bloodless babysitter bait like “House at the End of the Street” lumbers along, one remembers why they might have stopped.

It’s a thriller that doubles as something of a rite of passage for up-and-comer Jennifer Lawrence. Having already been nominated for an Oscar after 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” and pretty much certified as a star between last summer’s “X-Men: First Class” and this spring’s “The Hunger Games,” this shelf-sitting dud feels like part of the natural progression of her career -- the obligatory “scream queen” role -- served up after the fact.

Lawrence plays Elissa, guitar-strumming teenage daughter to Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) and recent transplant from Chicago to a nice backwoods neighborhood in Pennsylvania. How’d they get such a nice place for such a good price? Well, it turns out that four years earlier, the neighbors next door were assaulted and killed by their insane daughter (who has since gone missing), thus driving down the local property values. But just look at all the trees, Katniss!

Sarah becomes a little more wary once she realizes that the house next door remains occupied by sole survivor Ryan (Max Thieriot) and warns her daughter away. Between being new in town and being movie-teen rebellious, Elissa soon takes a liking to this timid, misunderstood, sensitive soul, all the while blissfully unaware that he still cares for his sister down in the basement...

The first act of David Loucka’s screenplay is burdened with dumps of exposition from every grown-up in sight, the middle stretch is packed to the gills with red herrings, and it all ends with flickering flashlights and at least one moronic twist. Director Mark Tonderai (“Hush”) keeps the lighting harsh and the framing tight, allowing Lawrence and Shue to hold up their end while failing to prevent Thieriot and Gil Billows (as the town’s one cop) from seeming respectively sleepy-eyed and slow-witted at every turn. Our fair lead fares the best, but even she’s subjected to the routine of slinking down dark stairs in a tanktop until startling noises can interfere.

Are bits like that even scary anymore, or merely loud? I suppose that’s unfair to ask of a film that somehow finds staring at tree trunks to be remotely romantic. Then again, anyone who’s going to see this is unlikely to know that the climax is straight out of “The Silence of the Lambs,” or realize that a particularly dunderheaded development feels ripped right from another much older classic. It’s not my place to say which one; that wouldn’t be fair to either our readers or this clearly inferior film.

Grade: D