House at the End of the Street starts out strong. You witness the murder of two parents by their deranged young daughter, who then flees into the woods behind the house, presumably never to be seen again. Four years go by, and new neighbors move in next door, knowing what transpired in the Jacobson house, but capitalizing on the ensuing diminished real estate values in the wake of the murders. The Jacobson house is said to be empty. The first night in their new house, mother Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) looks out a window across the yard at the Jacobson house and…a light within flicks on. Ok, so I got chills and a little excited that this might be a sort of creepy haunting tale. Instead, we get a story about an unassuming stalker that’s more interested in presenting twists than making them make sense.
It’s difficult to pick apart the story without spoilers, so, whatever. Spoilers. If you need to close the window now, I understand, but know that the movie doesn’t live up to its potential.
Sarah’s teen daughter Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) takes a curiosity in the house, and they soon discover that someone does in fact live there, the only surviving son, Ryan (Max Thieriot). He keeps odd hours for personal reasons and acts suitably uncomfortable to live in the house, for obvious reasons, but hasn’t left yet.
It turns out he’s got a makeshift dungeon built into the cellar of the house. It’s never clear whether this is intended as a bomb shelter or if he built it himself, but this is where Ryan keeps his supposedly lost sister, Carrie Anne (Eva Link, and later Jordan Hayes), under lock and key. Whenever he opens the door to check on her, she attacks him, he sedates her, wash, rinse, repeat. Ok, so the supernatural angle is shot. We might still have something with Carrie Anne not only being alive, but also being right here in custody, so we’re sure to see more of her as the story unfolds. Maybe she’s the antagonist or does something really crazy, and her brother tries to cover up her horrible deeds.
Ryan tells Elissa that Carrie Anne fell off the swings one day while he was watching her as his parents got strung out from freebasing or shooting heroin or something. I’m no expert on these things. The fall supposedly gave her brain damage, which causes her to be a violent psychopath all the time. That explains why she attacks him whenever he opens her cage, but not how he recovered her from the woods or wherever she ended up, or why he was keeping her locked up at home rather than getting her proper psychological treatment.
It’s because it’s not Carrie Anne. Once this is revealed, Ryan says that he’s lost without his sister (who actually died that day as a child, rather than just becoming handicapped) and kidnaps girls to lock away and pretend are Carrie Anne. The violent outbursts are those of a kidnapping victim trying to escape. When they get free, he always manages to subdue them before they alert anyone, conveniently, despite living in a relatively populated neighborhood and the girls getting the drop on him to escape regularly.
Ryan and Elissa fall into the “teenagers in love role” — that whole chunk of story plays out so much like American Beauty‘s Thora Birch and Wes Bentley, you’d have to be blind not to notice — and eventually Elissa is unknowingly lined up to be the next Carrie Anne. Ryan locks her up, starts leaving a trail of bodies everywhere, and does plenty of other things to draw attention to himself while trying to do the exact opposite. The heroine eventually prevails, and Ryan ends up in an asylum, where we find out that his parents tried to convert him into Carrie Anne as punishment for his neglectful involvement in her death as a child.
This story ends up somewhere between Psycho and Rear Window, but with the younger vibe of the Rear Window-inspired Disturbia. I thought Disturbia was a decent enough and relatively fun to watch mystery, but still fell short of the Hitchcock classic that inspired it. I rank House at the End of the Street beneath both. The “don’t make my mistakes” teenage drama and between mother and daughter gets a little heavy-handed, and the faux relationship between Sarah and the local sheriff Weaver (Gil Bellows) never amounts to anything, not for a relationship, character development, or the plot (except the totally stupid part where he inexplicably covers up the death of Carrie Anne and helps the family maintain a lie for years that Ryan is living out of town with a relative); it could be entirely absent and change nothing. The way the entire town vocally and violently persecutes Ryan is kind of ridiculous, as is why he stays in that house to begin with. It plays on too many cliches without backing them up with convincing twists or legitimate suspense.
Remember when you found out who Keyser Söze really was, or what was in the box at the culmination of John Doe’s seven deadly sins plot? Those changed everything you thought you knew. Finding out that Ryan was treated like a girl growing up changes nothing, but confuses everything. If he thought he was Carrie Anne, why did he keep kidnapping other girls? Projection? If he resented her for the abuse that her death brought upon him at the hands of his parents, why is he so upset when he subsequently kills the Carrie Annes, seemingly by accident? I’d think it would be cathartic or somehow sadistically satisfying to dress them in the part, then take out the mental anguish on them. The reveal that the parents tried to turn him into Carrie Anne is told through a separate memory rather than unmasking him as the killer from the first scene of the movie. That would have worked better for me. The whole thing just got unnecessarily complicated at the end, one of those last-minute surprises that the author hopes you’ll rush out of the theater without considering too hard. It’s cheap and weakens what they’d tried to build up to that point. I liked the actors, I wanted to like the characters, but the story squandered my affection for them.
The Blu-ray has both the theatrical and unrated versions of the film, which amounts to less than one minute of difference in footage. I’m not sure what’s different, because the twists at the end appeared to be intact in both versions. Given the theatrical version was PG-13, it could just be some additional violence, though the back of the box promises a “shocking added twist.” The picture and sound live up to their high-def promises, and the “Journey Into Terror” featurette on the disc extends your viewing by ten minutes with cast interviews and some behind the scenes stuff.
Paranormal Activity made it hard to go to sleep afterward. Once the supernatural angle went out the window here, I hoped for a mediocre Disturbia knock-off, and didn’t quite get even that. The more “it could happen to you” vibe these kinds of movies have, the better they tend to be and the wider their appeal. Halloween and Psycho knew that decades ago. Twists for the sake of twists do not a better movie make. I’d recommend any of these other movies above this one, but superfans of Shue or Lawrence may still get something out of watching them flex their acting chops for 100 minutes.