It’s early still to say what all Jennifer Lawrence can do as an actor. But I feel comfortable crossing cheap horror movies off the list. This isn’t so much an assessment of her talent (she has some) as it is an indication of where her weakness lies as a screen presence. She can shoot and kick and chide. She cannot duck and cower — fear doesn’t suit her. But “House at the End of the Street” wants from her what most of these movies want from a woman: ye olde slow jaunt from room to room, unlocking doors and daring a game audience to say, “Don’t go in there.”
For most of this movie, Lawrence looks bored. She also looks more 15 than her actual 22 years, indicating that maybe the film’s been collecting dust on a shelf. That, I can understand. This is a terrible little movie even by the standards of the genre. The behavior in these films rarely makes any sense, but by the time we discover what’s going on we’re well past caring about how psychotic it is.
Lawrence plays Elissa, whose inexplicably estranged mother (Elisabeth Shue) has moved them both from Chicago to State College, Pa., home of Penn State, where mom works conveniently long hospital hours while Elissa gets close to Ryan (Max Thieriot), her neighbor and the local weirdo whose little sister murdered his parents years ago. No one in town takes pity on Ryan. They just talk behind his back and kick him in his front. The lore is that the ghost of Ryan’s sister haunts the forest. Really, it’s much sicker than that.
This is a wildly unflattering portrait of a part of the country that could use a break from judgment, scorn, and creeps. Yet with even a touch of competence that portrait could have been spine-tingling. It could have haunted you. Instead, the screenplay, by David Loucka, buries the lede until the last shot. Loucka must have watched “Psycho” (and “Silence of the Lambs” and any movie in which a pert woman wears a tank top for the climax). But he and the director, Mark Tonderai, fail to grasp the basic principles of suspense. The entire movie demands that Elissa do more perilous snooping than any girl from inner-city Chicago would, especially with that much “get out of the house” music on the soundtrack.
But with the right audience a movie this desperate and clueless might be fun. I saw it in a theater full of sorority girls who screamed any time one of the many deplorably cheap scares is drummed up; and they gasped whenever badness is about to befall Lawrence. This is the sort of nonsense Julia Roberts wound up in after “Pretty Woman” — namely “Sleeping With the Enemy” — and I remember jumping when the movie said to and cheering when Roberts calls 911 to report the dead husband before she shoots him. I also remember being about 14.