To me, House at the End of the Street comprises two distinct cinematic experiences. One pertains to the thoughtful horror flick intended by director Mark Tonderai, a rare thriller that considers human loss not just in relation to the victims but also the monster. The other speaks to my personal biases, as I ended up watching instead a stirring psychological drama about two youths coming to terms with an unjust world in an attempt to overcome a lifetime of trauma, guilt, and prejudice. That film betrayed me in the final act by turning into a scary movie, and I’m still trying to figure out whether I can forgive it.
Either interpretation of House at the End of the Street stars Jennifer Lawrence as Elissa, a compassionate teen who relocates to a small suburb populated with the sort of mundanely small-minded sociopaths we so often meet and accept into our lives. Screenwriter David Loucka captures their voice perfectly. Consider the scene in which soccer mom Bonnie (Joy Tanner) jests about burning down the house occupied by Ryan (Max Thieriot), whose younger sister killed both his parents. “He doesn’t necessarily have to be in it,” the woman adds, not realising how the word “necessarily” betrays her feeble attempt at decency.
Our heroine is rightfully appalled by the conversation, but her mother Sarah (Elizabeth Shue) appears more burdened with the thought of having such an undesirable neighbour. First, she talks to the Sheriff (Gil Bellows), hiding her bigotry in concern for her daughter. Then she invites Ryan over to humiliate him in front of Elissa and, when that fails, kicks him out, assuring the boy that his efforts to raise himself as a decent, responsible person amount to little in the eyes of his community. Time and again, the woman proves herself a horrid human being, and the tragedy lies in that she’ll never know it.
As any parent worth his or her salt might expect, Elissa grows closer to the mysterious boy next door the more her mother objects to his existence, but there’s more to their romance than teenage rebellion. I love the way her eyes sparkle whenever Ryan shares his gentle view of the world, whether it be his justification for writing at dawn (“All the good thoughts haven’t been taken yet”) or the way he looks at a simple tree trunk. The latter bit pays off in a beautiful coda that reminds us no soul is beneath mourning, no matter how lost.
Three quarters in, I’d pretty much resigned to get my heart broken. Simply put, Ryan’s secret, which is revealed morsel by morsel, seemed too sordid to result in anything but tragedy. What I didn’t expect is for House at the End of the Street to turn into a traditional thriller complete with a surprise twist. I understand what the director meant to achieve and suspect most will interpret his film as intended: as a true blue scary movie that, for once, delves into its monster’s all too human heart.
I, on the other hand, was so engrossed in the characters that I’d begun hoping House at the End of the Street would turn out an earnest drama falsely advertised as a ghost story to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I know what it’s like to be Ryan, to be hated for where you come from, not what you’ve done, and to have no place to call safe. I also know what it’s like to be Elissa, to have your moral outrage ignored and your affections reduced to self-serving pop psychology platitudes: “You’re just trying to fix him.” I wasn’t so naive as to expect justice for these lovers or even vindication, but I felt they deserved a fate divorced of the melodrama inherent to the horror genre.
I don’t mean to suggest that House at the End of the Street goes off the rails in its third act. The ghastly twists all prove consistent with what’s come before, and the story unfolds in such a calculated way that I could make sense of every reveal but couldn’t piece together the full picture until the final flashback. Tonderai has crafted a smart, sensitive thriller that caught me off guard because of its deep emotional resonance. I’m still angry at the film, you see, which, all things considered, is all the more reason to recommend it.