A horror movie might seem an oddly unambitious choice for rising starlet Jennifer Lawrence at this stage of her career. She's been in one franchise ("X-Men: First Class"), launched another ("The Hunger Games") and is earning serious Oscar buzz for her turn playing disturbed in "The Silver Linings Playbook."
But "House at the End of the Street" is a conventional thriller packed with jaw-dropping surprises. And Lawrence adds a few new wrinkles to her already impressive repertoire in a film that could have been just another scare-the-teens genre piece.
Elissa (Lawrence) and her newly-divorced doctor mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) have just moved to Architectural Digest-worthy home on the edge of a state park in the town of Woodshire. They were able to afford it, Mom tells us, because of what happened next door, "at the Jacobson house." We've already seen that in the prologue -- a young girl murdered her parents there four years before.
Elissa is a teenage contradiction -- an open-faced, open-hearted girl who seems to tell her mother everything, yet who remains in a state of revolt against Mom. She knows how to push Mom's guilt button.
But she's not sullen and testy. She's curious, direct and brash. That's why she strikes up a friendship with the shunned son of the family that was murdered, Ryan (Max Thierot). She's leery, but she's not afraid of him, even flirting with him. Lawrence lets us see Elissa calculating and re-calculating risks. She's the first "normal" teen Lawrence has played -- an aspiring musician, every bit as sarcastic as her peers.
"You wanna come sing with us?" a guy in a band pleads.
"And if you suck?" she snaps back.
The kids in town steer clear of Ryan, who is college age. Their parents hate what he and his house have done to property values. But Elissa sees his sensitive side and in blunt ways only a teen would think of, queries him about his history and about "that night" four years before.
Elissa has what it takes to push Ryan's flashback button.
Actor-turned-director Mark Tonderai put a lot of effort into tone, setting many scenes in the gathering gray of twilight. David Loucka's script has the luxury of making its first big revelation early, allowing the film to tease us along in a gathering sense of dread. There's also guilt, regret and the weight of taking on responsibility too young.
Shue and Lawrence create a layered mother-daughter conflict, allowing for surprises in their relationship. That pairing pays dividends far beyond any physical resemblance, as Shue is having a 40something renaissance -- choosing roles, big and small, wisely. She gets sparks out of Lawrence, especially in scenes where Sarah tries to control the 17-year-old Elissa.
And Thierot lends a touch of Ryan Phillippe to his performance, a vulnerable, damaged, good-looking boy who is catnip for any girl looking for a "project."
It's a little too leisurely in its pacing. And once or twice "House" stumbles into the sort of abrupt, under-motivated actions and plot twists that separate the good thrillers from the great ones. But by the third act, you or someone sitting near you will be whispering, muttering or just plain shouting at the screen.
And when it's all over, you have to wonder when and if Lawrence will make that first false step in a career that burst out of nowhere with "Winter's Bone." This isn't it.