EXPECTATIONS: Silly me, I had House at the End of the Street confused with an entirely different movie. The movie that existed in my mind played at film festivals last year to positive acclaim, and that buzz earned HATES ('clever' acronym alert) its fall release date. On Thursday I realized with dread that I had made a grievous error, as the initial wave of critics weighed in: This film had neither played at film festivals nor generated any kind of buzz whatsoever, and the studio was dumping it into September because it wasn't strong enough to compete with Silent Hill: Revelation 3D or Paranormal Activity 4 for the horror fan dollar. And when your film can't compete with the sequel to a movie based on a video game or the fourth entry in a franchise that's quickly wearing out its welcome, well ... that makes me worried. Because I'd like to review a good movie for a change.
REALITY: I didn't loves HATES, but I didn't hates HATES neither. Somewhere, deep inside HATES, there's a great horror film locked in the basement, clamoring to get out. And on the one or two occasions when that great unproduced film manages to escape, HATES is actually sorta good. But the rest of the time ... well, it's a bit of a stinker.
#thatawkwardmomentwhen you realise your boyfriend may be a creepy murderer lol #teamfollowbackStop me if you've heard this one before: After Sarah's (Elisabeth Shue) divorce, she packs up and moves to a new town with daughter Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) in tow. Before they've even cracked open their boxes, they realize something's wrong in their new neighborhood. Yes, it's a shopworn premise that goes back decades -- further back than Fright Night and Poltergeist. Stephen King once wrote that American horror is about bad real-estate investments. HATES doesn't go out of its way to disprove that theory, as Sarah tells Elissa in an early scene that their house was so cheap because it's across the road from a house in which a teenage girl murdered her parents.
The house should be empty ... so why do Sarah and Elissa see an upstairs light come on in the middle of the night? They ask their snobby neighbors, who uncomfortably suggest burning down the murder house as a solution to their property-value woes. Turns out, they can't do anything to the house because someone still lives inside: Ryan (Max Thieriot), the son who was away when his parents were murdered. Even worse, there's a persistent urban legend: Carrie Ann (Eva Link), the murderous daughter who was never captured, still roams the surrounding woods.
Elissa drives a wedge in her already-troubled relationship with her mother when she develops an interest in Ryan, a genuinely nice (if awkward) guy damaged by his sister's actions and the rich neighbors' antipathy toward him -- he subsists on TV dinners because he doesn't like going into town. Meanwhile, Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk), a neighborhood kid who halfheartedly tries to rape Elissa in the first act, nurtures a seething hatred for Ryan as he watches the two grow closer.
See, that plot is an amiable blend of the old and the new. The elements are in place for an entertaining thriller, with all sort of competing interests converging on the murder house. And then HATES pushes the narrative, one-upping itself with a plot development I wouldn't dare spoil. That's all well and good -- hell, it's commendable -- but HATES balances this plot against all of the elements I've come to hate about mainstream PG-13 horror films.
Given that Thieriot appeared in my favorite hilariously inept recent horror film, I expected very little from him, but he acquits himself admirably. Ryan is fragile, quiet and introverted -- the writerly type -- and his dialogue consists mainly of laughable pseudo-profundities ("I like to write at dawn, before the best ideas are taken"), but Thieriot sells it as well as anyone could, given the material. Meanwhile, Elissa's character is less well-defined, and Lawrence, an Oscar nominee, feels a little lost. She's all makeup and little presence, and her "star-cross'd" lovers shtick with Ryan feels a little forced. However, once the plot requires her to behave like the final girl, to escape from danger using her wits and agility, she steps up to the plate to go full-on Katniss.
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What about the other actors? Well, the other actors play the authority figures, the parents, the jock menace. Shue is given the thankless role of the single parent who works too late, bringing her full circle from the girlfriend of a bullying victim in The Karate Kid to the mother of the girlfriend of a bullying victim in HATES. And as the sheriff of this quiet little 'burg, Gil Bellows finds a little nuance: He's sympathetic towards Ryan, who's victimized by a town that's eager to move on, and he has some sort of romantic interest in Sarah that remains undeveloped.
Typical of PG-13 films, though, HATES plays softball with its content, which is a shame. For a potentially supernatural cat-and-mouse slasher film, there's very little blood. And for a film about unsupervised rich kids partying it up, there's very little drinking: We're told everyone at a party early in the film is drunk, but the kitchen looks as boozeless as a Mormon sleepover: The counter features a line of half-empty two-liters of RC Cola, and the participants play spin the bottle with an empty Jones Soda. Also, a character says "dickhole." And that aforementioned halfhearted rape attempt boils down to the rich-kid sociopath pushing Elissa down onto the bed and kissing her before she runs away, screaming. Edgy!
I really wish Hollywood would stop targeting teenagers with its horror or politely accept that teenagers will sneak into R-rated films. HATES, at its core, is a film that tries (and occasionally succeeds) to be better than it is. If it weren't so neutered, and if the film didn't feel so much like an incredibly lazy weekend cash grab at the expense of teenagers who will spend any amount of money to see other teenagers suffer and then outwit the neighborhood menace, HATES would have the juice to be this year's Insidious, the kind of underdog horror flick that gets recognized as a minor classic.
And that, sadly, is the most frustrating aspect of both teenagers and the horror films they see: There's a whole lot of wasted potential.
|Balance of Innovation and Cliché||10/10|
|The "Standard-Issue Unthreatening PG-13 Horror Film Marketed for Teens/God Why Can't You Just Polish the Fucking Screenplay and Go for the R" Penalty||-5|
MINORITY REPORT: They are just so damn proud of that HATES acronym, aren't they? They draw so much attention to it in the trailer that it almost feels like a subliminal message to film critics, daring them to make the most obvious joke possible. Luckily, Sean doesn't HATE the film (or his readers) enough to stoop that low... Oh, maybe not. - Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison
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