The new Jennifer Lawrence vehicle HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET is just what you’re hoping it’s not: a bad amalgamation of all the slasher movie cliches that can be crammed into an hour and a half. Plucky heroine who nonetheless can’t save herself when it counts? Check. Creepy shut-in next door with a basement full of secrets? Check. Intimations of something nasty/potentially supernatural running around the forest? Check. Bad acting, worse writing, and unforgivable plot holes? Check, check, check. Even Lawrence, with her respectable acting chops (see WINTER’S BONE), can’t save this trashy, disappointing flick. However, rather than spend any more time bemoaning the state of current big-budget horror I am devoting this column instead to an examination of the place of the house in modern horror film, in the hopes that a look back will inspire at least a modicum of hope in you, dear readers, for the future.
Let’s begin with PSYCHO (1960). As critics from the popular (see David Thomson’s “The Moment of Psycho”, 2009) to the academic (see Slavoj Zizek’s “Looking Awry”, 1992) have long pointed out, Norman Bates’s family home plays a key role in the film, almost functioning as a character in its own right. (I always find the scene in which Lila (Vera Miles) explores Mother’s bedroom, with its many mirrors and creepy tchotchkes, to be one of the scariest in the whole film.) The place of the basement in PSYCHO has achieved nothing less than legendary status and led Zizek, in THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (2006) to construct an entire theory of the house as being divided into Norman’s id (basement) ego (ground floor) and superego (second floor), with the relevant parts of the story thus occurring in the appropriate parts of the house. It’s no accident that detective Arbogast is murdered at the top of the stairs, as he’s about to break into Norman’s superego zone. (The superego strives for perfection, according to Freud, and for Norman would be the place where the discrepancies in his split personality—and anyone finding out about them—would be the least tolerable.)
PSYCHO may have been the film that really cemented the house itself as a fixture in the horror film, but another film from the same year, Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM, did just as good a job of making home sweet home into the ultimate horror show. The protagonist’s profession as a photographer gives him the perfect cover for getting close to women who catch his fancy, and also allows him to construct a darkroom in his apartment where he menaces his girlfriend and his landlady, her mother. These scenes are nothing less than spectacular, both for their perfectly choreographed use of light and shadow and for their sudden cuts to the living room just outside which, jarringly, appears welcoming at at least somewhat normal. Like the cavern in the basement of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, PEEPING TOM’s darkroom is a cabinet of horrors nestled skin-crawlingly close to the seat of domesticity.
Isn’t this really what’s frightening about haunted house movies—the collision of something foreign and threatening within a space that’s supposed to be completely knowable and safe? I think so. This foreign, threatening force can take many different forms, however, from an intruder lurking out of sight (WHEN A STRANGER CALLS , BLACK CHRISTMAS ) to an invading supernatural force (POLTERGEIST , A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET ) to the idea of the house itself being alive, possessed, and malevolent (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR , THE SHINING ). Sadly, with so many role models to choose from, HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET settles on precisely none of them. While it gestures towards the unseen-intruder trope several times, nothing ever comes of it, and though there is a secret room in a basement, it proves not too difficult to escape from.
Though its most obvious progenitors are the slasher films of the early to mid-80s, HOUSE doesn’t even have a fully-formed commentary on gender dynamics to offer, something that can often be found in the best films of this period. (Those who haven’t seen the original BLACK CHRISTMAS should do so straightaway; its politics are so far ahead of their time you’ll be checking the box to make sure you’re not mistaken.) The slasher cycle gave rise to what theorist Carol Clover (“Men, Women, and Chain Saws”, 1993) termed the “Final Girl,” a female character who isn’t sexualized as much as her compatriots and—partly because of this—manages to outwit the aggressor and kill him in the end. Though this is the general arc that Lawrence’s character follows in HOUSE, the story is so tired and the characters and dialogue so cliched that her eventual triumph and escape are not only not a surprise, but downright disappointing in their simplicity and predictability.
While there have been a few haunted house movies in the past few years that approached the greatness of some of the classics I’ve already mentioned—THE ORPHANAGE  and INSIDIOUS  spring to mind—the subgenre as a whole has been woefully anemic. Unfortunately, even with a compelling lead actress, HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET does absolutely nothing to reverse this trend. Here’s hoping that Lawrence gives horror another try in a better film sometime soon.
© Lita Robinson 2012