Making a major Hollywood film is difficult for many reasons. A key one is the simple fact that most Hollywood films must fit into established genres with which viewers are familiar.
Obviously, there are benefits to genre conventions. They give filmmakers a basic roadmap for making a successful picture. That said, when viewers are already familiar with the conventions of a particular genre, storytellers must find a way to surprise them without subverting expectations merely for the purpose of surprising an audience. Defying genre expectations simply to do something unexpected isn’t smart if such choices don’t actually contribute to the story.
That’s a major reason why 2012’s The House at the End of the Street is such a remarkable horror film. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, this thriller takes certain common horror tropes and uses them in surprising ways to tremendous effect.
This isn’t merely a subjective opinion of one viewer. The movie’s director, Mark Tonderai, reported in interviews leading up to the film’s release that telling a familiar story in a slightly new way was one of his main goals during production. That opportunity was actually one of the factors that attracted him to the project in the first place.
It also represented one of the most significant challenges involved in making the movie. Striking the right balance between respecting the conventions of the genre and giving audiences a truly unique experience isn’t easy. Here is how the film accomplishes this.
The Film Assumes Audiences Are Genre-Savvy
Speaking with Screen Rant, Tonderai explained the goal he and his team shared throughout their work on the film: “I think audiences are smart anyway. I think it’s in our DNA. If you were to do a serial killer film, how are you gonna do it? The serial killer film with heart, the serial killer in a documentary, from the serial killer’s POV—all the different permutations of serial killer films they have seen before so for me, one of the real tricks about my job especially in this genre, is how do I get ahead of audience expectations, because they’ve seen it. They’ve seen it 100 times before.”
The Film’s Script Successfully Practices the Art of Misdirection
Without revealing too much about the film’s plot for those who have not yet seen it, it’s worth noting that Tonderai deliberately went about getting ahead of audience expectations. He accomplished this by working hard to ensure viewers developed a fondness for a character who may not be as trustworthy as he seems at first glance.
True, horror thrillers often feature characters who are not what they seem on the surface. However, in many cases, it’s easy for an audience member to identify which characters are actually hiding their true motivations. The House at the End of the Street stands out because the filmmakers and actors genuinely convinced viewers to misunderstand what kind of person a particular character would turn out to be.
Tonderai explained that this key element of the film was meant to communicate to viewers that their “preconceptions” about this type of movie would not apply in this case. The basic structure of the film may be familiar, but the specific directions in which the story goes are new.
The Film Relies on the Talent of Its Cast
Of course, a strong director and nuanced script can still fail without a cast that can deliver on the need to shock an audience. Tonderai certainly appreciated this. When asked about his two main stars, Lawrence and Max Thierot, he described their work as “phenomenal” and recognized that the film would not have worked had they not been able to successfully mislead audiences with their performances.
This is yet another reason why it can be difficult to successfully make this type of genre film. Even if the story is designed to surprise audiences, you still need to find performers who can convincingly bring the story to life. Tonderai admitted he was exceptionally fortunate to work with such talented actors on this project.
He also recognized the dedication of Elisabeth Shue, who “grilled” him about the role to make sure he understood the characters thoroughly. To prove he could match that level of dedication, Tonderai created a large document describing the life paths of every major character in the film.
That may be the key reason The House at the End of the Street is so effective. Again, subverting audience expectations simply for the purpose of being original or surprising isn’t an effective strategy if doing so doesn’t enhance the story. By thoroughly describing the lives of the film’s characters beforehand, Tonderai ensured that all twists and turns were natural extensions of those characters.
It’s not easy to make a truly unique horror film. It’s even more difficult to make a unique horror film that feels authentic. True, The House at the End of the Street works because it’s genuinely scary. That said, it’s also effective because it gives viewers an experience they may not have had before.