From Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet to The Americans, the idea that evil lurks just below the scrubbed-clean surface of America’s small towns and suburbs has been so fully ingrained into the popular consciousness that at this point it might actually be more subversive create a work that fully endorses the mom-and-apple-pie myth of American life. Still, as well trod as this territory is, there is no doubt an inherent fascination with the idea that behind the bland exteriors of our neighbor’s houses lie horrible and titillating secrets.
So I can’t fault The House Across the Street too much for its basic premise: girl moves to a quiet, friendly suburban town, finds suspicious activities going down at the eponymous house across the street, starts playing detective, gets in too deep. But what I can, and do, fault the film for is its extremely slack direction, bland visual palette, and an overly somber tone that frequently spills over into soporific. Most scenes play out as stilted, threadless conversations directed with indifference. The cast is actually not too bad. Lead actress Jessica Sonneborn is a little patchy but generally gets the job done. Veteran character actors like Alex Rocco (The Godfather), Ethan Embry (Can’t Hardly Wait), and Eric Roberts (Runaway Train) fill out the periphery.
Despite a valiant effort from the crew, it is clear the filmmakers had to shoot around Roberts’ schedule, leading to several awkwardly staged scenes in which Roberts and Sonneborn converse without ever appearing in the same shot. Actually, given the circumstances, the filmmakers don’t handle this too badly—making use of shot-reverse shot setups, body doubles, and, I believe, at least one composite shot—but the fact that I found myself more interested in the logistics of Eric Roberts’ shooting schedule than in anything going on in the story should tell you all you need to know
The look of the film is quite drab. Everything is colorless except for the overused blue filter that lays over the entire movie, lending a lugubriousness to even The House Across the Street’s ostensible suspense setpieces. Luhn’s writing is a little bit better than his directing, but only a little. The stakes are often unclear, and some rather implausible coincidences plague the third act. The movie also makes the mistake of imagining that we care about certain revelations far more than we do.
In the early scenes when Sonneborn is just sitting around her house spying on the neighbor’s across the street, the movie clearly echoes Rear Window or, more precisely given the film’s suburban setting, the Simpsons’ classic Rear Window parody “Bart of Darkness.” But Rear Window this ain’t. And, hey, I don’t expect a movie like The House Across the Street to be the second coming of Hitchcock, but even The Simpsons knew how to dial in a little suspense. The House Across the Street just lies there, limp, dreary, dull.