The Last House on the Left (2009)
Director : Dennis Iliadis
Screenplay : Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth (based on the motion picture written and directed by Wes Craven)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Tony Goldwyn (John Collingwood), Monica Potter (Emma Collingwood), Sara Paxton (Mari Collingwood), Martha MacIsaac (Paige), Garret Dillahunt (Krug), Riki Lindhome (Sadie), Aaron Paul (Francis), Spencer Treat Clark (Justin)
Of all the horror films from the ’70s and ’80s that have been remade in the last five or six years--and there have been oh-so-many--the only one that has offered a real opportunity for improvement is Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), a notorious exploitation shocker that became a kind of short-hand for cinematic depravity (the film’s tag line was “To keep from fainting, just keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie …’”). While it is best known for its sadistic gruesomeness, Craven’s film (whose source was Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 fable The Virgin Spring) was also a relatively thoughtful meditation on the cyclical nature of violence. Unfortunately, the film is also horrifically uneven, mixing in sequences of awkwardly unfunny slapstick comedy and misplaced folk music that is more sadistic than the film’s violence.
Thus, a remake offers the possibility of maintaining the film’s studied, if not particularly pleasant, thematic undertones while rectifying Craven’s genuinely bizarre tonal range. Screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth ably update the story to the present time and also offer better explanations for some of its more strained contrivances. However, in the process of updating the material, some of the original’s power is diluted, partially because the villains are turned into a rather generic band of outlaws rather than a cringe-inducing, drugged-out psycho-clan who couldn’t be seen as anything other than a variation on the Manson Family, whose bloody exploits were only a few years old at the time of the original’s release. More crucially, though, the film reworks the final third into a more conventional revenge thriller that completely discards Craven’s critical portrayal of vengeance as a zero-sum game. Rather than ending on a frozen image of defeat, the new version ends with a villain’s head exploding in a microwave.
The focus of the story is the Collingwoods, a generally happy, well-to-do family who is heading out for their summer home on the lake. The father (Tony Goldwyn) is a doctor and the mother (Monica Potter) is devoted to their 17-year-old daughter Marie (Sara Paxton), who has focused all of her attention on competitive swimming. When they get to the house, Marie immediately takes off to be with her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), which is where the trouble starts. Looking for marijuana, they go back to a motel room with Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), a shy kid they meet at the store where Paige works only to be confronted by Justin’s family: his father Krug (Garret Dillahunt), Krug’s girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome), and his uncle Francis (Aaron Paul). They are on the run from the law and have recently been splashed across the front page for killing two police officers, so it is no surprise that they kidnap the girls, eventually taking them out to the woods and raping and possibly killing them. In a plot twist that is fairly well justified this time around, Krug and company find themselves at the doorstep of the Collingwoods, who take them in and show them kindness until they discover what has happened and take their revenge.
Director Dennis Illiadis, a Greek filmmaker making his English-language debut, proves to be an impressive visual stylist who nonetheless manages to avoid most of the gimmicky music-video-style pyrotechnics that have become de rigeur in horror remakes. The film has some genuinely beautiful images that play in striking contrast to its unflinching brutality, something that Craven’s amateurish looking 16mm original couldn’t hope to attain. When Illiadis and cinematographer Sharon Meir (Mean Creek) decide to lay the aesthetics on thick, they actually work, such as a protracted slow motion shot of Marie running away from Krug and then diving into a lake, which increases the scene’s tension but also puts us inside Marie’s head. Although the film is decidedly brutal, the violence against Marie and Paige is always shown from their perspective (especially the almost tender depiction of Marie’s trauma following her rape), thus forcing us to share in their humiliation and pain. Unfortunately, Illiadis makes a few crucial mistakes early in the film by giving us unnecessary (albeit brief) leering shots of Marie getting dressed, which sexualizes her in a way that makes her later rape feel more exploitative than it should.
This is also true of the protracted sequence at the Collingwoods’ home, which unfortunately sinks fairly quickly into the vicarious pleasures of righteous vengeance. Moreso than Craven’s original, the Collingwoods are justified in much of their violence because the majority of it is in self-defense, rather than premeditated slaughter. This is not to say that their dishing out of vengeance doesn’t get brutal and bloody, but the filmmakers seem to be insisting that they have no other choice, which marks a radical departure from previous versions of the story in which the parents’ violence was fueled entirely by rage, thus linking them to the villains in an unbroken cycle of bloodshed. In their performances, Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter are completely convincing as they gradually move from model Pottery Barn parents to bloodied executioners, and when their revenge finally takes on an air of real menace at the end, there is no suggestion that we should think twice about rooting them on. If Bergman’s film was about the need for atonement after violence and Craven’s was about the nihilism of violence, then this new version of The Last House on the Left might be said to be about the unavoidable nature of violence.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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