Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A look at "Last House on the Left": The Remake Wins Out


The Last House on the Left (1972) 
82 min., rated R.
Grade: D

Loosely based on Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring" comes the little horror-revenge shocker, "The Last House on the Left." It's arguable what's worse: the inept production values or the controversial, extremely sick nature of it all? You decide, but a pair of young women on their way to a concert are raped, tormented, and killed by a Manson-type gang of sadistic fugitives. As coincidence (or plot manipulation) would have it, the murderers later end up facing gruesome retribution from one of the girls' wholesome parents who live in the last house on the left in the woods. They should've stayed right. 

What an ugly, exploitative, feel-bad piece of business that'll have you wanting to take a shower afterwards...and as said, it's not even well made in a technical sense. Debuting filmmaker Wes Craven, who had to start somewhere, means to evoke a disturbing power through his unapologetically grim depiction of our violent society during a Vietnam era. Too bad the coarse filmmaking leaves none of the sadism to the imagination, stabbings, rape, and castration included. However effectively unsettling the film is, emphasized by the tune “The Road Leads to Nowhere,” the brutality is still repugnant and consistently hard to take. 

Misguided comic let-ups between a pair of doltish, useless cops and chipper bluegrass music by David Hess (who stars as the killers' leader, Krug) awkwardly belong in an entirely different movie (or planet). "The Last House on the Left" is a total turnoff to the faint of heart, but horror fans may unclearly get jazzed by this glorified snuff film. 

The Last House on the Left (2009) 
110 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

As amateurish, scuzzy, and desperate-to-shock as Wes Craven's 1972 cheap film debut "The Last House on the Left" was, it left immeasurable room for improvement. Hence, this brutal, uncompromising, strongly acted remodel (which Craven produces). Surgeon John Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn) and his protective wife Emma (Monica Potter) take their 17-year-old swim-champ daughter, Mari (Mischa Barton lookalike Sara Paxton), to their lakeside vacation home, a year after their son died. Just after unpacking, the teen asks to take the car to town to hang out with girlfriend Paige (Martha MacIsaac, the na├»ve lush from "Superbad"); the young ladies' pursuit for pot from a boy their age in a cheap motel leads to being kidnapped by his psychotic family, led by his escaped convict father, Krug (Garret Dillahunt). 

As in '72, both women are tormented, but only Paige is killed, while Mari is left for dead in the lake. That same night, a rainy, stormy night in fact, the psychos coincidentally find shelter in the guest house at 'the last house on the left'—Mari's parents'. They think John and Emma are sweet and helpful, giving them a cup of hot cocoa and blankets, until the rents realize they're hospitalizing their baby's assaulters and explode with a sneak attack of gory, resource-ready retalitation. 

Greek director Dennis Iliadis' American remake has one up on its cheap predecessor in terms of technical production, being dexterous with his camera, while keeping its fidelity with Craven's original. Actually taming down the exploitation of the rape and murder scene in the woods, the attack is nevertheless disturbing and hard to stomach, without feeling gratuitous, where you can feel every punch of violence and the urgency of tension. Rather than close-ups of the stab wounds, we see the girls' faces of vulnerability, inner strength, and despair, which makes us hate the heinous killers, only to further root on the Collingwood's revenge under their own homey roof and give it catharsis. 

Even uncommonly better acted than the original by far, Paxton is very good as the strong Mari; Goldwyn and Potter credibly portray parents who would do anything for someone they love; and all of the psycho family members are well-cast (Spencer Treat Clark as unwilling son Justin, Riki Lindhome as vain girlfriend Sadie, and Aaron Paul as sleazy brother Francis). Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth's script rightfully exise the “comic relief” of the cops (and Iliadis gets rid of the upbeat banjo soundtrack), but changes Mari's fate and adds the deceased son's locket. "The Last House on the Left's" final act is a bit repetitious and only does it go too far in its over-the-top ending (involving a broken kitchen appliance telegraphed in early scenes), which is somewhat of a sick crowd-pleasing joke and just seems tacked-on. 

Not exactly a good time or morally defensible, but alternately, it's a mature piece of horror filmmaking for such a disreputable genre and basically sleazy material. And hey, there is a cautionary moral if you look hard enough: don't let your kid take the car and don't take weed from a stranger with a loony family! 

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