Last House on the Left, The (2009)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/14/09 09:23:21

"Shinier, but no less disgusting."
1 stars (Sucks)

Does a slicker look and a Hollywood budget make this new version of “The Last House on the Left” less sleazy than Wes Craven’s 1972 original, or more? Gone is the grit and grime of Craven’s no-budget production; the grindhouse tone of the 1972 film allowed you to shake it off as crude exploitation best left in the cinematic outskirts. But the crisp, polished look of the remake gives it a studio-approved vibe that’s somehow slimier. It’s sleaze built for the suburban multiplex, take the kids, just ten bucks a ride.

I never bought in to the attempts to redefine Craven’s debut effort (itself a pseudo-remake of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring”) as some sort of brave commentary on violence in the media and Vietnam-era cultural angst; its fans always seemed like they were trying too hard to make the cruddy little movie something more than just sticky-floor sleaze peppered with cartoonish villains and seedy unpleasantness.

Now comes this remake, from director Dennis Iliadis (the Greek director of the 2004 teen-lesbian-prostitute drama “Hardcore,” making his English-language debut) and screenwriters Carl Ellsworth (“Red Eye”) and first-timer Adam Alleca. Unlike the infamous 2005 unofficial remake “Chaos,” this new “Last House” gets Craven’s stamp of approval - he and his 1972 cohort Sean Cunningham are granted producer credits for their permission.

It is, by every account, sleeker. It’s tempting to call it a better movie, thanks to some patchwork done on the story that eliminates several of Craven’s bad choices and tones down much of the sadism. But that’s not quite right - it's not a better movie, only a bigger one. Sure, we get to throw out Craven’s terrible comic relief, but in its place comes a sorta-happy ending that the story never deserves but studio hacks probably insisted we needed to see. David Hess’ Manson-hippie villain is gone, but we’re left with Garret Dillahunt (all bed-head style straight out of the CW; these are stylish killers, after all) as a laughably over-the-top baddie straight out of some WWE-produced action flick. Attempts to show the killers as haunted by conscience are muted to pointlessness, and in its place we get an amped up form of revenge thriller where we’re supposed to root for the parents’ sudden aggression and cheer with every “creative” kill. We might not get disembowelment, but we do get a head exploding in a microwave as a crowd-pleaser scene.

And that’s the problem. The filmmakers forget that while we can empathize with the parents’ need for vengeance, we’re not supposed to smile at it. Here, the father and mother (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) of a girl raped and tortured by a gang of thugs transform all too quickly into Liam Neeson in “Taken,” with most of their revenge scenes staged with action movie verve (only without any sense of style).

Only one scene - the only effective moment in the entire film - treats the death of a villain as something horrible; I’m reminded of the murder in Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain,” in which Paul Newman and Julie Andrews discover just how hard it is to kill a man. I think this is the sort of tone Iliadis was hoping to achieve throughout, but missed. It’s hard to be shocked and saddened by inescapable violence when the characters are trading quips meant to make the audience howl with delight.

So if we’re supposed to cheer when the baddies get theirs, what are we supposed to feel when they brutally attack the daughter (Sara Paxton, a dead ringer for Alexis Bledel) and her friend (Martha MacIsaac) in a hotel room and, later, the middle of the woods? Iliadis delivers mixed messages: the rape aims to make us squirm (and we do), but the girls sometimes fight back - do we whoop and holler here? We’re asked to boo the villain for leering at the girls, but earlier, Iliadis lets his camera linger a little too long on Paxton as she undresses.

Iliadis then tosses in some fancy shots of sunrises and trees pulling in and out of focus, perhaps to let us know that while he’s making a slimy exploitation flick, he’s still a respectable guy. Or maybe we’re supposed to use the time offered by these shots to reflect on the horrors of the story. Or whatever.

Come to think of it, there’s nothing worth reflecting in this new “Last House.” The script offers nothing in terms of morality; indeed, it only shows interest in moving the characters throughout the revenge flick formula. This update, excited about the gore and bored by the humanity, thinks of the characters as plot devices and weapons holders.

A final thought. The house in the title is, according to dialogue, the only house around for six miles. Wouldn’t that make it the Only House on the Left?

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