Last House on the Left, The (2009)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/13/09 00:48:37
The problem with a lot of classic horror films is that once they get to the point where they are duly enshrined as such, they become so respectable and influential that they pretty much lose their ability to scare audiences in the same way that they did when they were just considered to be grubby genre efforts--the original “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” are now essentially museum pieces, “Psycho” is more often looked at these days as a pitch-black comedy than as a pitch-black nightmare and unless you are lucky enough to see them in a theater filled with people who haven’t seen them before, even the likes of “Night of the Living Dead,” “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “Halloween” are unlikely to raise many goose bumps. One of the few films of this genre to more or less maintain its crude power over audiences even after the passing of several decades and countless rip-offs is “Last House on the Left,” a brutal and decidedly nasty bit of exploitation filmmaking that unnerved even the most hardened grind house fanatics when it debuted in 1972 and which still packs enough of a jolt to freak out even those who have been hardened by the likes of “Saw,” “Hostel” and their various ilks.There are plenty of theories as to why this is, but mine is that it still works today, despite any number of flaws that might have sunk other films, because it is so crude and raw that it actually feels as if it might have been made by the very same kind of psychopaths whose depravations were being filmed, a sensation heightened by the fact that aside from co-stars Martin Kove (who would play the evil dojo owner in “The Karate Kid”) and David Hess (who parlayed his success as the lead psycho into a series of equally grisly European-based horror films), none of the other principal players went on to do anything else--you could almost convince yourself that they really were killed off as the cameras ground away. This sensation of absolute deviancy was so pronounced that it came as a genuine shock to many when they discovered that the guy who wrote and directed the thing, a newcomer by the name of Wes Craven, was actually a former college professor who was not only able to calmly and intelligently elucidate his intentions but who also admitted that he took the inspiration for his sleazo epic from, of all things, the Ingmar Bergman masterpiece “The Virgin Spring.”
Now, 37 years after it first raised hackles across the country from critics and viewers who deemed it to be the most vile thing ever made--at the time, only a brave young critic named Roger Ebert was bold enough to stick his neck out to praise it for being a more-than-effective horror film--“Last House on the Left” has become respectable enough to earn itself a remake with slick production values and a cast of better-known actors that is debuting in thousands of theaters with an elaborate advertising campaign designed to play up its more sadistic aspects to mass audiences everywhere. Unfortunately, while giving the material its makeover in order to make it more palatable for contemporary audiences, the filmmakers (with Craven’s presumed blessings, seeing as he is one of the producers) have also removed all of the thought-provoking points that Craven was trying make all those years ago that elevated it from being just another exercise in empty-headed sadism. Sure it is slickly done and all of the rough and crude edges have been removed and the result is a film that isn’t so much bad (though it certainly isn’t very good) as much as it is completely and utterly pointless--even more so than most of the recent parade of horror retreads.
Outside of a few tweaks here and there, the basic plot is pretty much the same. The Collingwood family--dad John (Tony Goldwyn), mom Emma (Monica Potter) and nubile 17-year-old daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) have just arrived at their incredibly remote summer house to spend the next few months resting and relaxing. Immediately after arriving, Sara goes into town with the family car to hook up with old friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) and the two meet up with Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), a squirrelly kid who invites them back to his motel room to hook them up with some pot. Unfortunately, what he doesn’t tell them is that his absent traveling companions are his psychopath dad, Krug (Garret Dillahunt) and accomplices Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and Francis (Aaron Paul) and that they are all on the lam after springing Krug from custody and murdering a couple of cops in the process. Inevitably, the others return while the girls are still there and they are taken hostage. While trying to make an escape, their car gets wrecked in the woods and in the ensuing chaos, both girls are brutally beaten, Paige is stabbed to death and Mari is violently raped by Krug and shot and left for dead in a nearby lake. When a violent storm break, Krug and company head to a nearby house to take shelter and, in an especially demented coincidence, it turns out to be the Collingwood home and the couple invite them in, bandage their wounds and offer them the use of their guest house for the evening. Inevitably, the Collingwoods discover what happened to Mari and realize who her attackers were and, with no way to get into town or to contact the authorities, they decide to avenge their daughter by slaughtering them one by one with any number of common (and a couple of uncommon) household tools and appliances in an orgy of brutality and bloodshed that almost makes what happened to Mari seem tame by comparison.
In rewriting Craven’s original script, screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth have managed to smooth over or eliminate most of that version’s major flaws--the bizarre scenes of the bumbling cops engaging in low-grade slapstick (a gimmick that can only rationally be explained as Craven’s sarcastic take on the tendency for horror films of the time to include humor as a way of lessening the tension) and the notion that a couple would allow a group of strangers to stay in their home even while their daughter has gone missing being chief among them. This is a smart move but at the same time, they have also eliminated the more serious points that Craven was trying to make within the context of his cheapo shocker. While cleverly exploiting the fear that some people still held in the 1970’s that all hippies were Manson-like freaks ready to dismember those of decent suburban stock at the flip of a Grateful Dead album, Craven was showing just how quickly that otherwise genteel people can degenerate into grotesque savagery when the right buttons are pushed. At the same time, he also showed the rarely-viewed end result of such savagery in which the killers, their blood lust now sated, are left to dazedly comprehend the utter meaninglessness of the carnage that they thoughtlessly wrought, regardless of what their rationales for their deeds might have been. (Fill in the period atrocity of your choice, such as My Lai, Altamont, Kent State or Tate-LaBianca.)
This was the true horror that Craven was showing and that is the aspect whose absence is most glaring here. At one point during the centerpiece torture sequence (which doesn’t go nearly as far as it did in the original), director Dennis Iliadis tries to evoke that idea but since he has already treated us to a gory opening sequence in which Krug and his friends slaughter a couple of cops in the messiest manner possible without batting an eyelash among them (a sequence not seen in the original), the attempt to show regret rings incredibly hollow. When the action shifts to the Collingwoods going after their prey, the film doesn’t even attempt to suggest such complex emotions in its rush to transform into a standard-issue revenge thriller--imagine “Taken” without the lavish travel budget. The difference is that while viewers left the original film shaken, disquieted and deeply disturbed, audiences for this version are meant to be sent out cheering over the over-the-top ways in which the good guys have messed up their oppressors, a difference that I find almost more disturbing than anything that the original had to offer.Truth be told, this new version of “Last House on the Left” is a little better than I expected it to be--it is certainly more effective than “Chaos,” a truly grotesque 2005 rip-off that followed the original film virtually beat for beat (except for when it managed to be even more disgusting) even as the filmmakers tried to claim that they had never seen nor heard of any film called “Last House on the Left.” Making his English-language directorial debut, Iliadis shows himself to be a smooth and efficient craftsman who keeps things moving along without ever getting bogged down. As Krug, Garret Dillahunt is presented with the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of one of the most indelible performances in horror film history and actually pulls it off with a quietly effective performance that provides tension without resorting to screaming and slavering like a loon (at least until the final reel). And while the various slaughter scenes on display here are rarely as effective as the ones in the original, the first kill pulled off by the Collingwoods is certainly a doozy that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. The problem here is that while the film is nowhere near as bad as it could have been, it never quite becomes good enough for it to justify its existence. In fact, it kind of reminded me of how Pat Boone used to re-record the songs of people like Little Richard in versions that ironed out all the rough spots in order to make them more palatable to audiences who wouldn’t dream of subjecting themselves to the perceived evils of the originals. Yeah, those cover versions exposed those songs, albeit in sanitized versions, to a wider audience and made a bunch of money, but which version would you rather listen to these days. Likewise, this new version of “Last House on the Left” will probably make a decent chunk of change at the box-office but I am willing to bet than in a few years time, the original will still be freaking out new legions of viewers while this one will likely be completely forgotten.
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