March 13, 2009

Written by Matt Goldberg

Technically, there’s really nothing wrong with the remake of “The Last House on the Left”. I don’t consider the original a sacred calf of cinema and it’s a film that’s begging for a remake considering the main idea is fairly strong (brutal killers rape and murder an innocent girl but unfortunately for the killers, end up staying at the home of the girl’s parents; when their crime is discovered, they discover that the rules of being a gracious host go out the window along with any hope of survival; it’s an idea so good that original director Wes Craven stole it from Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” which was based off a 13th century Swedish ballad). However, the original was made on such a shoe-string budget and with such inexperience (it was Craven’s first film) that anyone who is against a remake is clearly doing it on principle rather than giving the original an honest look.

But that’s not to say that the original doesn’t have its strengths and while director Dennis Illiadis and screenwriters Carl Ellsworth and Adam Alleca have certainly streamlined the story, ratcheted up the revenge, and tried to flesh out the characters, they’ve also removed elements that would be most unpalatable to mainstream audiences. And that’s where “Last House” ceases to be challenging and instead becomes an inadvertent commentary on the bloodlust of the American mainstream.

Like the original, “The Last House on the Left” is a story in two parts. Part one is when Mary (Sara Paxton) and her friend (Martha MacIssac) find themselves in the clutches of recently-escaped convict Krug (Garret Dillahunt) and his gang which is comprised of his brother Francis (Aaron Paul), girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and cowering weakling of a son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark). The first part is traditional horror where the girls are tortured, raped, and eventually murdered. Well, that’s how it was supposed to go. The filmmakers are convinced that since the audience will accept the gang as bad people, it doesn’t really need to make us squirm watching their horrific acts. So while the rape/murder is certainly uncomfortable (especially for mainstream cinema), the film knows the limit and never crosses that line.

It’s when the killers find themselves at the house of Mary’s parents (Tony Goldwyn and Sara Paxton) that the film knows there are no limits to what the loving and protective couple can inflict upon the “bad” guys. That’s another thing: the film makes sure there’s very little ambiguity. I always felt that what the original was attempting was making the brutality of the parents horrifying and causing the audience to question where they placed their loyalties. Craven simply didn’t have the skill to pull it off. Here, Illiadis simply lacks the will. And make no mistake: two of the killers get it BAD (I won’t say which two) but Illiadis doesn’t want us to say “Whoa. What are the limits of my tolerance for how humans, even humans with justification, will do to each other?” Illiadis wants you to cheer. And you will because deep down there’s a desire for retribution in all of us. You curse at the guy who cuts you off in traffic; you want to punch the guy in front of you in line because he didn’t know what to order when he got to the register; you want that starlet to die horribly because she’s pretty and successful but has no discernible talent. Imagine what you would do if someone actually wronged you or someone you loved in a significant way. I’m asking you because the film really doesn’t. It flirts with the idea slightly but barely takes the pause necessary for you to really consider the actions of the parents.

The film ignores not only the dubious morality of the parents but some of the class issues Craven skimmed in the original. While not deeply examined, Craven does make the interesting note of how the spoiled rich girl is incapable of dealing with her circumstances while her working-class friend Phyllis is resourceful, head-strong, and the one you’re truly rooting for. That’s lost here and so that the revenge isn’t muddled, it’s clearly a case of innocents versus demons and while mainstream audiences can swallow buckets of blood, ambiguity is anathema.

The new version of “The Last House on the Left” has been polished with better actors, better production values, and a tighter script. But that polish has also glossed over some of the more interesting and horrifying aspects of Craven’s highly-flawed original so what we’re left with as an effective revenge flick that won’t challenge you but will certainly let you take out your violent impulses vicariously.

Rating —– B minus

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