The Last House On The Left

2009, Movie, R, 100 mins

Review

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Krug and company are back in director Dennis Iliadis' remake of Wes Craven's seminal 1972 shocker, and the result is a glossy, engaging suspense film that jettisons much of its predecessor's sadism and subtext in favor of crowd-pleasing revenge violence. Most agree Craven's original is a flawed classic, and while Ilaidis' redo improves on the original in many ways (better acting, no bumbling cops), this Last House aims to get us cheering rather than wondering just where we went wrong as a society.

It isn't quite clear what crime volatile psychopath Krug (Garret Dillahunt) has committed when we first meet him in the back of an unmarked police car, but by the time he's managed to get free there's no question what he's capable of. As his partners-in-crime Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and Francis (Aaron Paul) spring him, the Collingwoods -- a well-to-do family from the city -- arrive at their nearby lakefront summer home. Shortly after unpacking, Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton) borrows her parents' SUV to visit her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac). At a local store, the two girls meet up with scruffy, hoodie-wearing teen Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), who offers to sell them some top-shelf marijuana. The three are getting high in Justin's hotel room when Krug, Francis, and Sadie turn up unexpectedly for the mother of all buzzkills. It turns out Krug is Justin's father, and Francis is his uncle; since Mari and Paige can now identify the convicts, the girls must die. Out in the woods, the gang murders Paige and Krug rapes Mari, who is shot while attempting to escape and presumed dead. The storm brewing, Krug, Sadie, Francis, and Justin seek shelter from the elements at a nearby house -- the Collingwood house. Concerned after not hearing from their daughter for hours, Emma (Monica Potter) and John Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn) nevertheless offer shelter to the banged-up gang, who claim they just got into a car accident while on a family vacation. Things quickly get complicated after Mari shows up on the doorstep, and her parents realize that they've just taken in the same deviants who violated their daughter and left her for dead. With the power out due to the storm and no means of taking Mari to the hospital, Emma and John realize that in order to protect their daughter and survive the night, they'll have to resort to the same sort of savagery that Krug, Sadie, and Francis unleashed on their innocent daughter just hours before.

Back in 1972, when the original Last House on the Left hit theaters accompanied by a lurid advertising campaign playing up the film's unrelenting intensity ("To avoid fainting, keep repeating to yourself, 'It's only a movie... only a movie... only a movie'"), the American public lived with gruesome images of the Vietnam War on a daily basis. Many began to wonder what we had become as a society, and feared to think of where we might be headed. Flash-forward to 2009: America is locked in yet another war without end, but now slaughter has gone mainstream as "torture-porn" films like Saw and Hostel proliferate at the box office. Now comes the official remake, produced by none other than Craven and Sean S. Cunningham, the very same men who shocked the world with the original Last House before turning out some of most successful horror films of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. The story here remains largely the same, with a few minor but crucial differences: gone is much of the humiliation of the two girls by their killers -- their suffering streamlined for efficiency and mainstream consumption -- and a key character who dies in the original film survives in the remake. The latter change, in particular, adds an interesting dynamic to the tension once all hell breaks loose at the Collingwood house, as does the inclusion of a genuinely conscientious and sympathetic character among the killers. Likewise, screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth know well the art of audience catharsis, maximizing the final confrontation between grieving parents and their daughter's attackers for fist-pumping satisfaction. It's pure suspense executed with undeniable talent. They want us to rejoice when Emma and John team up to mete out bloody justice, but therein lies the rub of this remake -- Alleca and Ellsworth have completely missed the point. Should we really be cheering over the fact that two loving, functional, and supportive parents have been callously stripped of their humanity and will now resort to the same kind of barbarism previously reserved for only the most disturbed sociopaths? At what point does a film like The Last House on the Left cease being a commentary on our capacity for violence and begin playing as just another by-the-numbers revenge film?

As a stand-alone film, The Last House on the Left works well enough; the screenwriters take plenty of time to establish all of the key players early on, and then do an efficient job of putting them through the ringer while keeping us guessing as to just how it will all play out. They've got a great cast to help them realize the characters, too. In order for a film like Last House to work, it needs to have an effective villain, and Dillahunt fills that role to perfection. Goldwyn shines as Krug's polar opposite, and Potter expresses more pain in a single glance than many actors can with an entire monologue. Yet despite some marked improvements over the original, at no point does this Last House even come close to working on as many levels as its notorious predecessor. Iliadis, Alleca, and Ellsworth are all competent craftsmen, they're just more interested in keeping us on the edge of our seats than thinking about the deeper issues that drive the action. Perhaps nowhere is this point better exemplified than in the film's unapologetically gratuitous ending, a gory coup de grace designed to send us out on a high note, yet so implausible and awkwardly shoehorned in that it essentially undermines the entire film. Decades from now, film textbooks will still be pondering the undeniable stopping power and disturbing subtext of the original Last House on the Left. The new Last House, on the other hand, will get little more than a passing mention in the chapter dedicated to the creatively devoid remake trend and the reasons we tend to seek comfort in the familiar rather than encouraging our best artists to break new ground like Craven did at the onset of his career. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan

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