The Last House on the Left
DEAD END Iliadis’ remake of the notorious horror flick suffers from a lack of raison d’être.
In Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, two killers invade a family’s lakeside home and brutalize them in unspeakable ways. Eventually one of the victims grabs a gun and summarily takes revenge. The audience cheers. But then Haneke sends his film into the realm of the surreal, denying us the ending we want and need. In violent films, he suggests, the killers always triumph, because violence does.
Whatever you think of the Austrian auteur’s moralizing, his point is highly germane to the remake of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, an exploitation classic from 1972. Many people will tolerate horrific levels of cruelty in fiction provided the perpetrators get theirs, preferably in an equally nasty manner. Such is the core appeal of the original grindhouse version of Last House, not to mention the fascination of the medieval ballad on which Ingmar Bergman based his film The Virgin Spring (1960), which inspired Craven’s movie. In all versions of the story, innocence is martyred and avenged. But is it really the victory of good people the audience enjoys? Or the adrenaline rush that comes from watching a mild-mannered couple slaughter a bunch of lowlifes using kitchen appliances?
Not that they aren’t justified. The plot of Last House is simple: A sheltered teenager (Sara Paxton in this version) ventures outside her family home. The world being the unsafe place it is, she’s captured by a band of miscreants, tortured, raped and left for dead. The twist: The evildoers, whose car has been totaled, take refuge at the first desolate house they find. Can you guess whose house that might be? And how its inhabitants will react when they learn whom they’re harboring?
The original Last House cost a puny $90,000 and was a product of its time, to say the least. A novice filmmaker from a strict religious background, Craven placed disturbingly realistic moments side by side with hammy acting and miscalculated wackiness, as if he wasn’t sure whether he was making a genuine horror movie or a precursor to Scream.
Bankrolled by Boston theater moguls who just wanted a cheapie to stick in their drive-ins, Last House became a cult sensation. So now we get this Hollywood remake, produced by Craven and directed by Dennis Iliadis, that smooths the original’s rough edges. The villains are no longer colorful. The acting is no longer hammy. The girl is no longer a smart-mouthed teen who boasts to her mom about going braless. And the plot no longer hinges on a ludicrous coincidence.
In the original Last House, young Mari Collingwood met her fate when she went to the city to see a band called Bloodlust, vindicating the paranoia of ’70s parents everywhere. In this version, she merely drives down the road to visit a friend (Martha MacIsaac from Superbad, who deserves better). A sullen boy their age (Spencer Treat Clark) persuades the girls to come to his motel room and smoke some weed. Enter his dad, an escaped felon (Garret Dillahunt), who fears exposure and wants to teach his ambivalent son a lesson about “being a man.” Being no fool, Mari leads her captors practically to the foot of her own driveway. Before she can get home, though, terrible things happen.
By giving less time to those terrible things and more to the parents’ fierce defense of their daughter’s honor, Iliadis turns Last House into the horror-movie version of Taken. (Here it’s Monica Potter as the mom who does most of the ass-kicking, though dad Tony Goldwyn assists ably.) Anyone who enjoys this sort of thing will savor their vengeance and the assorted bits of gratuitous grossness that accompany it. (Iliadis’ camera lingers with equal relish on gory medical procedures and scantily clad actresses.)
But, as Haneke shows us, there’s a point where screen violence stops being fun. Some viewers may hit that threshold with the extended rape scene in this film — proof positive that transforming a niche movie into a slick mainstream one isn’t always a good idea. While the scene isn’t egregiously exploitive, it makes the rest of the movie — which is — seem cheesy and misguided. Can any amount of choreographed ass-kicking really settle such a score?