Horror remake a repulsive messbut not for the reasons you may think
No, really: this entire review is one, loooooong spoiler. The plot is given away. Key changes from Wes Craven's 1972 original are discussed. Minute aspects of scenes are detailed and revealed. If you have any interest in seeing this movie and being surprised or otherwise shocked, stop reading right now. Everything that follows hopes to dissuade you from wasting your money and time, because you can't get either back. Worse, watching this movie could make you lose a little bit of that innate sense that should make you cringe whenever you see fellow humans in peril or animals abused. Call it decency, which this The Last House on the Left insults from the get-go. The original did, too, but in a different way. The original is a no-budget, repulsive, disgusting look at a repulsive, disgusting era in American history. This polished, streamlined remake presumes its audience is a mindless, disenfranchised, programmed herd of lemmings incapable of the most fundamental human emotions. This will be your last warning.
OK, here goes it: Greek director Dennis Iliadis might very well have succeeded in making a reprehensible movie in this age when everything is not only permitted but very likely for sale, online, marked-down even, and able to be delivered overnight if you can't download it immediately after the credit-card transaction clears. It does so by following the basic blueprint of the original: 17-year-old Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton) meets up with her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) at the small town where Mari's well-heeled parents (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) have a remote summer house on a lake when the girls run afoul of a quartet of unsavory, working-class characters: Krug (Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles' Garret Dillahunt), his lover Sadie (Riki Lindhome), his brother Francis (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul), and his son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark). One murder and one rape later, the quartet of murdering rapists seek shelter in the Collingwood's home, not knowing who they are. When Mari's parents figure out what the people staying in their guest house have done, they proceed to kill them. End of movie.
Certain camps of horror-flick buffs like to cite Craven's Last House as the first stone of the rape-revenge exploitation film, which runs from 1973's Thriller: A Cruel Picture, 1975's Night Train Murders, 1976's Lipstick, 1978's I Spit on Your Grave, and Abel Ferrara's 1981 Ms .45, on through its pseudo-mainstreaming in 1991's Thelma and Louise--a movie that, unsurprisingly, divided feminist culture critics--on to its artier fringe in Virginie Despentes' 2000 Baise-Moi, Takashi Ishii's 2000 Freeze Me, Lars von Trier's 2003 Dogville, and Gaspar Noe's 2002 Irréversible. (If you're so inclined, you can cast a very wide net and include movies such as Sam Peckinpah's 1971 Straw Dogs, John Boorman's 1972 Deliverance, Michael Winner's 1974 Death Wish, etc.)
Craven, of course, merely updated Ingmar Bergman's 1960 Virgin Spring, itself based on a medieval Swedish ballad, and told the story of young girl who takes a walk in the woods, is violated and murdered, and her murderers seek shelter at her parents home, where her father murders them and then, befitting a Bergman movie, seeks redemption by promising to build a church where he finds his daughter's body. (According to Roger Ebert, such a church still stands in Sweden.)
Craven's Last House on the Left doesn't seek transcendence. It rolls a modest social observation into its story, making his young, female victim the daughter of a presumptively comfortable suburban family. They live in the relative calm of a woody enclave, have a pool, and don't have to worry about the socio-economic strife that is decimating late 1960s, early 1970s urban areas--the city, which is exactly where this Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) are headed to see a concert (for a band named Bloodlust), and where they decide to score reefer and run afoul of the escaped cons led by Krug (David Hess). The girls are abducted and taken to the countryside, where they're psychologically tortured, raped, and killed. The culprits seek shelter at Mari's parents house and, well, you know.
Since it's original release, this Last House on the Left has accrued an infamous cult status, thanks in large parts to its reputation--The New York Times' Howard Thompson, in a 104-word review published Dec. 22, 1972, admits to walking out after 50 minutes and concludes "it's at the Penthouse Theater, for anyone interested in paying to see repulsive people and human agony"--and unavailability. Unreleased on DVD until 2002, it gained notoriety for being included as a "video nasty" by the UK's Video Recordings Act 1984, which essentially banned the distribution of 74 low-budget horror movies on video--from Cannibal Holocaust to Faces of Death, The Toolbox Murders to Visiting Hours--on moral grounds for their graphic, lurid content.
Most of these movies are fairly readily available now, and Last House on the Left is even available on YouTube.
By today's standards, the graphic violence in 1972's Last House is rather risible, its formerly shocking content dulled further by the movie's ham-fisted attempts at black humor--cross-cutting the rape with Mari's parents decorating their house for her 17th-birthday party--and clumsy comedy in a pair of bumbling cops. Given its low budget and the 1970s fashions, in fact, it borders on camp.
If it remains effective at all its because it doesn't offer its audience a way out. The true horror here is not merely its disturbing rape scene, but the revenge as well--which effortlessly indicts all aspects of society, regardless of education or class, as being capable of homicidal violence. That it's packaged inside the veneer of justifiably moral superiority only sickens the plot. What makes Last House on the Left so hard to take is its casual bluntness, a picture of American society where the haves and the have nots are equally depraved.
Director Iliadis and his screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth treat Craven and his co-screenwriter Ulla Isaksson's original almost as a readymade, but the slight alterations made have unfortunate effects for the viewer. Yes, you expect a number of necessary upgrades merely to make the story contemporary, but four key changes drastically alter how the movie plays out:
1) Introducing the lower class bad guys first
This Last House opens with Krug in custody and how he escapes. It's a handy way to get some action and violence into the first scene, but it loads the movie's deck against Krug, Francis, and Sadie right at the start. And given that they look like a cold, calculating serial killer, a skeezy ho, and a red-neck wingnut, it's overkill. Now, the very next time they enter the movie again the audience is already prepared for something bad to happen. (The original introduces the crew before they meet Mari and Phyllis, too, but in a less gratuitous fashion.)
2) The addition of an older Collingwood son
This Last House gives the Collingwoods a son, Mari's older brother, who has died--the details of which are never explained--about a year previously. He provides an clunky plot device--he gave Mari the medallion she wears that, when discovered in the possession of her rapists, informs her parents who they are--but you also have to wonder if his absence is supposed to give the Collingwoods more motivation for revenge, as if learning of Mari's rape isn't enough.
3) Making one of the murdering, rapist quartet a sympathetic non-participant
Krug's son here, Justin, is more fragile and timid, as scared of his father and his gang as Paige and Mari are. Consider it the movie's ass-covering condescension: Not all members of the desperate lower-class are homicidal rapists. You know, FYI.
4) Eroticizing Mari
Now, the first Last House teased this, too. Mari showers during the opening credits, offering her body to the cinematic male gaze that Laura Mulvey explored more than 30 years ago. Craven, though, punishes you for sexualizing her: The next time her body is at all revealed is during the disquieting rape, a scene from which every iota of eros has been stripped. Iliadis's remake, instead, lingers on Mari's body. She's introduced in a bathing suit--she's a swimmer, another alteration that provides a facile plot point--and after the Collingwoods drive out to their lake house, the movie makes a point of focusing on her exposed thighs beneath her sundress and her underwear-clad body when she changes clothes and takes an impromptu dip in the lake. Given how this movie has spelled out Krug and his crew's malevolence and inserted the dead brother, watching these scenes knowing where the movie is headed--and, admittedly, everything contained here comes from knowing where the movie is headed--you begin to suspect the movie is trying to accentuate her youth, ludicrously insinuating that rape is worse when it happens to such a young innocent.
If only the movie were that cynical. Instead, when Mari's rape finally arrives, it is graphic, visually arresting, and effectively instills an unsettling degree of discomfort. And just when you start to feel like you can't take any more of it, rapist Krug sighs "Jesus Christ" in bland pleasure, and a large number of the people in the promotional screening that I attended laughed.
Now, I highly doubt the movie is trying to play rape for a laugh--and I know I don't have the intellectual armature to respond to it if it was--but that little rupture in the depiction of something heinous offers the audience an easier, more comfortable way to relate to what is going on onscreen, a much more familiar vantage point: cynical detachment. Meaning this Last House on the Left
5) Provides its audience with a convenient way out of its discomfort.
Just as the physical infliction of physical pain in torture is designed to achieve a desired cognitive response, contemporary horror's torture porn embraces the long-standing horror fan's pleasurable relishing of creative violence. That in and of itself isn't morally problematic: The baroque depictions of violence associated with and perpetrated by Freddy or Jason or the knife-wielding psycho next door who knows you're alone and is calling from inside the house is a genre convention, not more or less benign as a divided romantic couple uniting in the end or the underdog team coming together to triumph over adversity. Its conventions are why horror movies rarely need to screen for mainstream critics and why its straight-to-DVD market is a viable business plan: These movies have a built in audience who wants to see those tropes creatively mined. And I proudly put myself in this audience's ranks.
What this Last House does, though, is downright cowardly. It not only oversells its villain's villainy, its innocent's innocence, and its parents' protective instincts, it then has the glib temerity to think its audience can't handle its extremity and offers the olive branch of cynical laughter to go with the rest of the movie from the rape on. It's a punt that lets the audience off the hook for the violence perpetrated by the parents that follows--all of which, for the record, drips with smug humor: After killing Francis, the Collingwoods exchange a silent glance. Cut to them sneaking up the guest house stairs where Krug, Sadie, and Justin are sleeping; cue laughter and applause. It's a revenge movie that turns into violence comedy, as if we horror fans were too tenderfooted to handle the story's original social nihilism. As such, the horror movie The Last House on the Left settles into the convenient banalities of any other Hollywood tripe: laughing about the protective comforts of the middle class, the backward ways of the rural and lower classes, and the justifiable violence of the self-proclaimed morally superior.
Yes, that's right: The Last House on the Left is smug class-war rape comedy. Enjoy the show.