1972 saw the release of Wes Craven's debut feature, The Last House on the Left, a gritty, disturbing piece of exploitation cinema that divided audiences upon its release due to its graphic content. I didn't see it during its initial run (not having been born yet), but I finally caught up with it sometime in the late 1990s. I remember that first viewing. I found it to be simultaneously cheesy and disturbing, with the disturbing elements ultimately overwhelming the cheese. When I think of it, I can't help but recall the atrocities performed by the bad guys and the catharsis achieved with the parents' revenge. However, now matter how much you cheer them on as the climax approaches, you cannot deny the dirty unease you feel in the film's wake.
This is one of those films that I never expected to see get the Hollywood remake treatment. It is a grimy, feel-bad sort of film made with no budget and arguable artistic merit. Factor in the sexual nature of the crimes and it is difficult to fathom a studio getting behind it. What's next? Perhaps Cannibal Holocaust or I Spit on Your Grave? The latter has the added bonus of having Roger Ebert campaign against it. If the box office revenue for this remake is good, perhaps those will not be far behind.
The new take on The Last House on the Left contains a few changes to help update it while leaving what makes the story so disturbing intact. I fact, I was rather shocked throughout the film seeing that no punches seem to have been pulled. Yes, this is a studio-backed picture with a wide release, but it is also one filled with grit and grime, and is every bit as disturbing as I had hoped it would be.
Funny isn't it? Talking about wanting a particular film to be disturbing and grimy, and wanting to leave the theater unsettled? As I was spat out into the night following the screening, I could not help but think about audience reactions to horror films over the past few years. These thoughts were brought on by this audience's reactions.
Over the past few years, and possibly longer, more and more moviegoers react to horrific scenes with laughter. No, not the nervous laughter used to ward off tension, but serious guffaws, as if people's suffering is a reason for hilarity. I understand the unreal nature of much of what we are presented in movies like the Saw series, which attempt to up the ante each year. Those can be laugh-inducing. That brings me to The Last House on the Left.
It is no spoiler that the girls seen in the trailer have terrible things befall them. Early on, one of the girls attempts to escape and is rewarded with a serious blow to the head. It is a scene meant to demonstrate further the danger they are in and it was rewarded with a round of laughter around the theater. Then something happened. A short time later there is a brutal rape seen (if you are sensitive to this type of violence, do not see this movie), and a wave of silence washed over the crowd. It was like they finally realized the serious nature of the film.
This made me think about how horror films have changed over the years, and while this is not exactly a horror film, this feature showed the horrific power that film can have. Is this entertainment? It depends on the person. Everyone will have a different reaction to the events. I walked out thinking very highly of the film, while also being repulsed by it. Does that make it successful? I want to come right out and say I loved the film, but am afraid of what that would say about me, or, rather, how it would be interpreted.
So far as the film is concerned, it does not quite match the no-budget grime of the original film, with its do-it-yourself ethic, and the willingness of the cast and crew to throw themselves headlong into an enterprise that had a questionable outcome. On the other side of the coin, it is a movie that achieves similar ends and has the added bonus of being a technically better crafted film on all levels.
The story is a simple one, and one that will give any parent of a teenager nightmares and thoughts of locking them away until they're 30. A family heads out to their vacation home. Shortly after arriving, Mari (Sara Paxton) asks to go meet up with her friend, Paige (Martha MacIsaac). She heads out to meet Paige, who works the local general store. The two then meet Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) who offers to sell them some marijuana. Problems begin when Justin's father and girlfriend, Krug (Garret Dillahunt) and Sadie (Riki Lindhome), and Uncle Francis (Aaron Paul) return to the hotel room. You see, we first meet this trio earlier, leaning they are bad guys, real bad guys.
Now, I am not going to describe the rest of the film for you. If you have seen the trailer or the original film you have a pretty good idea of what is to come.
The performances are strong across the board. Mari's parents, played by Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn, are convincing as a loving family and one loyal to each other, willing to do whatever it takes, fighting through the fear to do what needs to be done. It is a very realistic portrayal as they go through the wildly differing emotional states they must contend with.
The bad guys are equally solid. They are a gruff bunch, but watch as they interact with Mari's parents; it is hard to deny them. Krug (Dillahunt) definitely turns on the charm, still rough around the edges, but believable enough not to suspect. However, when the time comes, he makes a smooth transition to violent sociopath. To counter-balance him is Clark, playing Krug's son, a borderline innocent with questionable parentage. He is a sympathetic character that you want to like.
Directed by Dennis Iliadis, the film is kept on a tight, straight line from start to finish. He brings a feel reminiscent of Craven's original crossed with a little The Devil' Rejects-era Rob Zombie. This is his English language debut and second feature overall. He is impressive throughout, never getting too flashy, yet still injecting it with his own style though interesting camera moves and angle choices. He worked from a screenplay by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth. The duo capture the tone of the original while giving it a modern spin and delivering a nice dialogue upgrade.
Bottom line. Definitely successful in execution, this film works a strong answer to what constitutes much of mainstream horror over the last few years. It brings genuine disturbance to the screen rather than gratuitous blood and guts. It is a film that will bring disgust to the pit of your stomach and produces protagonists you truly want to cheer for as they exact their revenge. Yes, it has a limited audience, and is not what you would call an Oscar film, but that is not gong to stop me from giving the film what it deserves.