Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Last House on the Left

I've been dreading reviewing The Last House on the Left. It's a remake of what many consider to be a great cult classic of the '70s, which in turn was derived from -- believe it if you dare -- Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring. But I've always despised The Last House on the Left for being repulsive while not in the least bit scary. With lousy production values, terrible acting, and a silly banjo score playing over cheap comic interludes, it's way overrated for its transgressiveness. I know Wes Craven admitted he was on drugs half the time he was shooting the film, but really. Despite my love for hardcore horror, his "classic" nauseates me. It's so badly done that it's impossible to be emotionally invested in the girls who get tortured, and so it plays like a snuff film. When last year around this time I heard it was being remade, I groaned but knew I'd have to see it in the theater. When in March I went to do that, I was... well, pleasantly surprised. And remain so after watching it again on DVD.

Dennis Iliadis' remake isn't perfect. The problem with revenge films is the payoff is hollow, and this one is no exception. But aside from the final act, most of it is quite impressive. In the first 50 minutes we're introduced to Mari and Paige who are abducted by lethal killers, and then brutally tortured in the woods close to where Mari's parents are lodging for a weekend vacation. Unlike in Craven's original, this is all well scripted, edited, and acted, so we care about the girls. Their ordeal is just as harrowing as in the '70s version: Paige is killed and Mari violated, the latter being the most disturbing rape I've seen in a film along with the one in Gaspar Noe's Irreversible. It goes on for a long time (a full three minutes in the unrated version) and can make a seasoned horror veteran feel helplessly angry, but it's a necessary and pivotal scene which molds our mindset to everything that follows.

What follows at first is a well-orchestrated, atmospherically menacing 30 minutes, as night falls and the stranded killers come calling for help at the lake house of Mari's parents. The parents put them up for the night, serve drinks, and the father (a doctor) even treats a nose injury. It's a scary and suspenseful half hour, because we know what these scumbags have just done to Mari while Mom and Dad are all hospitality. Camera shots are slow, patient, and unnerving; everyone sips their drinks awkwardly in candlelight; the mood is as dreadful as the rape was upsetting. We expect the guests to show their true colors at any moment, and the mother seems to sense something isn't right about them.

Then come the final 30 minutes, which are neither disturbing nor scary, but cathartically entertaining -- if this is your sort of thing. Mari's parents learn the truth about their guests, and things deteriorate into a formula of overblown revenge, with Mom and Dad triumphing a bit too easily. Because audience members still feel as violated as Mari, they roar approvingly when the scumbags get bashed, pounded, shot, and shredded six ways to Sunday. The most memorable scene has the parents subduing one of the baddies, thrusting his arm down the kitchen sink, turning on the garbage disposal, and holding his arm in place for a long time (his hideous screaming is finally ended by the back end of a hammer being bashed through his head). Many people love this stuff, but I do not. What began as a serious film is now a popcorn movie, and part of me wonders if the clash of genres wasn't intended. Is Iliadis asking us to look at ourselves and question our willingness to indulge fantasies of unholy revenge? If so, then perhaps he deserves more credit than I'm giving, but I can't say I believe it.

The Last House on the Left is, for the most part, a vast improvement over an old travesty. Iliadis has probably done the best he could with the inherited material. Even the final act I complain about has been toned down to make it at least somewhat believable. Craven gave us a mother who couldn't emote a single tear for her torn up daughter, and who was oddly capable of exacting revenge by giving one of the killers a blowjob (all the way to climax) so she could bite off his member. Iliadis, thankfully, never descends to such depths.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5.


Blogger Chris Zeichmann said...

To be honest, the rape scene was enough for me to hate the movie like no movie I've seen before. I can't help but feel like this is one of those movies that pretends to condemn the exploitation of women. It seems the promise of sex was intended to lure us in and strangely indulged. The woman (I forgot her name) appeared semi-nude frequently for no reason other than to titillate, but we're subjected to a scene that still turns my stomach worse than anything else I've seen, just thinking about it now.

Moreover, this movie seemed even more conservative ethically than the original, with only one girl (the "trampier" of the two) dying, and the use of what's-his-name as the neutral, but ultimately (quasi-)redeemable character. The semi-just universe of horror movies is probably my least favorite movie trope.

Blogger Qohelet said...

I like revenge flicks, it's one of my favorite genres. Thanks for reviewing this film. I watched it as part of a four movie marathon (yes, with other revenge flicks) and I already forgot most of the detail.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Chris,

The rape scene is very unpleasant (it should turn your stomach) but in my view not gratuitous for what the film tries to accomplish, though as I said I wish there had been a different payoff. I don't think Iliadis is pretending to condemn anything as he is to simply deliver a good horror film. In this I think he's largely successful, though not entirely.


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