New review: The Last House on the Left 2009

Walking to the last house on the left..
Walking to the last house on the left..

Last House on the Left (dir: Dennis Iliadis)

Wes Craven made his directorial debut in 1972 with his original The Last House on the Left, a grotesquely violent, often artless, just as often wrenching horror that reworked Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf Virgin Spring by way of Straw Dogs in the visceral American exploitation film mode. Set in the shadow of Vietnam, Woodstock, Kent State and sixties permissiveness gone psychotic, it turns on working class American parents of a murdered girl who find that their traditional values skew toward the Old Testament as they exact their bloody, righteous revenge on the killers, who unknowingly take refuge in their house as guests. Along with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Craven’s Last Hosue helped redefine American horror, but unlike his fellow directors, Craven set his squarely in the heartland of modern America and gave it an uncomfortable verisimilitude.

Craven hands the reigns of scripting and directing to others in this by now inevitable remake, watching over as executive producer as this largely faithful version makes minor alterations with major shifts in the dramatic dynamic. The blue-collar parents are now a wealthy professional couple (played by Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) who, with their swimming champ daughter Mari (Sara Paxton), are taking a weekend in their country vacation home. The criminal band, a warped mirror of the “good” family, opens the film with the violent escape of vicious crime family patriarch Krug (Garret Dillahunt, suitably creepy and often on the edge of explosive rage) from police custody. From the opening scene and its murder of two police officers, it’s clear they have no compunctions about killing and nothing to lose. What’s less clear is why any police department would think nothing of transporting a psychotic criminal in a cruiser with two cops through a remote, isolated country road in the dead of night.

I discuss differences from the original below but suffice it to say that the rest follows, with minor variations and a running time longer by almost half an hour, the same trajectory. Mari (in a minor act of youthful rebellion) and a friend end up captives and victims of the Krug and his band (unbalanced brother Aaron Paul, creepy girlfriend Riki Lindhome, uneasy, sensitive son Spencer Treat Clark). And then they end taking refuge in the home of their victim’s parents, who discover what happened to their daughter and who these guests really are.

Garret Dillahunt terrorizes Sara Paxton
Garret Dillahunt terrorizes Sara Paxton

Director Dennis Iliadis is more visually sophisticated than Craven was back in 1972, though his moody style (as well as his tired parade of false starts and scares) tends to draw the film out. The captivity of the 17-year-old girls is genuinely uncomfortable, with all the leering and pawing that ends up in a sadistic stabbing and a grueling rape, and Iliadis puts us in the position of the victims rather than the victimizers (like far too many horror films). But the camera takes it own leering looks at Mari long before she crosses paths with Krug and family and Iliadis stops the film to watch her dress – with close-ups – which is uncomfortable in an entirely different way.

Yet he does manage to hit the audience with blunt scenes of wincing and at times grisly violence. The tone he sets in the aftermath of a sexual assault is unexpectedly fragile and vulnerable and his observation of the parents transformation from fierce defensive fighting to first-strike assault is well handled.

It’s Craven’s archetypal collision of family units (he repeated it in The Hills Have Eyes) but the shift in our heroes from middle class/working class to professional yuppies adds class warfare to the dynamic to the battle, and not to the benefit of the film. Illiadis’ more ambiguous take on the parents’ battle is an interesting approach and there is a certain raw emotion behind the film, even in the face of the minor changes, but what was transgressive then is no longer so startling now and the most provocative element of the original is diluted with this take. In the absence of the original, I might be more appreciative of the film, which I think has its merits, but I can’t help but see where it played it safe.

Read my review at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

* spoiler alert *

I made a point not to write my P-I review by measuring it next to and comparing and contrasting it with Craven’s original, but there are some points that I would like to explore in relation to the remake’s changes.

For example, letting the daughter, Mari, survive the assault and wash up alive to her vacation home robs the film of its primal scream of vengeance. The moment in Craven’s film when the assaulted teenage girl stumbles to the river after she’s been raped and wades in to cleanse herself in the calmly flowing waters is both delicate and touching, an reprieve from the grueling sadism and the a reflection on the violation of the attack. In the remake, Mari is a champion swimmer and she runs to the river to escape. It’s a refuge and a comfort for her and the action has a logic to it, but at the cost of the touching vulnerability of the original film.

I also miss the terrible and beautiful moment in the original when the father finds his daughter drifting down the river, dead, and sends her back off down the stream, like a naturist burial/baptism. And there is no ambiguity when it comes to the parents’ vengeance, which gives Craven’s original its primal power. Yes, the fierce drive to protect and save the daughter has its own primal force and it works on its own terms, but the transgressive act of rage and revenge is more ambiguous here. The parents’ violence here starts out as a matter of survival, killing the group to save the daughter, and then bleeds into rage-driven vengeance (or, dare I say, a pre-emptive strike?). The ambiguity is potentially interesting but never really developed by director Iliadis or screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth.

Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn fight back
Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn fight back

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

3 thoughts on “New review: The Last House on the Left 2009”

  1. I think Last House was based on Bergman’s Virgin Spring rather than Hour of the Wolf. Hmmm?

  2. It is indeed. I wrote without checking my notes and I’ve corrected it. Thanks for the polite nudge, Bill, and how are things?

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