Appellate Judge Tom Becker lives in the last house on the dead-end street near the lake on the beach in Istanbul.
Our reviews of The Last House On The Left (1972) (published September 7th, 2002), The Last House on the Left (1972) (Blu-ray) (published October 14th, 2011), The Last House On The Left (1972): Collector's Edition (published March 20th, 2009), and The Last House On The Left (2009) (Blu-Ray) (published August 18th, 2009) are also available.
If someone hurt someone you love, how far would you go to get revenge?
Remakes of "classic" gore films are piling up quicker than bodies at a summer camp. Sometimes, the mere fact that a remake is being made elevates the original to classic status—certainly, Prom Night 2008 did a lot to advance the rep of Prom Night 1980.
For studios, these remakes offer marketing bonanzas: new "special" (or "collector" or "bonus") edition DVDs of the original films are churned out; the new films are guaranteed to turn a quick opening week end buck on the strength of their names; then a few months later, the remake turns up on its own DVD.
In February 2009, MGM put out the Unrated Collector's Edition of Wes Craven's seminal horror film, The Last House on the Left. A couple of weeks later, a brand spankin' new "reimagining" of The Last House on the Left was released in theaters. Now it's a few months later, and the 2009 version of The Last House on the Left has made its way to DVD in its own "Unrated" edition.
Is this film worth seeing, or should we keep repeating, "It's only a remake…"?
Facts of the Case
It's time for the country get-away for the Collingwood family—father John (Tony Goldwyn, Ghost), who's a doctor, mother Emma (Monica Potter, Patch Adams), and 17-year-old Mari (Sara Paxton, Sydney White). This year's trip to the rambling, isolated house is tinged with sadness: teen son Ben died recently, and this is the family's first trip without him.
Unbeknownst to the Collingwoods, there's a gang of killers on the loose. Krug (Garret Dillahunt, No Country for Old Men) has just made a bloody escape from police custody, aided by his brother, Francis (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad), and girlfriend, Sadie (Riki Lindhome, Gilmore Girls). Joining them is Krug's "disappointment" of a teenage son, Justin (Spencer Treat Clark, Mystic River).
When Mari borrows her parents' car to visit her friend Paige, they encounter Justin, who says he can get some pot. Mari's a little hesitant at first, but soon the three teens are happily smoking away the afternoon in Justin's motel room. Just as the girls are getting ready to leave, Krug, Sadie, and Francis show up, and what started as an innocent adolescent lark quickly degenerates into a horrifying night of sadism, torture, degradation, rape, and death.
And later, much later, revenge.
While Wes Craven based his 1972 no-budget shocker The Last House on the Left on Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, his sensibilities were more in line with another no-budget auteur working at the same time: John Waters. With its parade of grotesque characters and situations—including "chicken lady" Ada and her encounter with the bumbling cops—LHotL is like a reworked Pink Flamingoes, with the outrageousness quotient bent toward horror rather than camp or comedy. Craven's use of comic interludes, a soundtrack that included a jokey theme song about the villains, the inclusion of oral sex and chainsaws as instruments of vengeance, and the cheaper-than-a-shoestring budget kept us detached enough from the events on-screen that it wasn't hard to forget that this was "only a movie."
Craven is on board as a producer of this update, which does not suffer from the budget constraints of its predecessor. Sometimes, though, the compromises and gimmicks a filmmaker employs to compensate for lack of funding are the elements that make a movie special. LHotL '72 was not an especially good movie, but its blend of cheap shocks, out-of-synch comedy, and flat-out horror made it a cult classic, a drive-in hit, a mainstay at midnight showings and college campuses long before it turned up on home video. It also had timing on its side: it was far more base and raw than almost anything that was being done, its depictions of violence not only referencing every "don't go with strangers" story ever told but echoing the still-fresh Manson murders.
The Last House on the Left '09 is a better made film. It is well acted, has great cinematography and solid direction, and it's clear that a lot of care went into the script. Characters are developed with back stories and recognizable logic and emotions. The remake is an all-around improvement in quality.
So, why isn't it any fun?
In fairness, the '72 LHotL really wasn't universally accepted as a "fun" movie—in his review of the Collector's Edition, Judge Christopher Kulik calls it "a stomach churning, disgusting flick"—but its extreme situations and incongruities were novel at the time and made it subversive. Dennis Iliadis, who directed this remake, has crafted a very serious film, taking his inspiration more from Bergman than Craven.
Mari is introduced to us suspended in water (she's a swimmer), bubbles surrounding her like an army of protectors, her hair floating above her head like a crown—much closer to Bergman's sheltered heroine than Craven's original bra-less party girl on her way to a Bloodlust concert. Mari '09 is also more of a purpose-driven "good girl" than her Nixon-era counterpart.
Iliadis eliminates the comedy altogether, throwing in the unpleasant—and ultimately unnecessary—backstory of Mari's dead brother. To generate more suspense, Iliadis emphasizes how isolated and vulnerable the characters are in their country retreat. There are only 11 speaking parts in the entire film (one less than the original) and less than a minute's worth of scenes where we see extras. The downbeat, sinister tone is established in a brutal opening sequence and carried through the entirety of the film. The girls encounter the maniacs at around the 22-minute mark, and the near-half hour that follows is unrelentingly horrific.
It's very well crafted but all so grim. Horror films work best when they balance terror with outlandishness. The real-life idea, for instance, of a group of young people being systematically slaughtered is horrible, but the reality of that horror is mitigated when the killer is, say, a hockey-masked super-being.
The horrors in The Last House on the Left are just too real, and the monsters here too human. The story of young girls being kidnapped, raped, and otherwise assaulted is unfortunately not uncommon. The villains here are not quip-spouting, unkillable movie monsters, but chillingly ordinary sociopaths.
The twist—and if you're not familiar with the story, consider this a spoiler warning—is that after finishing with the girls, the psychopaths inadvertently end up seeking refuge from a storm at Mari's parents' house. This is one of those storms that plays havoc with the electricity and messes up cell phone service; plus this last house on the left is really the only house for miles, so when the parents figure out who these visitors are and decide to exact revenge, they're on their own.
But the violence of vengeance is hardly cheer-worthy. It comes after the oppressive and prolonged sequences of rape and torture, which end with a character being shot in a lake and floating on her back, life's blood flowing out, while a "weeping heavens" rainstorm engulfs her, a tableau so manipulative—and not ineffective—that even one of the fiends seems moved.
Much as we want to see these miscreants meet agonized demises, the run up has been so intense and joyless that by the time mom and dad are going at the baddies with knives and guns, we're done. We've had enough. The co-opting of slasher high jinks onto a true crime film doesn't diminish the atrocities we'd watched earlier. To up the grue factor—there are only but so many villains to annihilate—Dr. Collingwood performs a few squeamish makeshift surgical procedures, including setting the broken nose of one of the bad guys. Another twist—one I won't reveal here—adds some suspense by creating a time factor.
But the comeuppances are harrowing and bleak, and they lack the adrenaline-fueled rush that should be part and parcel of a movie like this. When the final killing turns out to be the kind of over-the-top ludicrousness that you'd expect from a horror movie, it's incongruous, more like a sop to genre conventions than an organic resolution.
While it's all far too grim for a horror film, Iliadis doesn't go for anything deeper. There's no spiritual subtext, like Bergman offered; nor is there any moral conflict. In a garden-variety slasher/horror film, you wouldn't expect there to be a philosophical core, but Iliadis' approach is so serious, that the lack of anything resembling a statement makes the whole thing feel ugly and nihilistic.
The disc offers both the R-rated theatrical release and an unrated version with an additional four minutes of gruesomeness. The technical quality is great, with a near flawless picture and a fine 5.1 surround audio track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What the hell is up with Universal and the supplemental material it offers here? Nine minutes of worthless "deleted" scenes and a two-and-a-half minute "making of" that's actually just an extended trailer with a few arbitrary comments from the filmmkakers. Are they kidding? Remade/re-imagined drek like Prom Night comes fully loaded with commentaries, full length featurettes, and all manner of stuff, and these two brief and meaningless supplements are all Universal can come up with? Wes Craven was a producer on this and gives his endorsement during the "making of." No one thought to ask him a few questions comparing the two films? They couldn't have put together a full-length interview or commentary with Craven and Iliadis? As far as remakes go, this one is actually a decent job, and certainly not an embarrassment. Why, in this day and age, put out such a near-bare bones disc?
Also, for some reason, the disc does not allow you to access the audio options from your remote. So if in the middle of the movie you suddenly find yourself hearing impaired or deaf or only able to understand Spanish or French, it's back to the Set Up menu for you.
This is an absolutely horrifying film, closer in tone to Bergman than to Craven. It is undeniably effective, and I was surprised by how it affected me, but I can't say I enjoyed it.
I really don't know what to say in terms of a recommendation. On the one hand, The Last House on the Left is very well made, creepy, suspenseful, and contains enough graphic violence and gore to sate fans of all that. On the other hand, it is almost unrelentingly grim, and when the filmmakers give way to slap-happy horror at the end, it just seems out of place.
Tough call. I'm ruling it not guilty, but see it at your own risk.
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