‘House’ of pain

The Last House on the Left
Director: Dennis Iliadis
Screenwriter: Dennis Iliadis
Cast: Carl Ellsworth, Adam Alleca, Wes Craven; feat. Garret Dillahunt, Martha MacIsaac, Riki Lindhome, Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Sara Paxton
Release Date: 2009-03-18
Rated: R
Genre: Film

Wes Craven’s first film, the original Last House on the Left (itself a sort-of remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar-winning The Virgin Spring), is a greasy, dirt-under-the-fingernails rape-revenge film that is unrelenting in its violent humiliation of two female victims. (Let’s just say you begin to feel uncomfortable when one of the girls is ordered to pee on herself.) While said to be a response to the video footage brought back from Vietnam, the 1974 film suffers from a lack of focus as it cuts between the violent scenes and a slapstick-heavy B-plot that follows two incompetent cops looking to catch the villains.

I tend to be leary of remakes, but the latest Last House is exactly what a remake should be. Filling in the plot holes and cutting out all the zany antics from the original, director Dennis Iliadis narrows the focus to the Collingwood family. In a time of war and economic crisis, when divorce is on a steep incline and families rarely eat dinner together, Last House serves as a heightened, gore-ific reminder of how strong family bonds can become when aligned against an outside threat.

The successful Collingwoods, father John (Goldwyn), mother Emma (Potter), and daughter Mari (Paxton), return to their summer home by the lake for a much-needed vacation after the death of their son and brother. Mari and friend Paige
(MacIsaac), while visiting the nearby town, get mixed up with a group of “bad people” led by Krug (Garret Dillahunt), whose facial hair is menacingly nonconformist. Being sadistic murderers, they do what comes naturally to them and brutally assault the two girls, leaving them in the woods to die.

Krug and company happen then upon the Collingwood house and finagle an invitation to stay the night. Mari’s fate (and the identity of her attackers) is eventually revealed to the Collingwoods, and they do what comes naturally to upper-class white people: They sell Krug’s gang a bunch of toxic loans. Just kidding — they take revenge using kitchen appliances and lots of break-away furniture.

The film’s tag line, which barely fits on the poster (“If bad people hurt someone you love, how far would you go to hurt them back?”), is a much more neutered version of the original’s (“To avoid fainting, keep repeating, it’s only a movie, only a movie ...”), but then again, so is the rape scene. Instead, the balls of the film are satisfyingly relocated to the end, when the Collingwoods brutalize Krug and his goons for their brutalization of their daughter.

In the final scenes of the original, the parents’ vengance is unemotional, which makes them seem overly aggressive and sadistic. Here, the family’s turn to brutality feels warranted, emotionally at least, not because we have witnessed what Krug’s gang is capable of, but because the Collingwoods have already experienced a loss they can’t avenge — their son’s death. Perhaps modern American audiences, less than a decade removed from 9/11 and still fighting the unsatisfying wars waged in its aftermath, can sympathize.

To diehard fans of the original LHOTL, who won’t be satisfied with a remake, let’s just be happy they didn’t film this in 3-D. It’s not the greatest horror film ever made, but it is the best one released so far this year.

Unlike the recent Friday the 13th remake, this film feels true to the source material. Iliadis knows who his audience is, and while the first half of the film contains a few jump scares, there is a turn in tone after the rape, when Iliadis focuses on the build and release of tension, instead of cheap thrills. •

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