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Last House on the Left (2009)
22nd Oct 09
Lets rape and avenge like it’s 1972! Anyone seen Ada?
The horror remake bandwagon travels on mercilessly - with executive producer Wes Craven raiding his own back catalogue again (following the genuinely triumphant redux of The Hills Have Eyes) for a movie that was even more of a product of its time than the contemporary genre flicks that have already been repackaged for the 21st century.
The new Last House sticks to the basic structure of the original, retains most of the character names, offers minor embellishments and mercifully removes 1972’s excruciating comedy relief with inept cops and Ada’s chickens. Seventeen-year-old Mari (Sara Paxton) is now an athlete haunted by the death of her brother and staying at a summer house with her doctor father (Tony Goldwyn) and mom Monica Potter. Hanging around with slightly edgy pal Martha MacIsaac, the two befriend zoned-out, sentimentalised Spencer Treat Clark (this film’s “Junior”), who scores them some pot but also puts them in the path of a gang of cons led by his sociopath dad Krug (Garret Dillahunt). As before, assault and rape ensue, with MacIsaac killed and Paxton left for dead prior to the old Bergman twist of fate that leads to multiple acts of vengeance in the final reels.
It goes without saying that the raw, rough and ready original movie possesses - for all its obvious flaws - a down and dirty 70’s no-budget Vietnam-era vibe that, much like its less flawed cousin The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, is impossible to recreate within the confines of a well-produced, slickly made modern day studio remake. It may be almost 40 years old but it will never lose its power to shock and unsettle, a power that few movies today can match. Except, perhaps, for that recent Hannah Montana movie with Smiley Virus.
The well made new version has strong production values and the look and feel of a decent Hollywood thriller: the big finale even takes place against the backdrop of an old fashioned melodramatic storm. The baddies - a weird looking bunch of miscreants in 1972 without exception - are now all rather too good looking to be truly menacing or credible. Dillahunt gamely goes for a much subtler approach to the intimidating Krug than the wired, thuggish David Hess, with mixed results, while Riki Lindhome is a sexy, interesting but underwritten Sadie.
Last House 2009 gets one key aspect right: chickens aside, the original’s biggest sore point was the embarrassingly amateur performances by the two actors playing the pivotal roles of the parents. Here, two convincing character actors bring force and credibility to these roles, with Goldwyn characteristically intense and compelling as the father. Even with this in mind, their transition to extreme violence is still more of a plot device than an authentic development.
Ultimately revolving around the recurring Craven theme of an ordinary modern home turned into a primitive battleground of booby traps and personalized violence, this movie is bloody and brutal as it should be. A topless woman is beaten and blown away in a bathroom; a guy gets his hand mangled by a waste disposal unit and, in a misplaced bit of OTT 80’s-style seriocomic grue, Krug’s face somehow explodes in an open microwave for the film’s throwaway punch line. The centre-piece woodland assault on Mari and her friend remains powerful: the rape of Mari in particular, and the playfully horrible stabbing of her friend, are grimly protracted and upsetting.
In this Saw / Hostel era, however, this film’s bloodshed (which, admittedly, would have probably struggled to get an ‘R’ rating in the 80’s and early 90’s) is de-rigueur and the force of the original is blunted. There’s no castration this time out, no chainsaws, no horrifying “piss your pants” humiliation, no disembowelment, no chest carving, no real sense of genuine degradation…and more significantly, while the original made you feel like the world was ending, this wraps things neatly so that everyone sympathetic survives for the fadeout (Mari recovers, “junior” survives, the parents have learned that revenge really does pay…).
Ultimately, the ambiguity and dark satire of Craven’s vigilante tract become lost in the midst of a conventional, if well acted and gripping, thriller. Cringe-worthy bits involving broken noses and the like can’t compare to the overall sense of discomfort generated by the scrappy but endurable original (significantly, the chisel moment in which you see nothing provokes more unease than anything this film can muster). David Hess’ memorable song-score (again very much a product of the times) is replaced by an evocative score here by the talented John Murphy - though, again, it feels conventional by comparison.