Sunday, March 15, 2009

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT

Wes Craven's original The Last House on the Left was garbage. The fact that the updated remake of that 1972 film is not, should serve as testament to why Hollywood remakes aren't always such a surefire thing to moan about. Not a snuff film, but supremely snuff-y in nature and aroma, the earlier Craven version of The Last House on the Left took pleasure in both the ritualistic killings performed by Krug and company on two teenage girls, and the vengeance later enacted upon those scumbags by one of the girl's parents. Considering the era of immoral American horror we've been locked in this decade, I expected a modern remake of TLHOTL to be but a carbon copy (albeit, slicker and shinier) of the original... a first quarter movie business decision to cash in on a film culture that will easily bump Saw VI to the #1 spot when it opens in October.

But director Dennis Iliadis and writer Carl Ellsworth roll their version of TLHOTL back to the initial simple premise of the original (the idea of which Craven lifted from Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring), and ended up getting TLHOTL's crucial third act almost exactly right. For those unfamiliar with this film in any of its variations, here is the basic plot design (stick figure-style!): two teenage babes venture into "the woods"; gang of scuzz buckets rape, beat, kill, and humiliate the girls; gang coincidentally crosses path of girl's parents and receive their comeuppance in the form of vigilante street justice. In the roles of writer & director, Craven treated that final section as an opportunity to jump on the trendy 1970's revenge porn bandwagon, making for a fine night of casual viewing if you're having a couch party with some friends, but observed as carefully picked apart piece of art, it's a total zero sum zero of a movie.

Because of circumstances in the new TLHOTL (no phone, no car) the parents are given justification to kill, not just fetishistic carte blanche to slaughter-at-will for a gore-thirsty audience. This reawakens the frightening question every audience member has asked them self on the limits in which they would go to in order to protect their family or loved ones, thus furthering internal debates over the issues of deadly self-defence and capital punishment. At its heart, Iliadis and Ellsworth's film is about familial preservation. In fact - and this ain't no bullshit - I even teared up in a scene where Mari's parents lay her out "operation style" on the family room table in a desperate attempt to save her life. Monica Potter, as Emma, is especially believable (and excellent) at juggling the maternal duties of nurturing and protection while up against the most extreme kind of challenges.

Watch how Emma and John use appliances and tools from around the house in order to keep their family secure. Their weapons of choice include the sink, firelog poker, fire extinguisher, hammer, and wine bottle, objects that have domestic practicality on a peaceful day, but on a day of survival, they flip-flop into battle accessories. It's a brilliant plot conceit by Ellsworth: using the home to protect the home. And in Idialis' best moment, he juxtaposes the lifeless bodies of three scuzz buckets with an image of Mari opening her eyes. It's a 10 second visual argument on the need for war.

But The Last House on the Left has its problems. I've spent most of my time praising the films' final section, but the first two thirds are a drag, a nearly lifeless hour of cinema existing solely to set-up the worthwhile conclusion. I continue to be perplexed about the length of some of these movies. The Last House on the Left is 110 minutes long... but why?!?!?! There is no logistical reason for it. The film could make its points (specifically highlighting the best ones) by being no longer than an 80 minute film. Also, I really want to know whose idea it was to tack on the ending... the very, very ending. As it stood, after the showdown at the Collingwood house, we see parents and daughter and newly acquired "son" sail away on a boat. But then the film hits us with one final splatter scene which threatens to wipe away the provocative section we just witnessed. It's so bogus, and it so defines hackery. I must know who did this. Time for research... but I suspect it was Craven being counterproductive in that producer role.

7 comments:

Tommy Salami said...

Though I much prefer The Virgin Spring for obvious reasons, Craven's Last House on the Left was decent revenge porn. You really wanted Krug to get it, and Mom's revenge was classic.

A nearly 2 hour remake with a tacked on splatter ending sounds a lesser effort, but your praise of act 3 means I'll give it a rental or see it on cable. That does seem to be an improvement over the original.

The obvious use of the first two acts would serve to introduce us to everyone so we have some emotional attachment to both the victims and the villains, for when they change places. If that failed, the rest will be weak. Also you'd want to set up the moral dilemma; argue about war, pacifism, or whether justice can be meted out by individuals.

For it to work well- and Craven's didn't, except as revenge porn- you need the parents to undergo a change. In Virgin Spring, Max Von Sydow wrestles with his belief in God, and the power of God's judgment. In Death Wish, Bronson is a liberal believer in the system who becomes a vigilante. The original LHotL had the parents conniving a way to trap and kill the murderers, and taking the traditional role of killer. This isn't as powerful, but is interesting. Dad is stalking around with a chainsaw by the end. They don't have to be pushed further to do it.

In the new one, do the parents plot the murders, or do they get attacked and defend themselves, instead of killing in cold blood? That would make it all a cop-out.

Fox said...

The obvious use of the first two acts would serve to introduce us to everyone so we have some emotional attachment to both the victims and the villains, for when they change places. If that failed, the rest will be weak.

Tommy-

The new LOTHL achieves that "attachment", but they just achieve it over waaaay too long of a stretch. Perhaps I shouldn't have said that the first 2/3 of the film were "lifeless", but that they ran out of life because they meander too much. I mean, in Craven's original, at least the sympathies and antipathies for characters are established in an 80-90 minute movie.

On your last comment, I'm not sure I understand...

The parents definitely kill out of self-defense (if they'd had a car, they make it clear that they would have left to take their daughter to the hospital), but that doesn't mean there wasn't malicious anger in their killings. They aren't so much "attacked" as they are thrust into a circumstance where they must kill in order to protect their daughter and the family unit (what's also different about this LHOTL is the role of the daughter after she is raped etc. by Krug).

Are you saying you think that's a cop out?

Also... there are quite a few differences in this new one, but one that I can't remember if it was in the original or not (someone let me know) is that the Collingwoods had lost a son about a year prior to this.

Tommy Salami said...

I think it's a definite cop out to make the parents kill in self defense; in the original tale (Virgin Spring) there is moral agony over whether vengeance is a sin. The original LHotL, if I remember correctly (and correct me if I'm wrong!) had the parents recognize the killers, and then go along with them- planning to kill them all along.

I remember the mother luring one of them out with the promise of sex and then biting his johnson off, and Dad locking the doors and coming after Krug with a chainsaw. By making it self-defense, it removes the moral ambiguity. The remake just sounds more like a survival horror with home invaders, which is fine, but why call it a remake if the original spin of vengeance turning the good guys into the chainsaw-wielding killers is gone? It reminds me of the 90s, when heroes couldn't kill directly; bad guys had to die in accidents while chasing you.

Reel Whore said...

Sounds like we mostly felt the same way about LHOTL. I, however, did enjoy the original. For the upgrade, I wished Krug & Co were as badass as their 70's versions. Also, I agree the very, very ending was garbage. Even though it ran too long, it was the best 09 horror flick to date.

Arbogast said...

There's a great moment in the novel that inspired both versions of Cape Fear that neither J. Lee Thompson or Martin Scorsese included in their adaptations... where the average American husband/father and his average American wife/mother sit down in their kitchen and decide, as cooly as if they were making a decision between a backyard swimming pool or tennis court, that they are going to kill the villain. That's why the novel is called The Executioners, because that's what the protagonists have to become to survive, to accept the hard truth that the best defense is a strong offense.

It's funny that both film versions shied away from that Camelot era conceit and made their protagonists helpless victims who only fight back at... the... very... last... minute.

I appreciate the Craven version for a retribution setpiece that didn't make me want to pump my fist in satisfaction or self righteousness but left me feeling depressed and dirty and even a little defeated in my vicarious victory. I think the movie's honesty is what has made it a keeper, warts and all.

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