Condemned to Suffer
The Last House on the Left
Garret Dillahunt, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul, Sara Paxton, Monica, Potter, Tony Goldwyn, Martha MacIsaac, Spencer Treat Clark
US theatrical: 13 Mar 2009 (General release)
UK theatrical: 4 Sep 2009 (General release)
Bourgeois city-dwellers John (Tony Goldwyn) and Emma (Monica Potter) set out to colonize rural America in search of summer bliss. At their lakeside second home, they face the usual hazards that bedevil modern pioneers into the wilderness. Their daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) hangs out with the locals, who dress trashily and buy pot in low-rent motels; their electric power goes out five minutes into a thunderstorm and cell phone coverage disappears whenever they need it most. It’s just the sort of place where you would hand the keys of your only car to a 17-year-old as a thunderstorm builds and expect everything to be okay.
It’s not, of course. Mari is raped and left for dead while the perpetrators take refuge with her parents, who belatedly realize exactly who is enjoying their hospitality. The film thus combines a longstanding American nightmare (an assault on the nuclear family by a violent subculture) and fantasy (the ability of that family, if not to protect its most vulnerable members, at least to avenge them). As a result, Dennis Illiadis ’ movie has much less in common with Wes Craven’s 1972 original than with the gangster movies of the 1930s or Westerns of the ‘50s and ‘60s, all of which tried to persuade audiences that retribution might reorder a chaotic universe.
Writers Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth sketch out the basic plot with dialogue designed only to shift the characters from one confrontation to the next. That leaves the film with a single raison d’etre, to disturb viewers. A car crash’s mangling of flesh and metal near the beginning, through which Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and Francis (Aaron Paul) liberate their eminence grise, Krug (Garret Dilahunt), from police custody, melds all the ingredients of good B-picture horror. There’s stomach-clenching surprise, over-amplified noise, and succinct editing that oscillates light and dark, short cut and long, to leave the audience dreading exactly what it will see next. What we do see—a torture scene—gains much of its power precisely because we must look very carefully into a very dark space to understand what is going on. We’re condemned to suffer by our own compulsive voyeurism.
But after that scene, the film loses its nerve, taking refuge in the familiar excess of extreme hand-to-hand combat, every thud and squelch too loud, and every injury given its statutory close-up (or three). But for audiences who can watch three variants of CSI on primetime television, and can count on several deaths and some torture in 24, such intimacy with bodily destruction is as cliched as the laugh track on a sitcom. In fact, as John and Emma transform the accoutrements of affluent living, like the gargantuan garbage disposal, the faux-mediaeval fire irons, and the oversized fire extinguisher, into deadly weapons, the triumphalist symbolism of the rich destroying the rest with expensive domestic gizmos generates more discomfort than any mangled body.
Had the director capitalized on such elements to parody mainstream American moviemaking’s predilection for equating moral goodness with white, upper middle-class Americans, Last House might have moved beyond lackluster imitation and into a confrontation with the violence required, metaphorically and actually, to sustain the dominance of the privileged. After all, the lasting power of Craven’s terrifying vision lies in the way its unrelenting violations of what could and could not be shown on screen confronted audiences with the violence censored daily from their TV screens, the violence that the “defense” of middle-class American values in Southeast Asia entailed. Neither a glimmer of satire nor a gram of wit animates Illiadis’ 109 minutes beside the lake.
Too banal to upset, too inept to entertain, Last House limps to its inevitable end. Through yet another artifact of affluence, the speedboat, the family unit roars to safety across an empty lake. As my companion said while the credits rolled, “A perfectly normal American film.”
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