[15 August 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For some filmmakers, legacy is everything. The movies they made decades before are like children - perfect if flawed, favored while sometimes passed over for others in the filmic ‘family’. As a result, directors are nothing more than daddies, driven to nurture their offspring while working within the commercial community known as show business. Wes Craven is a brilliant example of such a guardian. Ever since he stormed onto the scene with his exploitation epic The Last House on the Left, he has been careful to control almost every aspect of his oeuvre (the rare one that escaped his grasp - the classic Nightmare on Elm Street franchise). Even today, as remakes rule the macabre marketplace, he’s been at the forefront of protecting his motion picture progeny.
While Freddy Krueger and company is being fostered by someone else, Craven has kept up with the rest of his cinematic relations, okaying a decent retelling of his cannibal clan holocaust The Hills Have Eyes, as well as proposed updates of Shocker and, perhaps, Deadly Friend. But it was the announcement more than a year ago that the famous fright filmmaker would be guiding a new version of his “it’s only a movie” masterwork to the big screen. Fans originally scoffed at the notion. After all, what could top Last House‘s sleazoid notoriety? The answer, sure enough, was nothing. However, the 2009 take on the repugnant revenge thriller found a way of making its vision work - tone down the filth, slow down the story, and build up the fury.
In the Dennis Iliadis update, we meet the Collingwood family - John (a doctor), Emma (a teacher), and Mari (swimmer and all around American teenage daughter). They are still in morning over the death of their eldest son Ben, and hope a trip to their lakeside cabin will ease the pain. Instead, Mari’s sidetrack into town finds he face to face with escaped convict Krug, his psycho gal pal Sadie, his craven brother Frances and ineffectual son Justin. Doing what heartless criminals do best, our child of privilege is left for dead. A freak storm and a car accident leads the gang to the doorstep of the nearest shelter - the Collingwood’s isolated abode. And when these parents find out what these villains did to their child, blood will flow…and no one will be left alive.
While the tag line for the 2009 production asked “If someone hurt someone you love, how far would you go to get revenge?” , the real issue with The Last House on the Left is why would someone remake a movie that was considered sick, morally depraved, and unconscionable some 37 years ago. Certainly nothing new - not updated special effects, directorial flare, or cultural subtext - could change the rape and payback narrative into something novel. Yet oddly enough, Greek filmmaker Iliadis finds a way to make the material his own. By bringing the pace down to a simmer, by turning the Collingwoods into characters instead of caricatures, by never once excusing Krug and his compatriots in criminality, he ventures beyond what Craven created to make this journey a true 21st century story.
This is a movie about advantage, about bad things happening to people who perceive they are, and yet perhaps might not be, good. There is a moment, right before Mom and Dad decide to go nutzoid, when they confront the notion of killing for their fallen child. The discussion, calm and collected, argues for a couple who might actually enjoy this kind of vigilante carnage. Sure, Craven’s original storyline (swiped from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) has all the hallmarks of fate frustrated and destiny delivering. Since the action takes place so close to the Collingwood home, it only seems sensible that Krug and his clan would end up at their doorstep. But while the original argued for faux sophisticates turning into martini wielding maniacs, the new version argues for the inherent Voorhees in all of us.
The moment Emma discovers who destroyed their daughter, the girl’s nearly lifeless body washing up along the family’s property line, we see normalcy tossed aside for a pure need for blood. Granted, you could read the recent death of their son as a motivating factor, the family not ready to lose two children this quickly. But The Last House on the Left seems to argue that, once given the excuse, any parent would pull out a claw hammer and give a sadistic stranger a backdoor lobotomy. The situation does keep the Collingwoods from calling the police (storm = no land lines and limited cell access) and the horrors we’ve seen heaped on Mari makes the need for revenge that much more urgent, but the sudden shift over to violence, especially at the very end, illustrates something a tad more troubling.
So does the uncontrolled nature of our criminals. Why does Krug decide to dig himself in deeper and kidnap Mari and her friend Paige? Why does his anger later turn into sexual assault? He already has a couple of murdered cops on his latest rap sheet, why add even more demands for an eventual death penalty. We never sense the character’s desperation, never know why he was incarcerated and how Sadie and Frances managed to allude authorities, considering their batshit desire to destroy.
One of the weird bits of illogic in Last House is the rationale for Krug, needing to escape, to simply sit back and place nice. He could simply kill the Collingwoods, search out their property for a means of escape (enter the family boat), and take off for parts unknown. Unlike the original film, which had its criminals callously wallow in what they did and who they did it to (and who they are now hobnobbing with), there’s an odd, innocent bystander vibe to the last act melee. Sure, Krug more or less murdered Mari, robbing her of everything she valued. But who knew her parents would become knife wielding maniacs in the process?
Apparently, the main message of the new Last House on the Left is that human nature is hard to decipher. The Collingwoods get joy out of their blatant bloodlust because it serves a sense of justice. Even as they extend the torture way beyond the limits of human endurance, they calmly go about their judge, jury, and executioner roles. Similarly, the gang just can’t stem their bubbling criminal urges. Frances only needed to turn down his libido for a few hours and they’d be back on the lam - or even better, living in the lap of luxury while they decided their next move. Instead, the need to be nasty takes over, giving the crew away and leading to their eventual downfall. Iliadis seems to be saying that, no matter what seems rational and normal, fear and the need for retribution will always trump said sensibility.
On Blu-ray, the film has been expanded to incorporate material cut from the original theatrical release, and it really helps the overall context. The rape, disgusting to begin with, is taken to far more sickening extremes, while the murders all offer their own moments of extended gore. Iliadis also gives the characters more of a chance to interact, to build the kind of connections that will come apart later in the picture. With his determined, desaturated look, deliberate sense of dread, and completely gratuitous finale, The Last House on the Left doesn’t so much mirror the original as it expands on its ideas.
All of which argues for Craven’s creative ingenuity. It would have been easy to find some fresh faced newbie, hand them a script which basically mimics the first film’s mindless depravity, and ratchet up the special effects. Instead, as he did with Alexandre Aja and the nuke mutant magnificence of The Hills Have Eyes, Craven found a filmmaker with vision and let him run with the redux. There will be a few fanatics who will never forgive the scary movie maestro for exploiting his output like this. Others will never know he had a career prior to a certain slasher spoof. Whatever the case, The Last House on the Left stands as an interesting twist on the original grindhouse great. While it may not pass the test of time, it definitely delivers the gratuitous goods. It just takes its own sweet time doing so.