[14 September 2009]
“If someone hurt someone you love, how far would you go to get revenge?” So posits the tag-line of Dennis Iliadis’s The Last House on the Left.
It’s a familiar filmic formula not least because this is the third time this particular story has been told onscreen. At best it’s a passably efficient stand-alone thriller, throwing out the cultivation of frights and tension in favour of action and violence. Not a problem in itself but, for all its lip-service to blood and guts, with regards the necessarily brutal impact of its horrific rape-revenge subject matter, it pales hopelessly in comparison with its namesake and close inspiration: Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972). The whole endeavour in fact feels curiously sanitised, relatively speaking, of course.
Craven’s picture was momentously transgressive – a raggedy, micro-budget horror flick with a palpable true-crime feel; it attained such enduring notoriety that the uncut version was only released on DVD in the UK in autumn 2008. The ‘original’ was itself a radical re-imagining of Ingmar Bergman’s remarkable The Virgin Spring (1960); a ferocious medieval fable which sees a virgin girl raped and murdered by two goatherds she naively befriends.
With their deed yet to be discovered, in a terrible coincidence the two deviant men and their young brother seek shelter at the girl’s home where they unwittingly reveal themselves as the instruments of her demise by offering up her blood-stained clothes for sale. A portentous, stark and fervently religious tale: its intensity, dramatic prowess and searing iconic imagery remain undiminished after nearly 50 years.
With Craven at the helm, the first The Last House on the Left was an uncompromisingly modern take, which brought the original conceit into the more permissive and emphatically gratuitous exploitation cinema of the ‘70s. It tortured its audience by making them complicit in eye-watering vile, realistically-rendered, lengthy acts of sexual violence and revenge. Craven’s sexually-liberated heroine is attempting to procure drugs ahead of a rock concert when she and a friend are taken prisoner by a fugitive gang, before her parents enact bloody vengeance.
And so we return to the 2008 version: a commercial, constrained, more artless project, which has the distinct whiff of a cash-in. Plot-wise it stays pretty close to the Craven version (tellingly Craven himself co-produced it alongside another collaborator from the ‘70s version Friday the 13th’s Sean Cunningham). In it two teenage girls Mari (Sara Paxton) and Paige (Martha MacIsaac) are, as before, kidnapped and brutally assaulted by a gang. And again as before, the aggressors are subsequently taken in and given shelter by Mari’s parents Emma Collingwood (Monica Potter) and her husband John (Tony Goldwyn), who have a familiarly violent response upon discovering the identity of the strangers they have welcomed into their home.
Commerciality has its advantages and the remake has assembled a strong cast, many of whom are playing to previous screen strengths (again it chooses a safe footing). In particular Garret Dillahunt—so majestically repellent in HBO’s sublime Deadwood—is a fine choice as the gang’s charismatic but hideously deranged head honcho Krug. The mediocre material, however, fails to draw out the same intensity in Dillahunt’s performance, but he’s a suitably nefarious bastard leading a gang of similarly well-cast cretins.
Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn make a feisty Mom and Pop but in casting two relatively young athletic actors this certainly makes for a more predictable revenge climax than in, say, Craven’s more subversive version. And Sara Paxton as the tragic heroine Mari is appropriately gutsy and earnest, her wide injured eyes shining out in the gloom of the hostile woods like Bambi’s tearful peepers; making her fate all the more cruel.
Iliadis attempts to flesh out the class tensions which both earlier versions briefly touched upon, making the social distinction between the victim’s family and the perpetrators more pronounced. Yet some additions come at the expense of dramatic tension: so, as the woodland residence becomes an occasional holiday retreat rather than the family home, this means that Mari’s assault is marginally less chilling as it does not take place right on her own doorstep. Also, more significantly, by increasing the size of the family’s property to incorporate a guest house—which is where the strangers bed down for the night—it takes them out of the immediate vicinity, thereby posing less of a threat.
Cowering in the shadow of its cinematically significant precursors, Iliadis’s film also suffers from an identity crisis. It lacks both the bravado and paradoxical morality of the earlier exploitation flick, or anything approaching the quality and dramatic weight of Bergman’s original. Instead it pitches itself for the most part as a reasonably straight vigilante thriller, albeit one sorely lacking in the requisite tension. It can’t resist including an exploding head, for instance, as something of a schlocky punch-line, which undermines its attempts at more character-driven drama. The Last House on the Left also compares unfavourably with its peer the excellent Eden Lake (2008), which successfully reignited the woodland revenge thriller to credible, startling effect.
The package comprises both the Theatrical Version and the Unrated Version (the latter is a mere four-minutes longer). As gimmicky as this has become, there is some genuine censored material here, including moments from the rape sequence which further show the victim struggling, resisting and pleading. Why such material would be cut when it only serves to reflect the wretched reality is beyond me.
Other than the inclusion of the Unrated Version the extras are very disappointing indeed. “A Look Inside” is an insubstantial making-of which plays like nothing more than an extended trailer, featuring brief comments from the director Dennis Iliadis and producers Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham. Other than this there are merely a handful of forgettable deleted scenes.
The Last House on the Left is a pretty futile rehash, which has little more than a superior cast and some passable action to recommend it.