The Last House on the Left is a 2009 American horror film remake of the 1972 Wes Craven film of the same name, directed by Dennis Iliadis from a screenplay by Adam Alleca (Cell) and Carl Ellsworth (Disturbia; Goosebumps).
Garret Dillahunt, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul, Sara Paxton, Martha MacIsaac, Spencer Treat Clark, Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn.
The Collingwood family – father John (Tony Goldwyn), mother Emma (Monica Potter) and teenage daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) – are on vacation at their holiday home, a remote lakeside cottage in the woods.
Mari visits her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) in town where the two girls meet Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), a nervous young man who offers them marihuana. The three get high, until Justin’s father Krug (Garret Dillahunt) and his two travelling companions – brother Francis (Aaron Paul) and deranged girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) – spoil the party.
In woodland adjacent to the Collingwood property, Paige and Mari suffer torments and indignities at the hands of Krug and his friends, culminating in rape and murder. Afterwards, as a torrential rainstorm erupts, Krug and the others seek shelter at the Collingford residence. Unaware of what has befallen their daughter, John and Emma agree to let the visitors stay overnight…
Before the 21st century mania for horror remakes took hold, surely the last thing anyone expected was for Wes Craven’s grim and upsetting The Last House on the Left (1972) to receive a major studio remount. If ever a film felt too grubby and nasty to make it in the multiplexes, this was it.
However, the success in the 1980s of A Nightmare on Elm Street and its sequels, and the Scream franchise in the 1990s, saw Craven’s Hollywood stock rise meteorically: his second horror film The Hills Have Eyes (1977) generated a successful remake in 2006 (which in turn begat a sequel in 2007), and the paradigm-shifting Nightmare on Elm Street was remade (less successfully) in 2010. All of which means that Craven’s bad reputation has long ago been redeemed by the only thing that really matters in Hollywood; money.
So what to make of this new adaptation? Essentially the film has been cleaned up and kitted out in the requisite fashionable clothing, given an ‘edgy’ indie horror vibe (big studio-style), and turned into a vengeance-is-good-for-the-soul post 9-11 rage-fest.
Dennis Iliadis’s The Last House on the Left is moderately exciting, professionally constructed, but its thoroughly ordinary spirit is never complicated by the violence it depicts. The grunginess and verité naturalism of the original movie are nowhere to be found; ugliness is something you find in the souls of others, not in yourself.
Craven incorporated elements of satire in his depiction of a bourgeois American family, scoring scenes of Mari’s clueless parents with deliberately twee music. His abduction scenes were set to rollicking country bluegrass with lyrics making light of the victims’ predicament, leaving the freaked out viewer to wonder just whose side the filmmakers were on. No such anxiety bedevils the viewer in the remake. The music is sensible, soberly orchestral, the limit of Iliadis’s eccentricity being to score horrific scenes with tasteful piano.
His version does at least make better sense of a major plot twist, in which the villains, having had their vicious way with Mari and her friend, wind up staying the night with Mari’s parents. Craven struggled to persuade us that the parents would welcome such a shifty quartet on the very day they’d reported their daughter missing; in the new film the parents are still unaware of Mari’s fate when the killers arrive at their door, which works a lot better. Such improvements, however, remain at the level of carpentry; this gentrification of the rickety original hints at conservatism behind the tightened joints and fresh licks of paint.
The 1972 Last House on the Left featured terrifyingly plausible performances from David Hess, Fred Lincoln and Jeramie Rayne as the killers. The remake fails to meet this challenge, with performances seriously lacking in bite. There can be nothing more damning than to say, just four years after seeing this film, that I could not remember the actor playing Krug.
Riki Lindhome’s ‘Sadie’ lacks the wildcat Manson-girl vibe of her forebear, and the remodelled ‘Weasel’ (here just ’Francis’) comes across as bland instead of sleazy. Krug’s pathetic son, meanwhile, is transformed from a droopy whey-faced junkie into a sensitive slacker-dude who sweetens the last reel with an act of personal redemption.
As for the victims, there’s nothing to distinguish them either. Unlike Sandra Peabody in the original, whose Mari was so sweetly naive that it hurt to watch the extremes of cruelty inflicted upon her, Sara Paxton’s California-hardbody is so cool and composed that one’s anxiety is frankly diluted. Stressing her athleticism, the film seems on the brink of suggesting she can cope with anything.
The most profound make-over is reserved for Mari’s father. In the 1972 version he’s a twittering fool, an ‘embarrassing dad’ from a soap opera; here he’s an imposing masculine presence who has no qualms at all about making the transition from family man to avenger.
In interviews, Wes Craven frequently claims that Last House was a reaction to the horror of the Vietnam War and the violence used by the State to suppress dissent. However much salt one takes with this pronouncement, Craven clearly set out to problematize violence – his film ends with Mari’s father, soaked with blood in the wreckage of his home, sickened by the extremity of his actions.
Iliadis (reflecting a very different US war experience?) goes to the other extreme, turning violent retribution into a punch-the-air affirmation of right and virility. The film ends on a triumphal ‘up’ note that owes little to Craven’s original conception, and far more to such ‘bludgeon-the-criminal’ favourites as Death Wish.
Stephen Thrower, MOVIES & MANIA