I picked up a DVD copy of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left from a bargain bin a few years ago. It was the first time I’d seen the movie…and I hated it. I found no real redeeming qualities. The directing choices seemed random, the violence over-the-top (and somehow both disturbing and cheesy), and the acting atrocious. I shoved the disc on my shelf and haven’t looked at it since.
Here’s the short story: The movie is not well made, wildly uneven in tone, and not fun to watch. It’s a not-very-good movie. But there is a lot of really interesting things going on, and the plot goes in directions you wouldn’t expect (especially in 1972), so it’s a movie you really want to like.
The plot revolves around Mari, a seventeen-year-old girl living in a rural old house. She heads out to the city with her friend, Phyllis, to see a concert (the aptly named band BloodLust, we’re told). While in town, Mari tries to score some weed and ends up being kidnapped by a group of what the radio describes, in obscene and dramatic detail, as murderers, rapists, addicts, and all around wild-animals.
Now, I’m about to spoil some of the plot, but if you’ve seen the trailer for the remake you already know all these twists and turns. You have to love Hollywood advertising.
Needless to say, serious torture and sexual abuse ensue in the woods, and both girls are killed in horrible ways. When the gang fails to start their car, however, they end up relying on the courtesy of Mari’s worried parents, staying in the couple’s home for the night.
Of course, Mom and Dad realize what has happened to their daughter as well as who is responsible. Retribution becomes the name of the game.
The movie’s problems as well as its most compelling themes come from its total identity crisis. It’s part comedy, part art film, and part torture-porn. These genres aren’t interestingly mixed and incorporated like a well-made Tarantino film. Instead they crash inappropriately into one another keeping the audience from taking anything seriously or finding anything truly funny.
There is even a scene, inserted into the middle of the movie’s main torture sequence, where two bumbling cops try to hitch a ride on a chicken truck by climbing on the hood. They keep falling off. It’s HILARIOUS! (and wildly inappropriate).
Don’t say it’s not interesting, though. What Craven manages to do is create three distinct worlds–the parents’ world of the perfect, moralistic nuclear family, Mari’s world of naive 70′s teenage free love, and the gang’s world of unfettered violence and depravity–and show them crashing violently into each other. If it were done a little more carefully or artfully, it could have been brilliant. As is, it never gets beyond thought-provoking.
More than that, the movie is surprisingly shoddy in its filmmaking. Scenes are poorly shot with awkward pans, tilts, and snap-zooms, and the camera will often linger on a background element (or even just the ground) with little or no meaning. It’s very clear that Wes is learning his art. I see this one as a filmmaking stepping-stone to the classic A Nightmare On Elm Street, so I can forgive a lot.
There are a few very well handled moments, though–one in particular, and it happens to be the most intense part of the movie. Krug, a fantastic, animalistic and manipulative movie-villain, has his way with Mari. In the aftermath, there is a montage scene of Mari reeling and the gang having a rare moment of remorse. Mari leaves the frame and the gang follows, realizing for a brief moment what they have already done and what they must do now to cover their tracks. It’s all done without dialogue, and it’s a great preview of coming attractions for Craven–who I still contend is, above all, an actor’s director, working with his performers to create truly memorable characters.
This is one of those rare movies that isn’t very good but is worth talking about at length. You can look at almost every scene and try to find a meaning and purpose, but I’m not sure how much was intended. It’s unfortunate that these ideas and themes are undercut at every turn by bad writing, sloppy editing, and amateur filmmaking.
The remake comes out this week, and watching the original has made me cautiously optimistic. I’m fine with having this story told in a polished way. I’m fine with putting some money behind it. What I’m not fine with is making this movie a standard horror flick. Notice in my description of the original, “horror” never entered into the picture. Yes, the events are horrible, but the goal of the movie is never to scare you. There are no creeping moments and no jump-scares. The movie is very overt and straightforward.
This new one runs the risk of being too slasher-film for its own good. There is one very good way to handle this remake, though. Keep the ideas and themes, keep the dark humor, and keep the focus on character and disparate socio-political situations, but blend all of these things in a more competent and cohesive way.
I doubt we’ll get that based on the trailer (which I enjoyed, but more for its music choice than anything), but hope I’m very wrong. It looks like the filmmakers churned out a standard revenge/horror flick with lots of torture, stalking, dark shadows and jump scares. I love that in some movies, but that’s not what a “re-imagining” of Last House needs to be. Instead, it should be a true remake of the original with a little more finesse and skill put into it. This is one of those movies that, should a remake be done well, could actually surpass the original.