The Last House on the Left Defies Traditional Criticism

Posted on 15 March 2009 by Quaid

I get the feeling that almost everyone is going to come out hating this remake of The Last House on the Left.  If you don’t have the stomach for the depths of depravity to which it sinks, you will dismiss it outright as a signpost on the way to the decline of western civilization.  If you are more lenient toward disturbing subject matter in service of a set of ideals, then you will probably point to the fact that this is a slick remake of a movie that was more idea driven than its successor.  

lasthouseremakeposter2Either way, you come out not liking this movie.

Me, though, I am, to be 100% honest with you, confused.  This review was supposed to go up the same night I saw the film, but I felt I needed a couple of days to wrap my head around how I felt about the movie.  This cannot be called a “good” movie.  But it is so well-made, so interesting, so unflinching, and so affecting that I can’t bring myself to dismiss it outright.  It gets me thinking and confronting some of my own squeamishness–which is more than most Hollywood horror movies manage to do nowadays.

So forgive me if this review comes off as less of a review and more of an analysis.  There are plenty of “hated it” blurbs over at Rotten Tomatoes if that is what you’re looking for.  Me, I want to try and figure some things out.

The plot of the movie is simple.  Seventeen-year-old Mari Collinwood joins her parents at a lake house for vacation.  Their first night there, Mari ventures into the city with a friend of hers.  When they fall in with the young Justin, though, things take a turn for the nightmarish as Krug (Justin’s father) and his band of murderous outlaws kidnap and abuse the two girls.

When Mari is left for dead, the group finds themselves without shelter and ends up depending on the hospitality of Mari’s parents, staying the night in the couple’s carriage house.  When the two hosts find out the nefarious nature of their guests and the atrocities committed against their daughter, they fight back with a vengeance.

I’m keeping things slightly vague on purpose.  While the trailer spoils the twists for the non-initiated, there are still a few surprises (albeit small) for those familiar with the original film.

I expected this movie to truncate the first two acts of the original, making Mari’s abduction, abuse, and attempted murder a fairly quick precursor to the “revenge” angle on which the movie was sold.  I was wrong.  Director Dennis Iliadis focuses just as much on Mari’s abuse as the original, and the audience I was with seemed genuinely surprised, shocked, and disgusted.  

lasthouseremake4Which made me happy.  I saw this movie opening night with people annoyingly talking on cell phones and texting through the movie.  When Mari went into Justin’s hotel room, they screamed things like “Don’t go in there, bitch!”  In other words they thought this was going to be a straightforward horror film.  Lots of meaningless and dismissible gore.

But when Mari is tortured and raped, the theater was silent.  There were a couple of walkouts (from two highly annoying audience members who had been heckling the screen minutes before, nonetheless).  I watched the audience realize that…this shit isn’t funny.  It’s not fun.  While it’s not shot in a documentary style like Craven’s original, transposing chillingly beautiful camerawork for shaky, unlit shots, it feels just as real and just as horrific.

I cared about Mari and her friend.  They were real people, and they reacted in real ways.  Mari, played by Sara Paxton, possesses a quiet terror and honest, unspoken inner-strength that immediately makes her a real person in the audience’s mind.  This isn’t a dumb teenager getting hacked to death.  This is someone’s daughter getting tortured.  These crimes feel real–ripped from the headlines–which makes them chilling and forces me to say that no, this is not a horror film.  

The term torture-porn springs to mind.  I was not a fan of Saw.  For the longest time I refused to see it.  The trailer looked like there was nothing in it except torture and depravity with no real redeeming qualities.  It was a snuff film, in other words, and that didn’t strike me as “thrilling” or “scary” as much as “sick” and “unnecessary.”  (Of course when I finally did see it, I realized it was too goofy and poorly made to take seriously).

lasthouseremake3iconThis movie does have that feeling, but there is something so simple and raw about it that the movie doesn’t feel like it’s glorifying these acts or using them for cheap thrills at all.  Still, it’s sickeningly hard to watch.  Part of me, though, thinks it should be.  This movie takes aim at other horror movies by showing us the horrific violence in an emotionally realistic way.  

It’s not funny.  It’s not scary.  It’s not thrilling.  It’s not fun.  It’s horrible, and that is why it is there.

Of course, it is necessary for the rest of the film to work.  Once the Collinwoods find out what happened to their daughter, we are absolutely, 100% no-holds barred on their side.  We want to see Krug and his friends die, and in the most horrible ways possible.

That is where the movie takes a turn for the interesting.  As Mari’s parents are faced with the choice of confronting these savages or doing nothing, allowing their daughter to most certainly die, we see their anger and strength.  And we, as audience members, hate these murderers in a very personal and intense way.  These aren’t screen monsters to be feared, they’re depraved human beings who we, as viewers, want to see get put down like dogs.

lasthouseremake2On that front, the movie does not disappoint.  The scenes of Mari’s parents taking out each gang member are harsh, violent, horrific, and cathartic in a way I don’t know we have ever seen on screen.  The audience was on the verge of cheering with each grisly murder.

And that’s what these are–murders.  there are points where characters could be sedated, tied up, or even left in bed.  But they are killed.  The hunted become the hunters, and, after seeing what these villains have done, we want nothing more than more blood and death.  

And I would have liked for that to be what the movie was about.  I would have liked for us to cheer these two parental figures on to unmitigated murder and mayhem, only to realize that we, as audience members, are sick fuckers.

The original movie was about how a couple of rational people can become murderous dogs.  This movie feels different. What shocked me was how emotionally invested  in the murder of this gang I (and everyone around me) was.  We wanted blood, lots of it.  After feeling squeamish when Mari was tortured, we did a 180 and became the cheerleaders for death and mayhem.  That is the most unsettling thing of all.

lasthouseremake1But this movie drops the ball at the end.  What could have been an emotionally driven analysis of human nature and bloodlust becomes a cheap Saw film in the last scene.  We needed to see these characters deal with what they had done.  We needed to feel guilty for cheering them on.  Instead, we just end the movie cheering for yet another act of depraved violence–this one stylized and silly and provocative in all the wrong ways.  It gives the audience that mandatory adrenaline rush before heading into the lobby, but it undercuts everything that came before.

I ignore it.  I focus on what this movie accomplished.  The original was so poorly made that it managed only to be a psychological musing on what drives people to violence.  Because this new one is so affecting, it moves that discussion into the realm of emotion, drawing the audience into the kind of bloodlust that they are used to experiencing only as uninvolved voyeurs.  I just wish it had finished with something smarter and more affecting.  Something more idea driven.  Something more than just another act of exploitative violence.                           

2 Comments For This Post

  1. HansKlopek Says:

    God damn, youse. Now I want to see it.

  2. Rachel Says:

    Yeah me too :)

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  1. Box Office Brief: It’s been a good couple weeks for Carla Gugino! | MovieChopShop Says:

    [...] new remake of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (read Quaid’s review!) debuted at number three with $14.7 million and number four was that darn Liam Neeson picture, [...]

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