Thursday, March 12, 2009
This 'House' deserves foreclosure
To understand how a movie as ragged as 1972's "The Last House on the Left" acquired its cult reputation, you have to understand something about the 1970s. The war in Vietnam increasingly looked like a lost cause; the Manson family's carnage was still fresh in memory; the counterculture was in full bloom, and movies -- which were enjoying a period of creative vitality -- were testing limits.
There are few standards by which "The Last House on the Left," directed by horror maven Wes Craven, could be called a good movie. It was poorly acted; aggressively lurid and burdened by a goofy, banjo-laden soundtrack. But it did have something that endeared it to cultists, a capacity for outrageousness that was reflected in its campy humor, its sneering contempt for flower-power values and its willingness to cross the line of what heretofore had been considered acceptable levels of big-screen violence.
"The Last House on the Left" was very much of its time. Guess what? That time has passed.
The risk of irrelevance didn't stop director Dennis Iliadis from remaking Craven's cult favorite, and the new movie represents a brutal upgrade. Craven's slice of horror thrived on nihilism and chaos; Iliadis' movie cranks up the tension and adds violent special effects, the final one arriving in a brief epilogue that had preview audiences either cheering or recoiling in disgust.
In the 37 years since Craven -- listed as a producer of the new film -- unleashed his cinematic ball of fury, technology has improved, and Iliadis uses it to full advantage in what amounts to an effective, if morally dubious, slice of contemporary horror. Why morally dubious? I say this because I'm shocked by the fact that the violent set pieces in "The Last House on the Left" seem to be asking audiences to accept sadism as an OK form of entertainment. Some critics viewed Craven's original as a kind of grainy critique of a society gone mad; I'm not sure that the new version amounts to much more than a well-oiled horror machine.
The story centers on a family that's visiting its country home. Upon arrival, young Mari (Sara Paxton) reunites with a friend (Martha MacIsaac) who works in a convenience store. A shy young man (Spencer Treat Clark) soon invites the girls to his motel room to smoke pot. Before anything much happens, the boy's miscreant family -- headed by the vicious Krug (Garret Dillahunt)-- arrives. The girls are then kidnapped and dragged into the woods where a session of humiliation, rape and stabbing begins.
Eventually, these miscreants wind up at Mari's house, where they encounter Mari's mother and father (Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn), and spark another round of brutal violence. Those who aren't familiar with the original won't want to know more, and I won't tell more. (Know that Craven's most excruciating contribution to the advancement of big-screen violence has not made it into the remake. For this, we should be grateful.)
Astute critics have compared the original plot to Ingmar Bergman's gripping "The Virgin Spring," which debuted in 1960. Other critics have cited director Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs," a 1971 study in the violence buried not so far beneath a middle-class surface. The new version of "Last House" might better be compared to Michael Haneke's odious "Funny Games," a 2007 remake of a 1977 Haneke movie that added a layer of pretension to the usual multiplex mayhem. This time, "Last House on the Left" seems to have no pretensions other than raking in the dough.
Taken strictly on its own terms, "The Last House on the Left" works, and I bet it will connect with horror-hungry audiences that may have been disappointed by such recent remakes as "Friday the 13th." Yes, this one works. But the movie raises an interesting question: Do you want it to work on you? I'd vote no. I'm tired of movies that try to make me sick -- and I'm loath to praise them just because they're so damn good at it.