I am not a fan of the original The Last House of the Left as a movie so much as a concept. If there’s a ground zero for CHUDsploitation, Wes Craven’s first film is it; a movie whose legend preceded it, a film that was so debased and gross and mean spirited that people actually warned you away from it. The Last House on the Left was the kind of grimy exploitation moviemaking that can make you feel genuinely uncomfortable; you begin to really question the sanity of the people who would make a movie like this. And in many ways the original film’s flaws only add to that; the movie’s clumsy attempts at inserting comic relief make it feel like the work of someone with no understanding of society or human communication. The work of someone truly disconnected and sick, someone who might not understand just how transgressive these images truly are. Someone you do not want to meet in a darkened alley.
No movie playing in 2000 theaters, coming from Universal, will ever recreate that feeling. No matter how realistic the gore, no matter how much improved the acting and cinematography, no film coming from a major studio will give you that creeped out vibe that you’re watching a work of actual sickness. And that – not the brutality of the rape or the violence of the vengeance – is what is missing from the remake of The Last House on the Left. Utterly neutered as a consequence of its own creation, the new The Last House on the Left has to find a new reason to exist, but it shoots itself in the foot there by making a major change from the original.
I don’t want this review to be a review of the film in comparison to the original; I haven’t seen Last House 72 in a pretty long time, and I think that sort of review is hot buttered bullshit at any rate. This is a movie being released in 2009, and more people will see it this weekend than have seen the original in closing in on forty years. But I can’t review the film outside of the context of horror movies this decade, and taken in that context Last House 09 feels remarkably tardy.
Had it come out 18 months or so ago, The Last House on the Left might have felt a part of the horror zeitgeist, but today it just feels outdated. While not torture porn per se, the film belongs to a cycle of movies where the pain and ‘reality’ of dismemberment and killing are at the forefront. But the horror mistress is fickle, and her pendulum has swung away from that. Today it’s about splatstick and quick kills. The time for Eli Roth’s Hostel is done. Now it’s time for Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving. Watching Last House 09 I couldn’t help but feel I had been here and done this, and short of the microwave gag – spoiled in the trailers, and feeling completely shoehorned in at the literal last moment of the film – nothing was fresh. Maybe this speaks more to me as a jaded consumer of truly vile entertainments, but where the original Last House pushed all sorts of boundaries and went all sorts of despicable places, Last House 09 feels like it fits quite comfortably in a category whose boundaries have already been defined by others.
Last House 09 very specifically fits into the Very Ugly Film That Looks Really Pretty (But In A Calculatedly Ugly Way) genre that was defined by the Texas Chainsaw remake. Last House 09 is often so pretty it resembles a poorly conceived Vogue photoshoot: “Rape, Revenge and Rayon: Taking Back Texture.” Into these beautiful scenes (shot in South Africa, but looking no shit like the Pacific Northwest) director Dennis Iliadis inserts some truly brutal moments. The double rape scene here is tough, and after a limp opening (a supposedly shocking crash/murder that is just sort of trite and a whole bunch of nonsense with the normal family who will soon be torn apart by Wes Craven’s legacy) it promises that maybe this movie has something going on. Surely a rape scene so primal, so uncomfortable, must be setting us up for something truly intriguing to follow.
Mild spoilers follow.
But it’s not. In fact, screenwriter Carl Ellsworth has changed one major element from the original that flat out ruins the rest of the movie for me; even without knowing that this element was different, it would have killed the rest of the film simply because of what it means in terms of theme for what is to follow. While the two basic stories are the same – a group of deviants rape a girl and unknowingly end up taking shelter in her parent’s house – Ellsworth has allowed the girl to live. And to slowly make her way back to the parents’ house.
If the girl dies, the bloody vengeance the parents take in the scenes that follow is simply vengeance. The idea of seeing regular, upstanding people being reduced to animals for the sake of revenge is a big, interesting one. It’s the kind of thing that can lead to real arguments afterwards – are they justified in extracting a painful, protracted price from the people who killed their daughter? But when the daughter is still alive the entire question shifts. Now it’s about protection. And everybody knows you don’t fuck with a mama bear’s cubs. So the morality of the situation is skewed, and we’ve entered the territory of an Ashley Judd movie – no action is off-limits because all actions are aimed at protecting that poor, innocent girl.
Of course many rape/revenge movies leave the rape victim alive – that’s when the revenge part comes into play. But here the daughter, while alive, is out of the entire movie. She just sits bleeding in a blanket, never even getting a good shot in at one of the cretins, denying us at least the cathartic thrill that comes from movies like I Spit on Your Grave or They Call Her One Eye. The daughter’s continued feebleness only reinforces the idea that what the parents do is completely and totally about protection. In fact, it isn’t until the end – the shoe horned feeling microwave gag – that there feels like there’s any actual vengeance happening. The cretins die hard, but not because the parents are taking their time. It’s because the cretins have to die hard to give the movie its violence, and having the parents kill them slowly would make it harder for us to sympathize with them. There’s one final act of kindness on the part of the parents that is, besides being unbelievably stupid from a plot point of view, seems to exist only to soften them just a little bit more, so that nobody can walk out of the theater saying ‘Gosh, maybe they were a little harsh on those cretins.’
A really bold remake would have put us in the shoes of psychopath Krug and his pack of loonies, making the movie a slasher film where the slasher gets upstaged in the middle of act two. But this isn’t a bold remake, and in fact it feels like it’s a pretty close to a movie you could see on Lifetime starring Gerald McRaney and Lisa Rinna as the parents. Better made, more violent and explicit, but just as morally hollow, just as devoid of bigger issues and discussion points.
In fact, if there’s any message that I get out of the remake of The Last House on the Left it’s just as late as the film itself; the movie reads like a meditation on the War on Terror, one where it’s not just okay, it’s probably our moral imperative to kill every single last one of the fuckers who hurt our daughter. The violence perpetrated by the parents here seems to in no way deform them as humans, and the message would be that the violence we have perpetrated in pursuit of terrorists won’t really deform us as a nation. I guess it’s fitting that Ellsworth is writing the remake of Red Dawn, and while I certainly have no problem with films that can be read from a right wing point of view, I at least ask that those films avoid softening their vengeance machines. Who wants to watch a Death Wish where Paul Kersey’s actually a pretty nice, normal guy? Part of the mythology of these vengeance driven characters is that the vengeance takes its toll on them so it doesn’t have to take its toll on us. But Last House 09 doesn’t see there being a toll at all.
I’d watch Garrett Dillahunt in anything, so it’s not surprising that I liked him here as Krug. He does get a little shortchanged, though; Dillahunt is playing Krug as a very smart psychopath, and when the tables get turned on him at the end, the script doesn’t give the character anything particularly bright, cunning or smart to do. Still, Dillahunt brings a nice level of menace to an otherwise cartoonish band of baddies, and he’s genuinely scary at times, even if every time I looked at him I kept thinking ‘That’s Evil Bill Hader.’ Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter are serviceable as the parents; since the movie never brings them to genuine levels of vengeance – every action they take feels like self-defense – they don’t have to play any really interesting arcs. They just have to be totally tough parents. Fair enough.
The rest of the cast is shades of bad. Riki Lindholme gets a pass from me because I’m a pig, and she’s gorgeous and often topless. That pass comes despite playing her role just below the level of flesh eating schizoid. Aaron Paul actually takes his character, Krug’s cretin brother, to that level; someone elsewhere on the web called him Fake Ben Foster, and it’s true. Meanwhile I just feel sort of bad for Sara Paxton. All she has to do in this movie is get raped and then bleed for a long time. I’m sure the role took a lot out of her – most of her scenes are intense – but the character has no arc; in the end the difference between her character being dead and being alive is functionally minimal.
Special mention must be made of Spencer Treat Clark, who plays his role – Krug’s son who isn’t sure he wants to go into the family rape business – with a faux Michael Pitt mumbliness. The script is already mercilessly against this kid: he’s a twerp, a moral weakling and kind of a pussy. A better actor could have maybe done something with the character to make me hate him less, but Clark’s shoegazing performance had me vocally praying for the character’s immediate and painful demise.
Last House 09 is the first Iliadis film I’ve seen. People I trust have told me to seek out his previous Greek film, Hardcore, about teenaged prostitutes, and I think I will. I like the look of Last House 09, and I think that Iliadis got good performances from the three main actors, but I hope that his future work begins with a better script.