The Last House on the Left | Horror/Remake | rated R (A,L,N,V,G,RP) | starring Sara Paxton, Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garret Dillahunt, Aaron Paul, Spencer Treat Clark | directed by Dennis Iliadis | 1:50 mins
At their vacation house in the middle of nowhere, John and Emma’s daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) runs off to hang out with her local friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) and the two find themselves meeting up in a hotel with young Justin (Spencer Treat Clark). The rest of Justin’s family (including Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad) show up and having just busted dad (Garret Dillahunt, The Sarah Conner Chronicles) out of prison they kidnap the girls and take them on the run with them. As the escape goes to hell, the girls suffer horrifying fates at the hands of their captors, who leave them to die and take refuge in the closest house they can find – the vacation home of John (Tony Goldwyn) and Emma (Monica Potter).
Wes Craven’s 1972 The Last House on the Left maybe a cult classic for it’s ground-breakingly realistic violence, but it is a film that to be kind doesn’t hold up well and to be perfectly honest is very close to terrible. Decades removed from the original shock you can see what a mess it is, swinging wildly back and forth in tone from horrific rape to a bizarre comic subplot out of The Apple Dumpling Gang in which two bumbling cops hitch a ride on a pig truck. Craven’s “He Haw” choice of music is equally off putting. Take all of that into Dennis Iliadis’ Craven-sanctioned version and you have a remake that is better than the original. If only because it takes the events as deadly seriously as a horror film should.
While remakes usually all get lumped together as “Hollywood”, it is worth noting that Last House is not a Platinum Dunes production (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th) and free of the music video approach, sexual undertones, pornographic blood-lust, anemic screenplays and unnecessarily show-offish cinematography that comes with a Michael Bay production. Iliadis’ movie goes for gritty, preferring to move on a slow burn of suspense. And for the most part, that works for it. It’s the payoffs that don’t quite delivery.
While more developed than the original in just about every way, I still didn’t quite connect with Last House 2009. I trace that back to the characters. They are purely utilitarian. We know that John is a doctor, Mari is a swimmer and Justin is the weakling brother with a conscience because the story needs them to be. This story is based on a deliciously wonderful what-would-you-do story of revenge. How far would you go if you had the chance to punish those that hurt your child? To keep audiences identifying the movie keeps John and Emma hollow enough for the viewer to put themselves in. Worse are the villains. For a revenge movie as nasty as this I need to hate the villains to root for their demise. As heinous as their actions are the movie suffers from the miscasting of Dillahunt as the main baddie. Dillahunt plays more like a guy who is about to bust out a movie quote, crack a one-liner or sell you a used pick-up at a low, low price then a monster. Throw on top of that Justin’s conscience that will clearly tear the group apart and they come off as bumbling fish in a barrel. More hillbillies than a real threat.
Things get off to a promising start when the movie shifts into the revenge section. The first revenge kill is a deliberately set up and paid off one. Idialis holds the suspense string as long as he can before letting it explode in realistically sloppy and brutal bit of violence. From there it kind of goes to hell. The goofy Home Alone traps of the original (just because it was first doesn’t make it any less goofy) are gone, but in their place is sheer chaos and action covered in dark lighting. Not once, but twice, is a fight broken up with a third party busting in with a gun to someone’s head. It is a frenzied and arguably too simple climax in which the slow burn of suspense the film has been building gets completely snuffed out.
Last House is a well made, but empty movie. The insoluble problem the remake faces is that in the years since the original so many other movies have ripped it off, especially in the millenium’s era of torture porn, that it’s hard to shake the feeling we’ve been-here-done-this with the movie. Idialis can craft a suspense set-piece, if only he could have maintained that focus and infused the movie with a blood-boiling burn of patriarchal revenge it so desperately wants. But The Last House on the Left is that rare animal. A remake that is superior to the original.