Another week, another remake of an old horror movie, splatter-enhanced of course. This time it’s Wes Craven’s 1972 “The Last House on the Left”—perhaps not a horror movie in the conventional “Frankenstein” sense, but certainly horrific in the mold of, say, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Craven’s movie—a nasty bit of business about for on-the-lam thugs who rape and kill two girls before having justice meted out to them by the parents of one of the victims—was pretty vile in its own right, although some analysts try to defend it as a gruesome commentary on class conflict in America. The narrative, filched from Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” is thin but gruesomely direct. The scummy quartet abduct, rape and kill two naïve teen girls out on the town for a fling. Circumstance eventually brings the malefactors to the home of one of the victims, and her parents take out their vengeance on the killers. There’s a sort of unsettling role reversal at work here, but what Craven means to argue by it is never articulated, and the level of repulsiveness is so great (even by today’s standards) and the comic juxtapositions so incongruous that the picture remains very difficult to take.
The new “House” makes some changes in the story, some to make it more serious—the black humor is nowhere to be found—but others designed to make it less grimly downbeat and, in the end, more palatable. Most notably in that regard, one of the gang of four, the lead murderer’s son, is a troubled, sympathetic character, and the fate of the couple’s daughter, while still awful, is more hopeful. (Her rape, though, is again depicted in an extremely graphic fashion that, along with the violence in the last reel, makes this a very hard R indeed. Any parent who takes a youngster to see the picture would really be guilty of child abuse.) But the essentials are retained, and the result (with its more sophisticated effect) is equally stomach-churning.
Some may consider that a virtue—as the squeals of delight from the preview audience as the girl’s parents went about their vengeful rampage suggest—but one can only wonder about a society that takes enjoyment from the depiction of such mayhem. Matters are made worse, not better, by the fact that, like the original, this picture is quite efficient simply in cinematic terms. Director Dennis Iliadis, aided by Sharone Miller’s expert cinematography and Peter McNulty’s crisp editing, proves quite accomplished in ratcheting up the tension, and his cast is far more professional than one usually finds in such fare. As the wronged family, Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter and Sara Paxton are quite good, with Goldwyn and Potter capturing the normal give-and-tyke of a couple in the early scenes and then vacillating credibly from helpful compassion to queasy revenge in the later reels (though even they find it hard to sustain the extremely prolonged and elaborate battle scenes with the villains). Paxton is even better in portraying a girl brutalized in the most horrible ways. As the trio of adult villains, Garret Dillahunt, Aaron Paul and Riki Lindhome haven’t the same degree of authenticity; in fact, there’s an almost cartoonish quality about them, though Dillahunt does manage to be menacing after the fashion of Patrick Bergin in “Sleeping With the Enemy.” But as his son, Spencer Treat Clark evinces a rather touching vulnerability.
Still the very effectiveness of “The Last House on the Left”—apart from a concluding bit of revenge that goes over-the-top into “Scanners” or “The Fury” territory (and wasn’t that microwave broken?)—is what should give us the greatest pause. In “Funny Games” Michael Haneke essentially used the devices of this genre to criticize it for its voyeuristic excesses, its amoral pandering to the audience’s worst instincts—and ripped the rug from beneath the feet of those who lusted after violent retribution in the process. Movies like this one are blissfully unaware of the sorts of concerns he expressed, or at least are willing to ignore them in the pursuit of profit. When you get right down to it, this new “House” is torture-porn in which the worm turns, and since it’s well-made it’s not only viscerally gripping but will satisfy the simple emotional longing of spectators to give the evildoers their due. What that means morally for those who mete out the “justice,” however, goes unexplored. And those consequences are important. Without taking them into account—and lacking even the alleged subtext of Craven’s original—this picture becomes, even more than the 1972 one, a pure exercise in sadism unencumbered by any larger concerns.
For what it is, therefore, “The Last House on the Left” is effective. The problem lies in what it is.