Does the world need more remakes of 70s horror films? I guess that’s really an irrelevant question, because it seems that they keep on rolling in, need or no. Before seeing this latest in a long line of remakes I was definitely heaving sighs of “no thanks”. Unfortunately, after watching it (in an empty, late night screening no less) I can’t say that the film rose above the rest. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this is the worst of the bunch so far.
The Last House on the Left is a remake of Wes Craven’s 1972 film and in many respects it follows the original faithfully – two girls Mari and Paige) meet a group of dangerous criminals (Krug, his girlfriend Sadie, brother Francis and son Justin) who rape one and murder both, before seeking shelter at a house which turns out to be that of one of the murdered girl’s parents, who, coming to realise who these people are and what they have done, exact a bloody revenge. However, in these modern times who can be satisfied with such straightforwardness? The remake adds in plenty of juicy plot details that lengthen the film considerably: Mari’s father is a doctor (how handy!); Krug is on the run after Sadie and Francis busted him out of a police car; Mari’s older brother died the previous year. Such details also significantly alter how the film works, and one absolutely crucial change – not telling! – radically changes the tone of the film.
It is almost impossible to watch this film without thinking of its predecessor, and whilst its not my favourite film ever, I have to agree with Mark Kermode that Wes Craven’s original (itself based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) is, at the very least, importantly connected to its cultural moment and has interesting (and disturbing) things to say about violence.
For this reason it is crucial that the original is bleak and unpleasant to watch, lacks redemption for its characters and underlines the pointless brutality of violence. I think there is something to be said for a horror film that is genuinely uncomfortable and distressing to watch, not because it is suspenseful but because it invites us to question why we are watching and thus our own relationship to violence. Michael Haneke’s original Funny Games has a similar effect, though maybe not as successful in its cleverness.
Dennis Iliadis’ remake of The Last House on the Left is certainly unpleasant to watch, though only in the way that it is never pleasant to watch people being physically hurt so graphically. The abundance of explanations and extended scenes of brutality (particularly the fight between the father and leader of the criminals, Krug) make this film much like any modern horror film. The violence has a point, for all involved, and is apparently justified by the end.
The pointlessness of all the action in the original film is the most powerful thing about it, and the idea that violence begets violence had (and still has) an important political point, the film being made at when America was suffering violence both at home and abroad with the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War. The justifications in place in the remake, however unpleasant they may be from the criminals’ point of view or deserved from the parents’ perspective, completely alter the tone of the film and way in which these horrible events are seen.
On top of the queasiness of watching all this violence, is the way in which the film seems to be making a point of putting new narrative directions in play to explain why things are happening, and simultaneously trying to follow the blueprint of the original’s horrible meaninglessness. The two things do not mesh, and in some places completely unravel one another.
As such, in light of new information, the rape scene in particular is out of place, and feels as though it is there only because it was in the original (surely criminals on the run, who don’t seem that crazy or pathological, aren’t going to bother with such details).
The ending in particular beggars belief, both in the resolution itself and a little end sequence of violence, which is unnecessarily horrible and completely undermines understanding of the characters. In fact, that ending is one of the primary reasons that this film feels much much worse, technically and morally, than any of the other 70’s remakes and their related sequels (and I’ve seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which is a real stinker let me assure you).
On top of this is the slick and heavily stylised look of the film that further undermines the brutality of all that happens. The rough and raw texture of the original is an important part of the film’s feeling of realness, its connection with news footage and distance from Hollywood product. This feels very much like product, complete with tricksy focus changes and polished soundtrack.
The only good thing I can find to say about the film is the performances, all of which are very good: Gareth Dillahunt (who is excellent as two different characters in HBO’s amazing TV series Deadwood) is appropriately menacing as Krug; Riki Lindhome and Aaron Paul are unpleasant as Sadie and Francis; Monica Potter is convincingly distraught as the mother, Emma Collingwood, as is Tony Goldwyn as the father, John; Sara Paxton has a horrible time as Mari. The half star is for them.
Additional film information: The Last House on the Left (2009)