Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Positively the last house over there
Last House On The Left (2009)
D. Dennis Lliadis
It is really hard to go into a remake of a classic (well kinda classic) film with an open mind. There was a movie critic here in Dayton that a friend and I were talking about recently, that I also had as a teacher a long time who was very wise when it came to reviewing films. People would often talk to him about how a movie should have done this, or been this way or that. But his theory was that have to review the movie presented to you, not the movie you wished you had seen. He called it the movie "within the frame". I'm terrible for that sometimes because being a filmmaker I tend to want to reconstruct things I feel are not working, or in cases like this one, when they are remakes I almost cannot help but to flashback on the originals for a comparison. This was exceptionally difficult while watching the remake of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, because a) it is such a seminal and groundbreaking work in the horror genre, and b) it is a film that I have int he past thought about how I would remake myself. But about midway through this film I found I was able to turn off my brain and find the film "within the frame" and appreciate it for what it was.
The movie at hand is not substantially different from the original LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. The tale is about two teenage girls who end up abducted but a gang of criminals, abused, raped and killed. Then by twist of chance (well not so much in this version) end up spending a night of refuge at the home of one of the girl's parents who figure out what has happened and exact revenge for their daughter. That's the general idea anyway. Well that is really the plot synopsis of the original film, here the movie is about two teenage girls who are captured by a gang of criminals, one is killed, the other is raped and left for dead. Through clever maneuvering on the girl's part it turns out the atrocity took place literally in the woods behind her house. Because the car they had stolen is wrecked the gang go to the first house they come to for help. Not knowing it is the parents of the girl they raped and think is dead. She makes her way back, the parents figure out what has happened, but are basically trapped in this remote summer home with these psychopaths who have hurt their daughter and killed her friend. So they take action. Somewhat in revenge but just as much in defense.
At the end of the day the movie is surprisingly compelling and well made. The trailers that everyone say made the movie look much more cheesy than it actually is. everything is played super straight, with no bullshit humor or over the top theatrics. There is some terrific acting from Tony Goldwin (remember him from GHOST?) and Monica Potter as the parents. The gang isn't bad either though I think Garret Dillahunt was Krug was cast more for his hunk good looks and chiseled chest than anything else. He's fine in the film, but I always felt like he was acting like a badass instead of was a true horrible badass. The girls fare a bit worse, Sarah Paxton is the focus of the film as Mari Collenwood and she basically is a blank slate to me. Martha MacIsaac is most recognisable from her role in SUPERBAD plays the best friend Paige and is much more spunky and identifiable as a character, but is so woefully underwritten that she barely registers at all too. In fact both girls characters are underwritten to the degree that when the bad stuff starts happening I felt less tension than I should have for them. I do however give props to the producers for hiring young actresses that look like actual people and not some cattle call for some WB drama. On that front I liked both girls. They just needed a bit more meat to chew on before their ordeal started. Riki Lindhome as Sadie is basically the sex appeal of the movie as she several times shows her boobs, but she has a unique look to her face that is rather odd and appealing. Once again her character is not really very defined (one minute she is into the rape and killing, the next she seems not to be, but not much is ever said or done with it) which is unfortunate. Though her topless fight scene is appreciated.
What the movie has going for it is that it is a well oiled machine. It gets from point A to point B, to point C economically and swiftly. When it is time to get mean and dirty it doesn't pull too many punches. The pivotal rape scene that the movie should hinge on (more on that in a moment) is there and present and suitably ugly and repulsive. There were 3 walkouts in the theater tonight, making me wish I had went and saw this the weekend it came out in a theater packed with unsuspecting teenagers who thought the wretched FRIDAY THE 13TH remake was the height of terror. I would have righteously enjoyed watching crying teenagers crawl out of the theater because they couldn't handle what they were watching. I give this movie big props for not succumbing to the a post modern, goofy approach to the material. Only once in the final minutes of the movie does it go over the top in a way that most modern films like SAW or HOSTEL do and the scene is clearly something that was added to appease either a studio or test audience who demanded more gore and a more resolute finale. It clearly doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the film at all and in some ways deflates a lot of what has come before it.
So does the film work on its own "within the frame"? Yes actually it does. It is not a great horror film. The characters are a bit too thin, and in my eyes it isn't mean enough. It is meaner than most modern horror films even think about being. But...
It gets way too soft in the last third by having Mari and Justin both survive the events of the night. (Justin being the son of Krug the bad guy). the whole idea of bad things happening to good people is still there and accounted for, but the family ultimately will be okay after this. yes scarred by the incidents, but they survived it. They overcame. And by changing the focus of Mari dying to her living and the parents having to fight off the bad guys because they are more or less trapped in the house changes the film from a rape/revenge horror to a more of a survivalist horror or home invasion horror which is almost a different genre altogether. Which in turn renders the rape almost a mute point. Structurally in the way the movie is set up now there is no real point to the bad guys having raped Mari because the real reason the parents are fighting them is because they are wanting to make it through the night and get their daughter to safety. Revenge is secondary at best. If she had died and the parents sole purpose was to kill them then it becomes a revenge film with all the moral dilemmas that come with it. Which I get the feeling the filmmakers were trying very hard to avoid.
Now the real test. Does it hold up to the original film? Of course not. Though I do not consider the original film a perfect movie by a long shot. It is deeply flawed and has considerable problems. Many of which this remake gets right such as getting rid of the horrid comic relief which sinks the film on several occasions. This time they also get rid of any police characters, another extraneous detail that is simply not needed. They eliminate Krug's son being hooked on heroin. But the biggest elimination is most of the violence during the all important violation of the two girls. In the new film only one of the girl's is raped on only by Krug. The other girl is not raped or molested at all. There is no "piss your pants" moment. There is no carving of the name in the chest. No severed arm. No disembowelment or Sadie playing with the intestines. And most importantly no shots of the gang trying to wipe the blood off their hands of the incident or standing there dazed after the orgy of violence. We DO get Sadie looking kinda bewildered and then it starts to rain and maybe tears streak her eye make up, or maybe it is the rain. That is as close as we get to moral uncertainty for the characters. But there is not an orgy or horror comparable to the original. I'm not saying what is there isn't horrific. It was enough to drive people out of the theater. But comparatively speaking it is weak tea to what we got almost forty years ago.
But with that also comes the fact that this new version really isn't saying anything either. It is arguable that the original is or isn't this big message film about the death and destruction of life in Vietnam (which Craven and Cunningham claim it is). I've never bought that line of thinking. But it is clearly trying to say something on violence, the sudden nature of violence, and how it changes us. How we as humans react to the taking of a life of someone we care about and is it justifiable to react violently to that initiative? I've always found the final scenes of the original LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT to ring false when the cops come in and the parents are suddenly reminded of how vile they have become due to their revenge. Which is why I have always preferred I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE as a revenge film since it doesn't go all soft in the final reel. But I think both films discuss those impulses very well. I think this remake goes well out of its way to sidestep the issue altogether and stack the deck so it doesn't have to deal with it. Which is unfortunate to say the least.
So at the end of the day, it is a decent and entertaining, mean little film. With surprisingly good performances. I can recommend it if you can watch it with the original cleared from your head. which I know is very hard to do.