Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Last House On The Left (2009) Film Review
The Last House On The Left
Reviewed by: Themroc
It’s extremely boring listening to people whinge that things now are not as good as they once were, so I should probably begin this review by stating that I’ve never particularly cared for Wes Craven’s notorious feature debut. In fact, in the past I have purposefully avoided remakes of personally-cherished exploitation films like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or John Carpenter’s original Halloween (1978), precisely because I believed that the originals required little or no improvement. The Last House on the Left (1972), however, was a crudely amateurish and tacky piece of work, the cult reputation of which now rests more on its place as a singularly unpleasant entry in a subsequently successful director’s canon than on any intrinsic value. So, in other words, I volunteered to review the remake not so that I could give it a lazy kicking but because I felt that there was plenty of scope for thoughtful improvement upon the original.
After all, Craven’s film was itself a loose reworking of Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 parable The Virgin Spring – a dramatisation of a traditional folk tale in which the parents of a raped and murdered girl avenge their daughter’s death when her assailants unwittingly seek refuge in their home. But Craven’s take on the story was an ugly, squalid affair which replaced Bergman’s restraint and austerity with the graphic scenes of rape, torture and hyperbolic carnage which were becoming de rigeur in early Seventies low-budget exploitation cinema. His inexperience as a director also led him to undermine much of the material’s potential power by including a completely inappropriate music score (written by one of the actors) and some camp and embarrassingly inept attempts at comic relief.
Rape-revenge films are, in some respects, a problematic sub-genre of violent thriller by their very definition. Structurally, they tend to follow a depressingly predictable dramatic arc which begins with an extended ordeal of prurient sexual violence and then gives the audience cathartic relief through equally protracted and unpleasant scenes of brutal vengeance (usually involving at least one castration). The difference, of course, is that when the (usually female) victim turns the tables upon her tormentors, the audience is being given the kind of righteous sadism it can cheer on and revel in. Untroubled by often justifiable accusations of misogyny and moral hypocrisy, it was not unusual to hear directors of these films responding with the argument that they were actually intended to be somehow empowering to women.
If anything can de drawn from the bleak denouement of Craven’s dubious contribution to this genre, it’s that the parents’ vengeance brings them not catharsis but a grim dehumanisation. Certainly, Craven’s preoccupation with the civilised human being’s potential for regressive savagery would appear to be borne out by his subsequent 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes, which re-addressed this same concern more explicitly. Yet in spite of the fact that both Craven and original producer Sean S Cunningham are listed as producers of Universal Studios’ revamp, the new film never seems interested in going anywhere near this moral grey area.
Indeed, it heads as fast as it can in completely the opposite direction with the unintended result that, despite excising much of the former film’s most graphic content, this glossy, moralistic, big-budget mainstream genre film is, in many ways, even more objectionable than its lurid, low-budget, nakedly exploitative counterpart.
The reason for this (I suspect) is that a decision was made fairly early on that it would be commercially counter-productive to put an audience through an ordeal of rape and violence only to leave them with a feeling of profound existential despair. So, an attempt has been made to shoehorn the narrative’s troubling implications into a traditionally simple-minded morality tale of good and evil, divided into the bland but fundamentally decent middle-class victims and their gloating, sadistic attackers.
The shocking defilement of innocence leads to a brutal deliverance from evil but from that brutality springs not spiritual ruin but the trite prospect of ‘hope’. Not only is the savagery of the vengeance depicted as cathartic and just, but a tiresomely redemptive subplot further implies that it has the capacity to restore a shattered family unit. This reactionary moralising and thoughtless sentimentality, obviously designed to soften the impact of the film’s blow, is, in fact, exactly what makes it such a deeply unpleasant and crassly manipulative piece of work.
Every compromise apparently made with mainstream acceptability in mind compounds the film’s sins further. For instance, although the original film’s villains were indisputably terrible actors, Craven had at least understood the importance of casting genuinely unsavoury-looking people who behaved in a way that was convincingly threatening, primitive and feral. The new villains, on the other hand, appear to have been cast on the basis that if one must spend time in the company of irredeemably unpleasant people, it will be a whole lot easier if they resemble models from a Gap commercial, which creates not only a risible chasm in plausibility but also the feeling that the charcters’ sadism is simply an unconvincing pose on the part of the filmmakers.
Conversely, changes made in the treatment of the two young victims are equally problematic. Craven’s slaughter of the girls was certainly cruel and pitiless, but it was at least even-handed, and one always got the impression that, irrespective of the demands of the plot, the director felt that their lives were both fundamentally worth the same (even though that wasn’t much). But in pursuing its spuriously redemptive arc, the new film places much more importance on the fate and/or survival of the vengeful parents’ daughter, that her friend’s body is discarded with the same callousness the film ostensibly seeks to condemn, as if it was little more than narrative waste.
If Craven’s crummy original had a saving grace, it was that - in spite of its ineptitude and confused nihilism - the filmmaker’s rage felt both genuine and palpable. Craven ended his film on a deliberately downbeat note because he was trying – no matter how incoherently – to say something about the nature of human barbarism. This doesn’t justify his film’s more grotesque excesses but it at least makes them understandable.
This shallow remake, on the other hand, is not remotely interested in engaging audiences in any such conversation, because its existence is the result not of a young artist’s untrammelled aggression, but of a completely impersonal financial calculation (it’s no accident that I have failed to refer to the film’s director once). The upshot is a morally infantile and transparently cynical piece of product put together with slick efficiency in order to cash in on the original’s cult reputation and the current appetite for horror cinema.
Normally that wouldn’t matter. After all, soulless remakes of old films – both good and bad – abound, and their existence doesn’t especially trouble me one way or the other. But The Last House On The Left is different. Were it not a remake, I suspect that a big studio like Universal would be highly unlikely to ever greenlight subject matter as nasty and unreconstructed as this, so there’s something additionally unpleasant about the way in which this harrowing story of a brutal murder/rape and its consequences are being aggressively pitched at a mainstream audience used to getting its thrills from more conventionally escapist stalk and slash tomfoolery.
It’ll be interesting to see how well this film does once all the DVD evidence is in. It may be that mainstream audiences conclude that watching a young woman being held down and sodomised at knifepoint is a rather different prospect to enjoying the latest brainless instalment of, say, the Final Destination franchise. If, on the other hand, they flock to it in droves, then I suppose we can expect the rumoured reworking of Meir Zarchi’s equally notorious 1978 rape-revenge “classic” I Spit On Your Grave in pretty short order.Reviewed on: 11 Jun 2009