Wes Craven's 1971 cult shocker 'The Last House on the Left' remains one of the most notorious American movies of its era. It was widely labeled depraved, lacking in any redeeming social value, and an incitement to violence, and make no mistake, it is without a doubt cheaply made, amateurish, and often poorly written, acted, scored and photographed. Yet it remains, upon closer examination, a deeply moral film. Based (very) loosely on Ingmar Bergman's 'The Virgin Spring,' Craven used Bergman's basic scenario -- that of a quartet of thugs who murder a pair of teenage girls, only to unwittingly find themselves held captive at the home of one of the girl's parents, who exact a bloody revenge -- to take a bold stance against the growing desensitization of American culture to the then-fresh atrocities coming out of Vietnam (particularly the inherently false depictions of violence in mainstream cinema), as well as the notion that vigilantism can, in any form, prove a noble means for justice.
Unfortunately, for much of today's new generation of horror fans, just the very words 'The Last House on the Left' conjure up ideas of transgressive onscreen violence and brutality, if little memory of its import -- in other words, a guaranteed big opening weekend for a studio by virtue of title only. So, of course, we were destined to receive a redo. But, as is the depressing truth with just about every "reimagining" I've seen lately, here comes yet more dressed-up nostalgia, made by filmmakers who are certainly able to put ever-more-realistic visions of sadism onscreen but seem to possess little understanding of what made the beloved movies they are ripping off so powerful and resonant in the first place. This is another remake entirely lacking in context, and one that has absolutely nothing new to say about the nature of violent impulses in our culture.
The story of the new 'Last House' is more or less the same as the original -- a xerox that seems to think merely repeating the plot will achieve the same integrity. Again, we get two likable teenage girls, smart Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton) and the rather-more-dippy Paige (Martha MacIsaac), who stumble into the path of four wanton escaped criminals. And it's quite a team: there's mastermind Krug (Garret Dillahunt), the greasy Francis (Aaron Paul), some dirty chick named Sadie (Riki Lindhome, who is particularly fond of bad blue eyeshadow), and Krug's shy son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark). Aside from the reluctant Krug Jr., they appear to love to kill, brutalize, and rape merely for the fun of it. Continuing to adhere to the original, after minimal set-up Krug and company will take poor Mari and Paige out to the woods, where they will kill Paige, then assault and rape Mari, shoot her and leave her for dead.
It is here, however, that the remake makes its main deviation from the original. In this version, Mari (who is now an accomplished swimmer) makes it back to the country home of her parents, the affluent doctor John Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn) and Emma (Monica Potter), barely alive. (In the original, she dies.) Only hours earlier, however, Krug and friends already found solace with the Collingwoods, who are unaware of the true nature of their visitors. But, through one utterly stupid "clue" -- which doesn't even truly implicate Krug and his posse in what the parents think may have happened to their daughter -- they turn on a dime and become utterly viscous, taking "revenge" on Krug in such over-the-top violent fashion that any credibility the film may have aimed for is completely thrown out the window.
Now (spoiler alert: skip the next three paragraphs), here's where 'Last House on the Left' descends into run-of-the-mill torture porn. The original was certainly pretty messy in terms of structure, character, and plotting, but the remake is even more narratively incompetent, because without attempting any of the cultural context as the kind Craven was working in, it is unable to carve out a distinguishable theme or moral viewpoint of its own. Take the key scene in the original, where we are led to believe Sadie, Krug and Weasel (renamed Francis here for no discernible reason) may actually have a glimmer of remorse after the rape of Mari. This was a pivotal moment -- a direct metaphorical comment on where America stood politically at the time on the Vietnam war, and by association, how neutered movie violence (which was mostly still of the painless, "bang bang, you're dead, no blood" of sentimental Westerns and war flicks) continued to foster our denial of the actual atrocities that were being committed. But like so much in the remake, now it's a story thread that is never developed and goes nowhere -- the killers simply revert back to their cardboard archetypes. The new 'Last House' only knows how to take scenes like this from the original and simply repeat them, sans clear thematic intention.
Also botched is the reversal of the parents, with the script offering extremely weak explanation for their sudden bloodlust. Because Mari is still alive, and the parents have no knowledge of Paige's murder, the movie asks us to accept that Emma and John will torture three individuals, despite the fact that they don't actually know which one (if any) actually raped their daughter. On top of that, the parents let the Justin character live, again without knowing exactly what part he played in the the crime (what if he had actually raped Mari!?) So, then, what is the point of their "retribution?" Are they just stupid idiots who jumped the gun? Is John some closet mad surgeon who secretly gets off on sharp instruments? And, in one particularly queasy story addition to the new version, it turns out that the Collingswood recently lost a son to accidental tragedy, so the implied "adoption" of Justin at the film's end seems to suggest that the family is simply going to swap one son for a new one. Again, like so many of the remake's story ideas, it's so unfocused an idea in its realization that it's more puzzling than intriguing.
But where the new 'Last House' thoroughly debases itself in mindless sadism -- a charge, ironically, still leveled at the original -- is in its extension of the final act of retribution to absurd lengths. Craven had the parents dispatch his Krug clan fairly quickly. Yes, it was still very Grand Guignol, but the parents' actions had to as awful as Krug's murder of the two girls to make Craven's point -- that "eye for an eye" is indeed exactly that, and what claim can one make to moral superiority if victim becomes perpetrator? Here, because director Dennis Illiadis stages the gore so over-the-top and audience-pleasing (really, what should we make of the absurd idea of an exploding head in an open microwave?), the new 'Last House' is far more of an incitement to violence than the original. The remake can hardly lay claim to being a genuine examination of the human impulse for violence when it only revels in it for the sake of box office and cheap thrills. It also never makes the association between the parents' retribution and any moral uncertainity. I guess, in the worldview of this remake, you can murder anyone you want, regardless of the crime or even a necessity for proof.
Yes, the remake of 'Last House on the Left' is a superior film to the original in terms of technical proficiency. The acting, the photography, the score and the production design are all slick and, in some cases, impressive. But so what? Anyone these days can slick up gore to make it look good, or stage a stalk-and-slash to milk a bit of suspense from the audience. What I find offensive about the 2009 version of 'The Last House on the Left' is that, ultimately, it is about very little -- it's utterly unambitious. In this day and age of wholesale movie brutality, when we've been assaulted by the 'Saw' and 'Hostel' flicks, the mere act of putting boundary-pushing violence on the screen is no longer subversive, as it was when the original 'Last House' was made. Craven, to his great credit, never made the horrors in his film "fun" -- as he has said on numerous occasions, his entire point in transgressing the bounds of acceptable cinematic imagery was to challenge audiences, hoping that if they were finally to see a real murder on-screen, it would be anything but a good time. As crude as it may be, the original 'Last House' was a work of aspiration, and one that at least attempted to stand for something. The new 'Last House' doesn't seem to give a shit about anything at all.
Whatever you think of the original 'Last House on the Left,' you can't say it was a visual masterpiece. While the new 'Last House' does not quite qualify, either, it is a good-looking movie that is leaps and bounds more polished and technically competent than the original. This 1080p/VC-1 encode (1.85:1) looks pretty good, if artificial. (Both theatrical and unrated versions are provided via seamless branching.)
The source is, as you would expect for a new release, pristine. Unfortunately, the post-processing on this transfer is way tweaked. I saw the film theatrically, and it had a much more natural, film-like look. Here, whites are way bumped to the point that contrast flattens. Blacks also could have been richer, which also dampens fine detail and depth. Sharpness is good, not great, while the color palette has an odd bluish edge to it that further undermines realism. Compression artifacts are not an issue, though there is a surprising amount of noise to the picture. If this is the filmmakers' vision than fair enough, but it feels noticeably different that the theatrical look, and given the intended gritty subject matter, the glossiness of this presentation does not do the film any favors.
'Last House on the Left' sounds good, presented here in DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit).
As with the visuals, this is a slick studio movie. Dynamics are full-bodied, with a clean sound, clear highs, and adequate low bass. Balance of dialogue is nice, as is the score -- which, though not really appropriate to the material in my opinion (it's actually too pretty) -- sounds very warm and pleasing. Unfortunately, surrounds fall flat. I wanted much more ambiance, with both discrete effects and minor atmosphere lacking. 'Last House on the Left' never delivers any true sonic punch to the gut, though I can't say it sounds bad.
This Blu-ray is a disappointment. Though I'm not much of a fan of this remake, I would still have been interested to hear the filmmakers' reasoning behind the choices they made, as well as the reactions of the producers of the original film, Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham. Alas, no such insight appears here. Universal has just dumped a few promo items on this disc -- a shame.
'Last House on the Left' is another disappointing remake of a '70s horror cult classic. But this one is a particular letdown, as the original -- as crude as it -- remains a powerful story so ripe with potential for a modern update. Alas, this retool offers no context, apparent theme or much of a hint of true cinematic intelligence -- it's just more generic, self-congratulatory brutality. This Blu-ray looks and sounds very good, if devoid of any meaningful extras. I guess you can still give 'Last House on the Left' a rent just to form you're own opinion about it, but I thought this was a crap flick given little more than the obligatory Blu-ray treatment by Universal.