Spoiler Warning: This review contains important plot elements from both the 2009 and 1972 versions of "The Last House on the Left."
Wes Craven's grindhouse classic "The Last House on the Left" gave audiences a little more than they could stomach in 1972, and that was exactly what the director intended. Working with independent producer Sean S. Cunningham (who would later earn cult fame for directing "Friday the 13th"), Craven pushed the boundaries of acceptable film content to make a nightmare movie that presented graphic violence in a confrontational and realistic manner beyond what mainstream audiences were comfortable with. Today, popular horror movies contain a level of realism and sadistic detail that distressingly makes Craven's debut film look tame by comparison. Therefore, the notion of remaking Craven's controversial and, for better or for worse, influential movie seems rather pointless and like yet another attempt to cash in on the success of an older film. But there is surprisingly more substance here than one would immediately expect to find, and with Craven and Cunningham backing this remake, it might be said that they are attempting to refine what amounted to a very ambitious amateur film in the 1970s.
Lifting its plot from Ingmar Bergman's 1960 medieval tale "The Virgin Spring," "Last House" is set into motion when 17-year-old Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton) leaves her parents' lakeside summer house to visit her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac). The two girls meet Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), a boy their age who lures them away by promising them some premium marijuana. Back at his hotel, they are met by his father Krug (Garret Dillahunt), a murderer who just escaped from prison with help from his equally sadistic brother Francis (Aaron Paul) and girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome). Believing the girls may turn them in, the gang abducts them and decides to leave town. During their drive through a forest not far from Mari's parents' home, the girls make an attempt to escape. They are caught and alternately stabbed, raped, shot at, and left for dead in the woods.
As a storm looms over, the criminal gang heads to the only nearby house for shelter, unaware that their hosts are John and Emma Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter), Mari's parents. The unknowing couple takes them in and allows them to stay in their guest house overnight. Later that night, they discover their half-dead daughter and learn that their guests are her attackers. With no car (Mari took it when she left the house) and their phone lines down, John and Emma take it upon themselves to seek out brutal revenge on Krug and his gang or else risk becoming their next victims.
With the exception of a few details, this remake follows the basic plot of the original film pretty faithfully. It goes without saying, however, that in almost every way the new film is technically superior to the shoestring-budget original. While it can be argued that Craven's cinéma vérité aesthetic greatly added to that film's visceral impact, its technical shortcomings and now dated aspects stick out like a sore thumb, distracting from the otherwise potent story. Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth's updated screenplay is more tightly structured than Craven's, more believably connecting the story's two halves and providing a stronger justification for the film's title (which was selected for promotional reasons and had little to do with the original movie). The new cast is also quite adept. Much of the power of the attack scenes in the forest is derived from the young actresses' believable states of horror and distress. Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter are particularly effective as the parents, far outweighing their 1972 counterparts, who were always the weakest links of the original cast. The one drawback may be that this Krug and company lack the unique charisma of the older pack (led by the effortlessly frightening David Hess), but as our main identification has been shifted from the assailants to the parents, this is only a minor complaint.
But the greatest strength of this update is the way director Dennis Iliadis and the screenwriters have made it relevant to our current perspective on violence. Craven's version was very much a product of the early 70s, reactionary and ideologically confused. Just as the peace movement of the 60s stood in sharp contrast to the graphic content that pervaded television coverage of the Vietnam War, so Craven juxtaposed the depraved sadism of his film with trippy dippy music and goofball comedy that suggested a world unprepared for, vulnerable to, and ultimately corruptible by violence. His approach ranged from broadly sardonic to frighteningly realistic, leaving audiences unsure whether to laugh or cower away (the end result was generally one of sustained nausea). In 2009, violence is more pervasive in our everyday lives, a common subject of conversation and a staple in our media. While we still desire peace, we bear the marks of wounded soldiers and know that this is not so easily achieved.
Unlike the rather square family in Craven's original, the Collingwoods in the remake are not so blissfully naïve to outside danger. Still coping with the death of their son a year earlier, they are already touched by a sense of loss from the very beginning, which has perhaps put them in survival mode. This is most obvious in Emma's reluctance to allow Mari to leave home in the first place, wanting desperately to keep the family intact. When she and John discover what has happened to their daughter, their vengeance is not sparked solely by the shock of this blow to their family unit but also by an instinctive drive for self preservation that has no doubt been intensified since their son's death. Fittingly, the clue that tips them off to her attackers' identity is not the peace sign medallion of the original film but a necklace bearing an inscription by her brother.
The parents' revenge, then, is much less sensational and less calculated this time around. Instead of "Home Alone" style booby traps, a full-on chainsaw attack, and castration by fellatio, at their most brutal John and Emma resort to a spur-of-the-moment use of the garbage disposal. An important distinction from the original film is that the parents now remain fearful and completely aware that what they are doing is horrible throughout their attack. As these nice people go from unassuming good Samaritans to avenging hunters, we side with them but are nevertheless horrified by the ugliness that comes out of them. Craven's film apparently tried to equate the Collingwoods' violent retaliation to the earlier violence of the killers in order to reveal the overall indignity of violence in response to a war nobody wanted. While noble, he ultimately failed, first by drawing a black-and-white landscape in which killing out of desperation is the same as killing for thrills, and second by making Krug and his gang more fully formed and in some ways more reflective of their own actions than the parents. Iliadis' version is superior in that it makes clear the conflicting justification and degradation of the retaliation, establishing a grayer level of morality.
In the end, the family is restored, but their happiness is not. They are bruised and defiled both physically and psychologically. This is the complex nature of their violence. Unlike their demented assailants, the family acts out of necessity and self-defense, saving their lives but losing a part of their humanity in the process. In a much debated final shot, Krug is killed off in a seemingly cathartic last act of extreme violence. What happens in this scene has been denounced by critics and viewers alike as both thematically nonsensical and physically impossible. Indeed, it seems to be artificially tacked on and is narratively confusing. But if we examine it within the context of its placement in the film, just after we see the family heading back to civilization, silently and serenely, we may interpret the concluding shot not as an actual event but as a twisted fantasy. The once peaceful Collingwoods' participation in this degrading war, while justified, has forever left them with dark fantasies and suspicions, a symptom that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Universal's DVD transfer of "The Last House on the Left" is generally top-notch all around. Released in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture quality is clear and without visible blemish. Colors are slightly muted throughout, but this is the intentional look. In spite of the ugly content of the film, there is some beautiful cinematography throughout, especially at the beginning of the film, and this transfer showcases it to great effect. Black levels are deep, and contrast is fine.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track does a nice job distributing the sound effects and music. Voices are clear throughout. While this film is not as reliant on sudden bursts of sound as a typical slasher film, there are a few such jolts, and their shocking effect is intact. Alternate French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are available, as well as English (SDH), French, and Spanish subtitles.
In addition to the R-rated theatrical version of this film, Universal has seen fit to include an unrated version through seamless branching. Lasting four minutes longer, the unrated version has few noticeable differences. The only thing that stood out to me was the rape scene in the woods, which is already quite graphic and horrific as it was, but goes on a little longer in the unrated version.
As far as supplemental features go, Universal offers nothing of great quality. Nine minutes of deleted scenes/outtakes and a three-minute promo featuring Craven, Cunningham, and Iliadis repeating the original film's famous tagline ("To avoid fainting, keep repeating, 'It's only a movie...only a movie...'") are all we get. It would have been nice to have had more commentary from Craven and Cunningham about their approach to the remake, especially after all they have offered on the original film, but no such luck.
The remake of "The Last House on the Left," like its 1972 predecessor, is a nasty, uncomfortable movie to watch. Its violence may not be as visually grisly as what we see in the "Saw" or "Hostel" franchises, but its emotional impact is much stronger. This movie will not appeal to all tastes, but during a wave of pointless and heartless retreads of older material, this brings a surprising improvement over the original.