REVIEW: The Last House on the Left

Friday, March 13 by

What would you do if bad people raped and left your daughter for dead?  So spouts the basic message of the trailer for The Last House on the Left, and apparently, from the few clips shown, the answer is to kill them in as cinematically gruesome ways as possible (if it’s funny, that’s a plus).  Wes Craven’s original back in 1972 answered this question by showing us what completely disturbed, depraved, and downright terrifying places a human could go if pushed hard enough.  This remake misses the point – most of the killings wind up feeling like those clichés designed only to make you laugh and maybe cringe a little, but hardly ever scare you, and certainly not disturb you.  This much-hyped remake is something of a dud, and you can check out exactly why after the jump.

Killer Opening
The movie doesn’t start off all that bad, actually – in the dark of the woods, inside a cop car with two cops jabbering away, deaf to the pleas from the prisoner who just needs to take a piss.  They stop at a railroad track and as the train whooshes by, a pickup whooshes straight into the driver’s side door.  The driver is basically dead, and the passenger bleeding so much he can barely breathe.  The prisoner, for some reason completely unharmed, is freed, and before him and his two rescuers head off into the night, he takes the time to break the man’s neck while forcing him to look at a picture of his family.  The scene is tense, taut, and chilling, unaided by any overt soundtrack, freed from those ADD quick camera cuts that are the hallmark of so many horror films – we watch, and hear, as the prisoner wraps the seatbelt around the wounded cop’s head and squeezes until the neck snaps – breaking us into an entirely different world, a watery blue one, observing a young teenager swimming laps in a pool, timed by her mother nearby, refusing to stop swimming until Mom calls it a day.

Bestest Vacation Ever!
The teenager is Mari Collingwood, and the mom is Emma, and along with the father, John, they’re both about to head to their house in the mountains for a relaxing vacation.  Once there, Mari heads into town to meet up with an old friend Paige so her mother and father can have some alone time.  They go to the motel of a boy named Justin, who gives them free weed for having let him buy cigarettes.  Before too long, though, into the room burst three familiar faces: the cop killers from the beginning of the movie: Krug and Francis (Justin’s father and Uncle), and Sadie.  After a scuffle they take them to the woods in Mari’s borrowed van, and after a failed escape attempt that makes the van crash.   Not long after that Mari is raped by Krug in front of Justin’s horrified eyes after he refused to do it himself, while Paige is brutally murdered in front of her with a single knife well-placed to a few spots in her torso to ensure she dies slowly.  After the rape, Mari manages to escape and run to the lake, swimming about halfway out before she’s shot in the back by her pursuers from the shore, who leave her out there, making their way to a nearby house for shelter from an oncoming storm, a house which just happens to be holding Mari’s two parents.  When the parents discover who these people are, nothing will stop them from taking out their rage on the murderers.

Rising above the cliches
Up until the point John and Emma make the discovery, the film gives us a nice, slow, easy buildup, neither quickening the story for the sake of getting to the gore nor dragging it on endlessly to hide the fact that there’s so little red stuff, because there is plenty of it.  Rather, the slow buildup allows us to get to know the characters so that we actually care about what happens to them and root for the “good guys” when chunks of bone and blood do start to fly.  The film is also helped by performances that are significantly above average for a horror flick, especially the main villain Krug, played by Garret Dillahunt, who gives him a touch of fatherly sensitivity towards Justin and a mean streak of ruthlessness for anyone who gets in his way, both of these coupled with an insanity swimming just below the surface.  Sara Paxton as Mari brings a tough edge to her role as the token stupid teenager, never once playing her like a ditz or some kind of bimbo just asking for it, but a strong, independent 17-year old caught up in the evils of the world that come knocking on her backdoor.  Superbad’s Martha MacIsaac’s entire role as Paige is kind of pointless, and she never rises above it.  Monica Potter as Emma is perfectly motherly, and shares excellent chemistry with Paxton, and even though the same can’t be said for Tony Goldwyn as Mari’s father, he plays a good protector of the house, a man willing to do absolutely anything to the people who hurt or want to hurt his family.

Gory? Sure. Scary? Well, here and there.
And now, for the gore.  Ah, the gore. So prevalent, and yet so often mind-numbingly dull.  It is in this aspect that LHOTL falters, for in precisely the moments where it should be making us cringe and choke back the laughter in our throats in horror, it cheapens it to the point of some kind of Saw kill. (If you haven’t heard about the microwave scene, google it – it’s hilarious.)  As the whole point of the movie is about what these people will do to these strangers who raped and left their daughter for dead, you would think the scenes where the parental figures go on a rampage would be easy territory for dark and disturbing stuff, but you’d be wrong.  The first kill in the movie involves a sink filled with water, forced drowning, a hand, a garbage disposal, and a hammer lodged into a skull, flat side out. It’s visceral, intense, and kind of difficult to watch, made all the more terrifying because it’s the husband and wife’s first kill, and they’re awkward yet forceful, terrified yet determined, and yes, pissed off as hell.  After this, though, the kills get progressively more boring, and it turns into a dark cat-and-mouse game that we’ve seen a thousand times before.  Oh sure, people get beat up a lot (A LOT), but if we’re supposed to be plumbing the dark psychological depths of these characters and how depraved they can become, how far can we go with punches and smashed furniture?

So should you watch it?
Not very far is the answer, not very far at all.  Too bad, because the film has many strengths and even adds some nice touches to the story too, such as Justin’s relationship with Krug serving as a twisted parallel to Mari’s relationship with her parents (not aided by a constantly blubbering, sobbing, nearly mute Spencer Treat Clark as Justin, but still, the effort should be acknowledged, and he does have some moments).  Suffice it to say, a worthy remake of Wes Craven’s creepy disturbing classic this is not, but a halfway decent, above average horror flick it is.

5/10

-Thomas Anderson
aka MovieBuzzReviewDude. Check out his movie/media/pop culture blog here.

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