March 11, 2009

Last House on the Left, The

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Last House on the Left, The

THRILLER/HORROR:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-03-13

Running Length:

1:40

MPAA Classification:

R (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Sara Paxton, Garret Dillahunt, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul, Spencer Treat Clark, Martha MacIsaac

Director:

Dennis Illiadis

Screenplay:

Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, based on the screenplay by Wes Craven

Cinematography:

Sharone Meir

Music:

John Murphy

U.S. Distributor:

Rogue Pictures

Subtitles:

none


In a graphic example of how creatively bankrupt Hollywood has become, it's no longer good enough merely to remake older films - now the studios have begun to remake remakes. 1972's The Last House on the Left, the first feature effort of Wes Craven, was a reworking of Ingmar Bergman's controversial 1960 picture, The Virgin Spring, which captured the 1961 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The third version of the story, which sticks more closely to the 1972 edition than its predecessor, is helmed by Greek filmmaker Dennis Illiadis, who has only one previous credit to his name. 2009's The Last House on the Left is a more accomplished movie than Craven's 1972 film - the technique exhibits sophistication, the screenplay is smoother, and the tone is less erratic. The wheels fall off toward the end but, until that point, Illiadis does an excellent job of generating and maintaining an intense sense of dread.

This is an uncompromising film. It is unapologetically violent, to the point where those who are upset by screen brutality will have a tough time sitting through it. It features one of the most upsetting rape scenes committed to film (behind only Irreversible and The War Zone). The MPAA's decision to award an R to The Last House on the Left is yet another example of how flawed the U.S. classification system is. If anything is deserving of an NC-17 for adults-only content, this is it. The violence is not cartoonish or in any way sanitized; it is grim and gut-wrenching. Nothing is spared. Consider, for example, a scene featuring a hand and an in-sink garbage disposal. There's no need to use your imagination regarding what happens - the movie shows it in bloody detail.

The film begins with the Collingwood family arriving at their lakeside summer home for a vacation. Once, there were four, but the son has been dead for a year. Now, there's only John (Tony Goldwyn), Emma (Monica Potter), and their 17-year old daughter, Mari (Sara Paxton). On the first night there, Mari decides to go out for a night on the town with her friend, Paige (Martha MacIsaac). The two meet a shy, disheveled guy named Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), who invites them back to his motel room to smoke some weed. While they're there, Justin's traveling companions arrive: his father, Krug (Garret Dillahunt); his uncle, Frank (Aaron Paul); and his father's girlfriend, Sadie (Riki Lindome). They kidnap Mari and Paige, killing the latter and raping and seriously injuring the former. They then leave her for dead. In the wake of a car accident and with a violent storm approaching, the four murderers seek refuge at the only nearby house which, unbeknownst to them, is occupied by Mari's parents.

The movie's center act is The Last House on the Left's best part. The first third of the film is at times difficult to watch and the climax descends into abject, cliché-strewn silliness (with a final scene that is as dumb as it is gratuitous). But the middle portion is masterfully executed, with a buildup of tension worthy of Hitchcock. We, the omniscient audience, know who all the characters are and what the four newcomers are capable of (even though they seem perfectly civilized upon their entrance into the house). But the killers don't realize they are enjoying the hospitality of their victim's parents, and John and Emma don't know that their daughter is on death's door and those who put her there are under the same roof.

Ultimately, this is a revenge thriller not a horror film and, like many movies of the genre, it raises questions about the morality of how the director manipulates the audience into rooting for the deaths of characters. It's this slippery slope that was questioned in Funny Games, which displayed contempt for this kind of motion picture as mass entertainment. Illiadis is a master of playing his audience. When the good guys start fighting back, the audience lets out a rousing cheer. While not dissimilar to the reaction Craven strove for in 1972, it's much different from the emotions elicited by the vengeance in The Virgin Spring. Bergman's view of violence was darker and more somber, and not in any way like the rousing experience provided by The Last House on the Left.

Do I recommend the film? It's a tough call. There is much to admire about the production, and it held my attention for its entire length. Viewed from a detached perspective, it is well-made. The camera work is top notch and the movie never resorts to the quick cutting that has become the bane of too many thrillers. The actors do solid jobs. And the film is taut and arresting. There are serious credibility problems with the ending. In his zeal to give the audience too much, Illiadis goes over-the-top. Characters do stupid things for no reason other than that they are driven to do so by the screenplay. And, as is often the case in thrillers, human beings become superhuman. They can survive being cracked over the head with fire extinguishers and fireplace pokers and still keep fighting.

Some, however, will view The Last House on the Left as morally bankrupt and reprehensible, and I can understand that point-of-view. I am not comfortable with the idea of depicting a brutal rape for the purpose of getting viewers to despise characters so their eventual comeuppance can be cheered. I suspect that hard-core horror fans, who can view torture porn without blinking or considering its ethical ramifications, will revel in what Illiadis has crafted. Other viewers are advised to stay away. This film is only for those who go in with open eyes and understand what they're in for. The Last House on the Left is hard to like, but difficult to forget.

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