Jun 13, 2009

Versions: Last House on the Left

This article contains pictures you may find disturbing.

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972 / 2009)

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The first version of Last House on the Left was made by Wes Craven, it was the horror auteur’s first film, and remains his most grueling; a film unlike any other he’s ever made. The new version has been produced by Craven and Sean Cunningham (the Friday the 13th director who also produced the original) and is directed by Danish filmmaker Dennis Iliadis.

Both versions have essentially the same story, taken by Craven from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Mari Collingwood and her more worldly friend (Phyllis in the original, Paige in the remake) are planning a night on the town, but when they stop off to get some marijuana they find themselves kidnapped by recently escaped convict Krug and his extended family of psychos. Unsure what to do with the girls, the gang takes them to the local woods, where they torture rape and kill them. The gang’s car has broken down, so after their crime they have to go to the only nearby house for help - the house of Mari’s parents. After feeding the killers, and offering them a room for the night, Mari’s parents discover their crime and take bloody revenge.

the last house on the left [1972]
dir: Wes Craven
cast: David Hess, Sandra Cassel, Lucy Grantham,
Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler

Wes Craven has only ever made one film that isn’t broadly within the horror genre, and many of his films deal explicitly in blood and gore, yet he walked out of a preview screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino was incredulous, saying he couldn’t believe that the man who made Last House on the Left had walked out of his film. Craven replied that he had left Reservoir Dogs (during the scene in which Mr Blonde cuts off a cop's ear) because he felt that it was presenting the violence for its own sake, asking the audience to enjoy it and revel in it.

That walkout and that explanation of it are perhaps the key to Last House on the Left, for this is a film that is entirely about violence, a film that dwells in violence to a deeply discomforting degree, and features one of the most disturbingly realistic sequences of murder ever put on screen. What Last House never does though, even as the parents of a murdered girl take righteous vengeance, is ask us to embrace or enjoy its violence. Indeed the whole film has a seedy feel about it. Even as it ends it doesn’t present violence as a solution as much as it does a perverting force, something that makes monsters of us all.

This feeling doesn’t make Last House fun to watch, but it certainly gives the film impact. The murder sequence in the woods is horribly extended, taking up perhaps a third of the film’s brief running time, and from beginning to end you get the hideous sensation that you are watching something real. Much of this feeling can be put down to the very lack of experience that cast and crew brought to the film. Craven was 30 at the time and had been an editor on a couple of films, but he had never shot a frame before making Last House. This shows in the raw, almost documentary like, shooting style of the movie. Most of the shots feel uncoreographed and messy, as if the camera had just stumbled on these awful events and captured them as they unfolded. The script was only skeletal, and it is obvious, particularly in this mid-section, that most of the dialogue was improvised. The gang’s stray observations and exhortations to one another during the sequence in the woods lend a disturbing edge of reality to proceedings, despite the lack of sophistication in the filmmaking.

The performances in Last House are a mixed bag, of course that’s what you’re going to get with a cast of non-actors, agents and adult film players, but there are a few really stand out turns among them. Everyone talks about David Hess' performance as Krug and he’s pretty good; his size alone makes him imposing, and there’s a nonchalance about him that makes his behavior really frightening. However, Hess is upstaged in the villain stakes by Fred Lincoln. Lincoln, a porn star, had easily the most on camera experience of the Last House cast, and it shows. As Weasel he gets to a place of pure evil, similar to Michael Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Lincoln often plays the clown, as in an early scene where he taunts the girls, but he also has the ability to credibly turn on a dime from comic to deeply unhinged. It’s subtle work, often played in Weasel’s chillingly dead eyes, and the scariest thing in the film.

In the case of the girls Sandra Cassel, as Mari (who doesn’t appear to have done much since Last House) comes off best. In the scenes with Mari’s parents, despite the awful dialogue, she’s charming and during the grueling scenes in the woods she’s incredibly affecting. That, apparently, is largely down to the fact that she was genuinely terrified of the gang, especially Hess. Both Craven and the cast have said that they used that fact to make the scenes more real (Hess says that during the rape scene, to terrify Cassel into a performance, he turned to Craven and said “Can I?”). There’s a telling touch as the gang begins to torment the girls, making them strip, and Lucy Gantham, in clearly improvised line meant more for Cassel than for Mari, says “It’s just you and me here”. It may come out of real terror, but Cassel’s haunted performance is much of the reason that sequence works.

Though much of the filmmaking is clunky and shows the extreme inexperience of the filmmakers Wes Craven does still manage to pull out a couple of stylish and resonant shots. The long held scene of Mari’s rape - with Hess pressing his face into Cassel’s - is hideously memorable; a dream sequence in which Weasel is tormented by Mari’s parents is both stylish and frightening, and there’s one amazing scare with Krug appearing, huge machete first, to stop Phyllis from escaping. It’s not much, but moments like these do hint that Craven, even here, had the potential to be more than just a kid running around the woods with a camera, pointing it anywhere and everywhere.

Despite the effectiveness of some of its sequences though Last House on the Left is by no means a great film, and in most respects it isn’t even a good one. The tone of the film is all over the place, broken by two near inexplicable decisions. The first of these is the interjection, even into the film’s most disturbing passages, of the slapstick adventures of two inept policemen (including Martin Kove, later the villain in The Karate Kid). In their most memorable sequence, which follows the end of the murder in the woods, they attempt to hitch a ride on a truck loaded with crates of live chickens. Its so completely out of place that it boggles the mind that Craven could ever have thought including these interludes was a good idea. He’s said that, given the chance to do it over, he’d remove the characters, but that they were probably included because the filmmakers needed a break from the depravity of the violence they were shooting.

The other major stumbling block is the score, written and sung by Krug himself, David Hess. His jaunty country and western style songs, which often make light of the events of the film (as in the awful, kazoo led, Baddies Theme), go so completely against the tone as to jar you right out of the prevailing mood of the movie. Only once does it work, with Hess’ haunting ‘Now you’re all alone’ extremely well placed in the terrible aftermath of Mari’s rape, but otherwise the music is so poorly realised as to be comical.

Quite apart from the implausibility of the plot (observed by the characters when they discover that the people they have taken shelter with are the parents of one of their victims) the second half of the film suffers from a definite drop off in quality for a few reasons. First of all the actors playing the parents (Cynthia Carr and Gaylord St. James, who surely must have won some sort of ridiculous pseudonym award) are completely wretched, giving entirely unbelievable performances. Secondly the film is much more heavily scripted here and all the actors struggle with the poor dialogue, sounding stilted compared to the looser feel of the woods sequences. The problem is that the impact of the middle section of the film is so profound that the end simply can’t live up to it, especially as Craven and producer Sean Cunningham begin to give in to their more outlandish side (Cunningham’s note for the finale being “Lets get a chainsaw going”). It is, however, interesting to see that even this early Craven’s fascination with booby traps was being expressed on screen.

Last House on the Left is a completely uneven film. It is bedeviled with problems from an abysmal score and an inconsistent tone, to some dreadful performances and an inexperienced technical crew. It is still fitfully effective though, and the half hour murder sequence is as disturbing as anything you’ll ever see in a movie which, 37 years on, surely counts for something. Its not a good film as a whole, but it is an important one in the history of horror and when it is working it even approaches greatness.

The next review has what you might consider SPOILERS, though the same plot elements are revealed in the trailer.

DIR: Dennis Iliadis
CAST: Garret Dillahunt, Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter,
Sara Paxton, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome

I may upset some of my fellow horror fans by saying so, but The Last House on the Left is a great choice for a remake. The original film has a strong central idea and a resonant theme, but it’s undermined by some really awful directorial choices, inconsistent performances and the fact that it is, tonally, all over the place. Fix those problems and you really could have a horror classic, couldn’t you?

To credit new helmer Dennis Iliadis for what he’s done right, the new Last House does fix almost all of the problems with the original. The timeline works better, the plot holes are rather more filled in and the incongruous comedy of the first film is nowhere to be seen, yet the film still manages to miss the rather low target of being better than the original. There are several reasons for this, but the decision that really hobbles the film is to spin off from an alternate version of Craven’s film, in which Mari’s parents find her alive after her ordeal. In this version - called Krug and Company - Mari dies after a few lines and the film continues as in the regular version, but here that thread is expanded, much to the detriment of the film.

This is the largest problem with this Last House; so much of it feels watered down, so desperate to find a mainstream audience that the impact of Craven’s film, which is really all it had going for it, never translates to this version. This film looks prettier and more polished than the original, which is in itself a problem, but while it is technically superior it lacks the verve, and indeed the message, of the 1972 film. The original Last House on the Left told us that violence is dirty and unpleasant, that it makes evil people of us all whatever the motive behind it. This version (surely much to Wes Craven’s disgust) says almost the opposite. It revels in the vengeance of the parents to a disturbing degree, while at the same time giving them less justification for their homicidal fury. Not only that, but this film does allow violence to be the answer, it ends up saying that these extremes are perfectly acceptable, and should even be cheered. That’s a pretty disturbing message anyway, but more than that it’s a complete perversion of what Craven was saying with the original film.

Only one scene in this version of Last House on the Left really works, and that’s the rape scene. Though this too is somewhat watered down (removing the moment when Krug (Dillahunt) cuts his name into Mari’s chest) the rape itself is brutally extended and unspeakably horrible to watch, with an appalling coda in Krug’s line to his son; “you missed out”. It’s a disgusting scene, and that’s as it should be. No rape scene should ever be entertaining or arousing to watch, and this one dwells in the utter degradation of the act to genuinely terrible effect. Both Dillahunt and Sara Paxton, who generally give the best performances in the movie, are brilliant in this scene. Dillahunt is truly animalistic and terrifying, and Paxton communicates brilliantly the awful nature of the experience, while still retaining the steel that Mari has been given in this version.

Aside from this sequence though the film lacks the impact of the original, because of the changes made to make it more mainstream. The gang’s humiliation of the girls (including the infamous ‘piss your pants’ scene and the forced lesbianism) is gone and the death of Paige (Martha MacIssac) is considerably less graphic; just a couple of stabs as opposed to the disemboweling of Phyllis in the original. My problem with these choices isn’t that it lowers what is often termed the gore score, it’s that it makes the gang somehow less awful. Yes, of course they are disgusting, they’re a group of murdering rapists, but the extremity of their acts in the original – both in the film and in their backstories (Krug murdered a priest and two nuns, Weasel was a child molester) – made them so much worse than common or garden criminals, so worthy of the vengeance wreaked on them. It also means that, aside from in the rape scene, this film never gets to the place of genuine discomfort that Craven’s film did. It’s a film you can shrug off, rather than feeling like you need a shower afterwards.

That the film lacks that air of real discomfort is also down to its technical qualities. Credit where it’s due; Iliadis and DP Sharone Meir have crafted a slick and stylish looking film. The problem is that the clean look of this Last House (and that of its cast, who are far more movie star handsome than the real looking cast of the original) undermines the realism that the film needs in order to have maximum impact. It’s so designed and pretty that you are utterly removed from the reality of the experience. Where Craven put you in among these people Iliadis makes you watch them - a subtly but completely different experience - and one that has considerably less impact.

Dillahunt and Paxton aside, the performances are pretty miserable. It’s not as if the actors have much to work with, because the modicum of depth afforded the characters in the original is all but erased here. Krug’s son (Treat Clark) has gone from being a junkie fuck up to an emo teenager with floppy hair, deemed ‘cute’ by the girls, and the charge in the relationship between him and Krug (which culminates, in the original, in father goading son to suicide) is simply gone. Riki Lindhome’s Sadie has little to do but stand around in the background and occasionally flash her breasts, a far cry from Jeramie Rain’s animalistic performance. It’s Francis (Aaron Paul) that proves most disappointing though; he’s the film’s analogue for Weasel, and he’s completely forgettable – a void essentially along to provide the film one more body. Paul lets his designer stubble do the acting, and never comes close to the menace of Fred Lincoln’s performance.

The second half of the film is an abject failure. It’s considerably extended from the original, and lacks any tension or interest. Part of this is down to the bland work of Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn as Mari’s parents, part of it is down to the near total darkness in which the last 40 minutes of the film take place, rendering it annoyingly impossible to tell what is going on most of the time, but mostly the problem is one of plotting. Mari being alive undermines the revenge so completely. First of all it creates a logic gap: why are the parents attempting to kill this gang when their only concern ought to be getting their daughter to a hospital? It also means that the stakes are lowered, because we know that if the movie hasn’t killed Mari off by now that it won’t, and that it is working its way to an essentially ‘happy’ and hopeful ending, which again goes completely against the prevailing tone of the original film. Finally this choice makes the parents, at times, seem like the truly vicious ones, indeed there are certain sequences in which they stalk the gang where you could easily see Krug and company as the victims, which is unforgivable.

The film’s ending is completely unearned. It not only justifies the Collingwood’s violence by giving them their daughter back, it allows them to create a whole new nuclear family. That, of course, is before the coda that really hammers home this film’s attitude to violence. When Doc Collingwood takes his final, ludicrous, vengeance on Krug it is clearly meant as something for us to cheer, which is the last thing that Last House should be saying. This is not what a remake ought to be; instead of turning a movie that had some great sequences but that didn’t entirely work, into the classic it could have been it has fixed the superficial problems with the original but created a whole series of its own problems, all of which only make you long for the impact of the original.

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