Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Last House on the Left / *** (2009)

So there I am, staring down at a showing of the modern remake of “Last House on the Left” – yet another attempt to take the horror successes of the past and reinvent them with modern sensibilities – when a funny thing begins to happen. I start getting actively involved. No, not in the sense of hurling silent protest or exemplifying disgust at what is going on, but in a regard of more serious contemplation: this was not going to be one of those perverse Hollywood byproducts meant to stretch the possibilities of desensitization. Perhaps it has become our nature to expect the worst of such scenarios when major studios decide to visually upgrade notable achievements of the previous generation – they have certainly supplied enough evidence of that trend – but never in my most cynical dreams did I expect to walk away from the experience of this particular outing without feeling some sense of anger or sadness. This is a genuine film, well made and precise with its intentions, and considerate of the acknowledgment that there is a psychological art to the criminal mind beyond the visualization of senseless torture and death.

That is just as ironic as it is refreshing. Long ago, in the days when Wes Craven had yet to become a familiar name to avid genre enthusiasts, “Last House on the Left” (his debut) went on to become one of the most shocking – and perhaps exploitative – endeavors of its time. It left nothing to the imagination, and portrayed its menacing details with the most abrasive of strokes. By all intentions, it went to the beating heart of the meaning of a horror film. But it was also the turning point in which the field could be regarded from more cerebrally intrusive desires; these were not characters or situations that could be dismissed as part of an overzealous geek show, because what was happening to them felt real and engrossing. Just as it is essential in acknowledging that certainty, so is it crucial to understand the differing mindsets of would-be successors. Having long been exemplified by other dubious remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “I Spit on Your Grave,” the modern horror atmosphere seldom considers the root cause of those themes; they are more interested in gratuity. So what in the world were the filmmakers behind this particular retelling thinking when they decided to violate the trend? What encouraged them to keep true to the source, and what gumption did they have to not bury it all in excessive and overpowering violence?

Much in the way of blood and mayhem occurs here, but there is an effective pattern to it. The director, Dennis Iliadis, is exactly the right type of person to helm an upgrade of this manner: he is a genuine fan of the source. Therefore, what drives his underlying focus is not the sensational attitude of investors, but rather the buried intentions of Craven’s original narrative. The plot is almost exactly the same: two female best friends from the city are wanting to go out and score some marijuana before a party, and when they encounter a strange loner who says he can hook them up, they wind up falling into the grasp of a family of violent degenerates (one of whom is an escapee from prison). These are not ordinary sickos, either; they are fully fleshed out personas, mannered in all the right ways and devious in the moments that must require hostility. When the girls attempt a daring escape, it leads to a horrific encounter of attempted escape, rape and even murder. And later that night, as their homicidal tendencies quiet down, they wind up seeking shelter at a nearby house owned by a lovely couple, who just happen to be the parents of one of the girls.

There is a certain prototypical quality to this premise. If truth be known, Craven even adapted it from an earlier source himself – Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” it in itself inspired by a medieval Swedish ballad about the building of a church at the site of a virgin’s tragic death. The master of suspense would disregard the source’s religious undercurrent, of course, but the element of revenge was fleshed out into its own beast – a maneuver that would inspire other filmmakers in this genre to consider the concept as a resolution to more organic forms of terror. Over time there would be less emphasis on the concept and more on the implementation of vengeance, but there is no denying its extensive effect on the nature of reality-driven scary movies in the forty years since its arrival. And most important of all, it allowed us to get into the minds of the madmen themselves; they were more than just men in masks carrying around instruments of death, they were figures of psychotic impulses that could manipulate, intimidate and undermine the defenses of a victim before the knives came out.

Iliadis’ film returns to that tradition with thoughtful intentions. It doesn’t just replicate the formula down to every specific, either; the screenplay takes liberties with the concept, and changes details to give them a modern (but plausible) edge. Consider, for example, the inclusion of a detail in which the heroine, Mari (Sara Paxton), is in the process of mourning her deceased older brother. Given that her family is still paralyzed by the cold splash of grief when the obligatory murderous rampage gets underway, this gives her an added edge. She wants to survive, no matter what. When circumstances dictate that the culprits of her fate wind up in the home of her parents, their discovery of their misdeeds is given weight by the acknowledgment of earlier losses. It’s horrible when one loses a child so unexpectedly, but how would any parent react, really, if they lost the other to such extreme violence? Would they indeed snap in the regard that these ones do?

Not many horror films are willing to contemplate that seriously. It simply isn’t part of normal practice. But just as “Last House on the Left” has the audacity to offer relevant exposition, so does it implore performances that anchor those thoughts. The most captivating, I think belongs to Garret Dillahunt; as Krug, the gang’s ruthless ringleader, he creates an identity of such impeccable chaos that we are fascinated by him almost as much as we fear him. There is also great work by Aaron Paul, who plays his destructive brother; there is a scene between he and Mari’s mom (also played well by Monica Potter) that is so spot-on in how it dances around their hidden agendas that we suspect it would resemble a realistic exchange. And Paxton as the young girl isn’t just a body for killers to toss around like a torn rag doll; she is a fighter, a thinker, and manages to keep a strategy in her head all while playing off her abduction with a reserved demeanor, even though all signs point to the inevitability of a tragic end for the sake of propelling the narrative to its next platform.

The plot does deviate from the source material more frequently than one would expect. The third act alters some of the key outcomes, for instance, all for the benefit of one last shred of optimism. There is a rape scene in the middle that is extremely uncomfortable to watch, but is staged exactly the way it needs to be: as a visualization of the depths of depravity that are possible of corrupt human psyches. The tone does not suggest suspicious motives. But the ending is an exercise in overkill, attached to the last moments as if it was a contractual obligation on part of producers who demanded a single moment of over-the-top gratuity. It makes absolutely no sense in any context other than one that might have produced an entirely different movie. Wasn’t anyone vocal enough during the test screenings to indicate how useless it was, especially given the vigor of everything that came before? Watching it, I was reminded of a critical take-away from my years in college film classes, where an instructor reminded us of the importance of a director’s control. “The minute that a producer’s ego gets in the way,” he said, “the movie is no longer about one vision: it is about design.” The danger in that is as obvious as it is disheartening, and even poor Dennis Iliadis succumbs to the influence in the final frames. Up to that point, however, at least he is perceptive enough to know how to reach his audience without talking down to them. “Last House on the Left” may be yet another disturbing jaunt through the backwoods of the destructive human mind, but it is smart, well-acted, cautious and faithful to the original, and driven by production values that give the details an edge of genuine complexity.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (US); 2009; Rated R; Running Time: 110 Minutes

Sara Paxton: Mari
Monica Potter: Emma
Tony Goldwyn: John
Martha MacIssac: Paige
Garret Dillahunt: Krug
Aaron Paul: Francis
Riki Lindhome: Sadie
Spencer Treat Clark: Justin

Produced by Greig Buckle, Jonathan Craven, Wes Craven, Sean Cunningham, Vlokkie Gordon, Ray Haboush, Marianne Maddalena, Bryan Thomas, David Wicht and Cody Zweig; Directed by Dennis Iliadis; Written by Adan Alleca and Carl Ellsworth; based on the characters created by Wes Craven

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