December 30, 2009

The Last House on the Left (2009)

In 1972, a young filmmaker named Wes Craven began his career with a powerful tale of violence that would become a classic of its time, and the first of his many contributions to the horror genre. That film was "The Last House on the Left". Loosely based on Ingmar Bergman's "Jungfrukällan" ("The Virgin Spring"), Craven's "The Last House on the Left" was a raw story of vengeance in which the parents of a missing girl discover that they have given shelter to the criminals that tortured and raped their daughter. While not without its problems, "The Last House on the Left" was a fine proof of Craven's abilities as a storyteller, and even when it wasn't entirely original, this modest gem was a breath of fresh air for American horror. 37 years after its release, Wes Craven returned to that house, this time as producer of the remake of the film that kick-started his career. In a time when remakes of horror classics are awfully commonplace, it is the turn of filmmaker Dennis Iliadis to revive the horrors of the Last House on the Left.

The story begins with Dr. John Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn), his wife Emma (Monica Potter), and their daughter Mari (Sara Paxton), preparing for a time of vacation at their lake house. After arriving, Mari borrows the family car and visits her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), who works the cash register at a local store. There they meet Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), a teenager who's traveling with his family and invites the girls to his hotel room to smoke marijuana. Everything seems fine until Justin's family returns to the hotel. His father Krug (Garret Dillahunt), his uncle Francis (Aaron Paul) and Krug's girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) show up and it's revealed that they are dangerous criminals. The gang kidnaps the girls, but Mari tricks them to take a route that will take them to her parent's house. Her escape plan fails and the car crashes into a tree. As punishment, Paige is killed while Mari is raped. Mari attempts to escape again, but is shot. The criminals decide to seek refugee in a nearby house, unaware that it is Mari's house where they will spend the night.

With a screenplay by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, this version of "The Last House on the Left" remains for the most part faithful to the original's storyline; nevertheless, a bigger emphasis is placed on character development, slowly building them in a realistic, convincing way. Fortunately, the comedy relief of Craven's original film is gone, and we are left with a more serious tone and a greater sense of urgency. This last element enhances the suspense of the screenplay, and the tension of the whole situation, moving away from the crude violence of Craven's film to a more sober, yet equally as dark kind of story. The focus is no longer in the shock and the consequences of violence, but on the effects it has on people, as even the criminals are shown in a very realistic way, far from the psycho stereotype; which makes their actions more disturbing, and believable. Still, Alleca and Ellsworth's take on "The Last House on the Left" may feel a bit misguided, as it seems that the writers felt the need to make the family more heroic than what Craven intended in the original.

Moving away from the current trend in horror, director Dennis Iliadis makes his version of "The Last House on the Left" a return to a slower, sober style of horror, that working in contrast with the violence of the screenplay works wonders in heightening the effect of the disturbing events that take place at the lake house. Where nowadays quick-cuts would be used, Iliadis uses long takes not only to enhance the suspense of the film, but also to introduce the audience to the violence of the character's vengeance. The work of cinematography by Sharone Meir truly creates a powerful atmosphere once the criminals enter the house, and its elegance and classy style make the film look, quite appropriately, like a family drama gone to hell. However, while Dennis Iliadis' reinvention of Craven's classic is superior to the original in some aspects, it feels lacking in an interesting point: despite creating a realist and believable scenario, Iliadis' Collingwood family is too fantastically heroic, specially when contrasted to Craven's ordinary Collingwoods.

Acting in "The Last House on the Left" is in general of an excellent quality, and one of the aspects in which the remake is superior to the original (for the most part). As Dr. John Collingwood, Tony Goldwyn is truly the highlight of the film, delivering a powerful performance as the man who must decide what to do when he discovers that the criminals who abused of his daughter are his guests. Goldwyn gives life to his character in a truly outstanding way, capturing the inner horror of the role remarkably. Monica Potter is equally impressive as his wife, Emma, and makes a perfect match for Goldwyn's riveting performance. As the leader of the pack, Garret Dillahunt is an interesting choice, and his performance is quite good, albeit he is no match for David Hess' work in the original, making a weak villain in front of Goldwyn's terrific work. As Krug's brother Francis, Aaron Paul is a bit of a mixed bag, as his performance as a psycho goes a bit over the top. Sara Paxton, who plays the difficult role of Mari, truly delivers a great work, specially considering the difficulty of her scenes.

In general, it could be said that the performances on the villain's side tend to be average in contrast those of the Collingwoods. As written above, Dillahunt does a nice work, but not enough to make an even match with Goldwyn. And Paul and Riki Lindhome (who plays Sadie), are a bit stereotypical. In his search for not making the villains obvious, director Iliadis falls in the trap of making them too weak. Whereas Craven was enamored by his villains, Iliadis plays in favor of the Collingwoods, making them even a symbol of heroism that may go beyond the vengeance theme of the film. While Iliadis does take his time to elaborate on the horrors of vengeance, it all soon becomes forgotten as the punishment of the criminals becomes enjoyable. Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with going that route, but I do feel that it was a missed opportunity (and one that Craven did take), to use the Collingwoods as a symbol for the ordinary family, instead of the heroic Hollywood family that must kill the bad guys and save the day before dinner.

In a time where remakes are done just for money's sake and old classics become the source of proved formulas for cheap horror movies, it is indeed a breath of fresh air to discover that, despite its problems, Dennis Iliadis' "The Last House on the Left" is not one more of those remakes, but instead an intelligent movie with an interesting, and still relevant theme. Granted, Iliadis' may not have done a masterpiece with it, but even when it is indeed a different take on Craven's film, the spirit and essence of that legendary classic of exploitation is well respected, and that's something to be thankful. Probably it won't change the history of the horror genre, but "The Last House on the Left" is quite an interesting revision to an old story. Perhaps less crude, but equally as powerful, with this film one just has to remember, "it's only a movie, it's only a movie".


December 11, 2009

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Due to his many contributions to the genre (mainly his 1984's classic "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and the rejuvenation of the slasher film produced by his 1996's movie, "Scream"), filmmaker Wes Craven has earned rightfully the title of "Master of Horror", with a career dedicated from the very beginning to create nightmarish tales of horror and suspense. From undead psychopaths to zombies, and from masked killers to werewolves, Craven has touched nearly every theme in the genre. While certainly Craven not always delivers what one would call a masterpieces (he's had his fair share of botches), in his movies there's always at least an original twist on familiar subjects. Many have been the nightmares created by Craven, but even when his contributions to the genre are many, perhaps no film amongst his body of work has had the raw power that his very first film, 1972's "The Last House on the Left" had. An adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's "Jungfrukällan" ("The Virgin Spring"), this tale of violence and vengeance is one impossible to forget.

"The Last House on the Left" begins with Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody) getting ready to attend a concert with her best friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham). Mari lives with her parents, Dr. John and Estelle Collingwood (Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr), in a nice house in the woods. Despite her parents' concern, Mari and Phyllis go to the city for the concert. At the same time, a group of violent criminals led by Krug Stillo (David Hess) have escaped from prison, and are resting in an apartment. When the concert is over, Mari and Phyllis meet Krug's teenage son, Junior (Marc Sheffer), who leads them to the apartment with the promise of selling them marijuana. At the apartment, both girls are trapped by the criminals, who begin to torture and rape them. Next morning they are taken with the criminals as they travel to the countryside, but a malfunction in the car force the group to walk through the woods, where the girls are brutally killed. The criminals decide to rest in a nearby house, posing as salesmen, unaware that the last house on the left is actually Mari's house.

Written by director Craven himself, "The Last House on the Left" began with the idea of making a very graphic and shocking film. Supousedly, the original screenplay contained heavier violence, but Craven later decided to tone down a bit the script. One can only wonder how harsh was that softening of original story because, while certainly there are more graphic films, the violence in "The Last House on the Left" is quite strong and powerful. Like Bergman's film (itself based on a Swedish ballad), the main theme of the film is vengeance, specifically, the justification of vengeance against those who have harmed a loved one. Craven's take on the subject is based chiefly on violence, with Mari's parents, normally a peaceful couple, uncovering a darker side of their souls when they discover that the people they have helped actually have done terrible and irreparable things to their beloved daughter. While somber in tone, Craven decides to insert bits of comedy to lighten up the story, but the attempt ends up as silly and out of place.

In this his first time as director of a feature length film, filmmaker Wes Craven already shows his talent for storytelling and that fascination with the villains of his stories that would become part of his style. Limited in budget, Craven takes advantage of the raw quality of his equipment to achieve a realistic style, that fits nicely the crude nature of his story. As written above, the graphic violence of the screenplay was slightly toned down, but the implied violence of the images is intact, and perhaps make the film to look more realistic. Through the lens of cinematographer Victor Hurwitz' camera, Craven creates a nightmarish vision which power is in the realism of what's on screen. This powerful impact is perhaps what makes the comedy side of the film to look even more childish than what it really is. Craven's use of the cops as comedy relief is truly incomprehensible, as the realism slowly crafted by the work of Hurwitz' cinematography and the editing (by Craven himself), goes through the window whenever the cops appear.

The acting in the film is for the most part effective, albeit a couple of performances are quite weak. In the difficult roles of the abused girls, Sandra Peabody and Lucy Grantham are quite good, delivering believable performances as two teenagers looking for a good time. While a couple of times they feel a tad wooden, overall their work in the film is more than appropriate. Now, the ones who steal the show are the bad guys, mainly David Hess and Fred Lincoln. As the leader of the gang, Hess is an imposing yet strangely charming figure, and delivers probably the best performance in the film. As the sadistic maniac Weasel, Fred Lincoln is perfect, giving an eerie degree of realism to a character that could had been easily a mere stereotype. Also worth to notice is Marc Sheffler's work as Junior, which is quite effective despite not being a terrific performance. Unfortunately, Richard Towers and Cynthia Carr, who play Mari's parents, aren't a fine equal to such collection of good performances. It's not that they are bad, they just feel average in contrast.

The rest of the cast ranges from average (like Jeramie Rain) to plain bad, as in the case of Marshall Anker and Martin Kove (the cops). However, it would be too harsh to put the blame entirely on Anker and Kove, as in all honesty, their characters themselves are two big problems that the film has. As written above, the cops appear as comedy relief in bits where their incompetence is played for laughs, pretty much in the tone of the Keystone Cops. The problem with this, is that their antics are so ridiculous that the effect achieved, instead of being a release of the tension, becomes confusion about what's happening, as the comedy is so exaggerated that feels out of place in the middle of the seriousness of the rest of the film, and completely breaks the pace the film has. Other than that (which is a problem that could had been solved with editing), "The Last House on the Left" is a top notch horror film that takes a familiar theme (stories about rapes and revenge have always been popular) and makes a powerful vision out of it.

In a way, it is really amazing what the young director achieved in his first film (and producer Sean Cunningham, who would go on to become a familiar name in 90s horror films), as with his limited resources Craven conceived a shocking nightmare that more than 30 years after its release, still strikes as a powerful tale of revenge and its side effects. Probably Freddy Krueger and Ghostface are his most famous and recognized monsters, but what Craven created in this movie, was an exploration to the monster dormant inside of each one of us, and that's probably why "The Last House on the Left" is still so scary, haunting and fascinating: because it's hard not to feel identified with the couple. Proof that often talent is more important than resources, "The Last House on the Left" marked the beginning of Craven's career in horror, and that was only the beginning. And remember, it's only a movie.