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".


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