Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Last House on The Left Proves To Be a Worthy Remake

What worked in the 1970s just won’t work these days. Therein lays the beauty of time and change. The big question for the latest remake to sneak its way into theaters, The Last House on the Left, is whether the advent of modern horror filmmaking can successfully bring the gripping story to a new audience.

12 years after Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman took the basic story of a 13th century Swedish ballad named "Töres dotter i Wänge" and created The Virgin Spring, Wes Craven took the same story and brought it out of medieval Sweden and into 1970s America. Go forward 27 more years and you have Craven producing a remake of the film that jumpstarted his lengthy and illustrious career in horror films.

The Last House on the Left focuses on the kidnapping and assault of two young girls by a group led by a prison escapee. Soon after, the group unknowingly seeks refuse at the house owned by the parents of one of the girls, which leads to the parents having to make decisions that might shake the foundation of their morals.

1970s exploitation films, much to my chagrin, are best left in the 1970s. The campy style and cheesy dialogue simply wouldn’t fly over well with audiences these days. Although the word remake seems to send shivers down my spine these days, I do appreciate the ones that are able to successfully update a story by making use of what technology has provided filmmakers with. This reiteration of The Last House on the Left is able to do just that.

The tough thing about being a remake is that no matter what, you’re subject to the scrutiny of being compared to the original. That’s just how it is. It’s a funny thing, really, comparing the two films. In style the remake comes off as being much more brutal and visceral. While yes, visually and theatrically the film is more brutal, this illusion can be credited to the modern style of horror filmmaking.

What keeps it from actually being more brutal is the attempted political correctness and safety nets. Instead of being a full fledged junkie in search of his fix, Justin, the youngest of the group of criminals, is simply a pot-smoking loser. The captive girls aren’t forced to degrade themselves by peeing their pants, they aren’t subjected to humiliation by being forced to “make it” with each other, intestines aren’t played with and there’s no oral sex castration. If I wanted to spoil both films, I could continue with more examples, but I think I’ve proved my point.

This isn’t an exercise aimed at putting the remake down, just a look at what society has stated is and isn’t allowed in an R-rated film these days. If this film had gone any further it certainly would have ended up in the dicey NC-17 area. The one key scene that is a little beefed up is the pivotal rape scene, even though this film’s version only shows a side of an ass cheek. I’ve still seen worse. I Spit on Your Grave, I’m looking at you. My desensitized nature aside, I could see others wanting to walk out of the theater after viewing this specific scene.

One of the shining aspects of the original film is the performance by David Hess. Hess plays main villain Krug and turns out one of the most intensifying, psychotic and violent performances in the history of the genre. He was so good at playing crazy that he did it two more times in the films House on the Edge of the Park and Hitch-Hike. Replacing him was my main concern when walking into the new film.

The man attempting to live up to those standards, Garret Dillahunt, is an actor I was fairly familiar from, mostly from Deadwood but also from his smaller role in No Country for Old Men. Without subjecting him to a harsh comparison, I’ll give Dillahunt credit for doing a solid job at recreating one of filmdom’s most volatile characters.

Last House is fairly well directed by Dennis Iliadis, who made only his second appearance behind the camera. Nothing is extraordinary but at the same time there is nothing to complain about. It’s a shiny film with a lot of up close and personal shots that lets the intense gruesome stuff get showcased in a gritty fashion.

As far as the plot goes, the remake has its differences with the original, which is absolutely okay by me. Whether one plot choice is better or worse than the original is a whole different story that is up to the viewer themselves. The ending is reworked a bit as the parents’ motivation to take revenge comes a bit differently. The screenplay, which was written by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, works as an effective exploitative revenge horror/thriller.

This film is a good start for how modern and original horror and exploitation filmmaking should be handled. I touched on the concept of adapting these talents and abilities to original concepts, stories and ideas when discussing last month’s Friday the 13th reboot. I’d love to see more original ideas flow out of Hollywood.

The Last House on the Left is certainly one of the better horror remakes of the decade. Just like Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake of a different Wes Craven film, The Hills Have Eyes, the subject matter is successfully adapted to modern times by way of intensifying the events with a glossy overcoat.

Horror and exploitative B-movies from the 1970s distinguished themselves from those of other eras very easily. Highlighted by lots of sex, sleaze, violence, cheesy dialogue, low budgets and midnight showings the decade became an animal unlike any other that these days is long gone.

As we near the end of the first decade of the new millennium, modern horror filmmaking, for better or worse, has distinguished itself and come into its own as an era best known for bigger budgeted, fast-paced and intense films full of gore. And while this updated version doesn’t have the smarts, wit, satire or certain charm of the groundbreaking original film, it is a great example of what the genre has become.

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