AGAINST THE GRAIN: The Last House on the Left (2009)

Thomas tells us why this remake of Wes Craven’s infamous grindhouse effort is better than the original. Hey, is that Jesse Pinkman? 

Movie studios seem to be gravitating more and more towards remaking old (The Texas Chain Saw MassacreDawn of the Dead) and some not-so-old (The Hitcher, A Nightmare on Elm Street) horror films that were financially and critically successful in their respective eras for dozens of reasons. It has been argued by seemingly thousands upon thousands of fans that these remakes are inferior because the studios want nothing to do with the originals’ respective subtexts. Instead, they lift only the barest of plot elements from them then proceed to loosely “re-imagine” key sequences and moments. There are a few horror remakes on the horizon, and we will begin to see more and more classics reinvented.

Many of these remakes tend to get a bad rap, though. The 2007 version of The Hitcher is much-maligned, but I think fans missed the point on that one. I don’t think director Dave Meyers ever intended for it to be the thought-provoking, tense, and largely isolated movie the Rutger Hauer/C. Thomas Howell version was. Instead, it maintained a much steadier pace and became a slam-bang action vehicle that, of course, utilised a number of plot devices and pieces of dialogue from the original, but it was actually something else entirely. The same can be said for Zach Snyder’s 2004 update of Dawn of the Dead which was, surprisingly, much better received than most Hollywood retreads.

This is where we enter Dennis Iliadis’ The Last House on the Left. Wes Craven’s original film – which was also his debut – has gained quite a reputation. Looking back on it, its essentially an anti-exploitation exploitation flick. It is an admittedly nasty piece of work that may have been effective in 1972, but after thirty-plus years of existence, it seems laughable by today’s standards. The special FX were cheap even when it was filmed, as were the acting and script. In 2014, the whole thing feels utterly unspectacular. I think through word-of-mouth and false praise it’s gained the large cult following it has, but much like Alexandre Aja’s remake of another Craven cult classic, The Hills Have Eyes, it was a mediocre film made better with a remake.

Unlike the current trend of modern redo’s, Iliadis’ film sticks very closely the narrative elements of Craven’s version. I’ve noticed a lot of folks claiming that Iliadis’ version is far less gruesome than the original, which in some cases I will agree with. Craven’s version featured very realistic, if not perverse, scenes of torture and Iliadis seems to have strayed away from these moments (there’s no “Piss your pants” scene or main villain, Krug, carving his name in Mari Collingwood’s chest). I personally felt that was all for the better, as the rape of Mari is so unsettling and hard to watch here, that the inclusion of more overt physical torture would have rendered the segment virtually unwatchable.

Garrett Dillahunt, as Krug, plays the character much differently to the late David A. Hess of the original. He comes across as a closet sociopath rather than a twisted sadist as Hess played him. Dillahunt’s Krug is a cold-blooded murderer who has no concern for innocent human life but does seem to genuinely care for those tagging along with him – his brother Francis (played well here by Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul), girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome), and his son, Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) who he feels he treats lovingly despite the audience’s ability to see otherwise. I loved Dillahunt’s performance and felt that his underlying sense of menace was both compelling and frightening. This iteration of the villain sees him as “just a regular guy” on the surface, but underneath one can sense unbridled rage. The entire gang, in fact, are people that seem relatively normal until provoked, then become distempered animals. This realism is what separates the remake’s gang from the over-the-top caricatures in the original.

Mari’s (Sara Paxton) parents, John and Emma Collingwood, are played to near-perfection by Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter, respectively. I loved Goldwyn’s moments with his daughter when he discovers that she was raped and shot. Goldwyn plays the moment so genuinely. The character then performs hasty surgery on his daughter in order to get her breathing again, further fleshing out the movie’s mention of his profession (in the original, John is also a doctor but nothing is ever done with it). I bought Goldwyn’s performance wholly. Potter is the best she’s ever been, playing a character that is clearly distraught by the situation at hand but adept at fighting back – believably, no less – when the time comes. Last House… is so well-acted that it becomes so much more harrowing than the original. Watching Goldwyn get his twisted revenge is strangely gratifying. Chalk that up to a stellar cast giving it their all!

The script is also solid and borrows just enough from Craven’s original while injecting plenty of ideas by the writers Carl Ellsworth and Adam Alleca. I admire these two for bringing likeable, relateable characters to the table and using the plot to more affective means. Iliadis’s direction is fantastic throughout, and the cinematography elevates this from “just another horror remake” to a movie that is admirably classy. The set design is excellent and the lighting is pitch-perfect. I appreciated that Iliadis filmed this as more of an artsy crime film than as a quick-cutting, blood-for-blood’s-sake torture porn vomit-fest.

If anything can be said about the film in terms of violence, I will state that it goes much further in the on-screen gore department than the original did. While not as perverse, it approaches the subject matter just as realistically. When Krug and company start getting offed, these sequences become elongated, brutal, and gratuitous. But there is something to be said about punishing those who have terrorised our loved ones. Whether right or wrong, I related to the Collingwood’s and asked myself if I would have or could have done the same thing. We want to see these terrible people suffer for what they’ve done to two innocent young women. The acting, again, plays a big part here as characters are brutalised and butchered, and each actor plays it accordingly. The rape scene (extended greatly in the unrated version) in particular is so hard to watch – not because you really see anything – but because it feels all too real.

What more is there to say, really? This is one of few remakes that isn’t just as good as the original, but better in every possible way. The violence feels genuine, the acting is way above par for the type of film it is, and the movie is also extremely well-shot. Much like the original, its not an easy watch and some of the changes made to the script will certainly divide audiences, but I found the updates logically sound (except for perhaps one last bit with a microwave oven, but we’ll give ‘em that). It may not be the ’72 trailblazer but this is one instance where I can’t complain about that…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • In a March 12, 2009 interview, Sara Paxton revealed that the rape sequence took seventeen hours to film.
  • Bruises are visible on both Paige and Mari’s legs during the scenes in the hotel room. According to interviews, the bruises were a result of filming the scenes in the forest, which were filmed before the motel room scene. The make-up crew tried to cover up the bruises, but since the actors did their own stunts, the marks were too severe to be covered up by any make-up.
  • Producer Jonathan Craven appeared as a child in the original. He was the young boy with the balloon that Krug bursts as he walks past on the street.
  • According to Gorezone Magazine, the film was intended for a direct to DVD release in October of 2009, however after positive test screenings in the fall of 2008, it was decided to release the film theatrically.
  • At first the film was going to be shot in Westport, Connecticut, the location were the 1972 original was filmed, but the threat of hazardous weather caused the production to seek another location.




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