Review: “The Last House on the Left” (2009)
Produced by: Wes Craven, Sean S. Cunningham, Marianne Maddalena
Written by: Adam Alleca & Carl Ellsworth (screenplay)
Based on: The Last House on the Left by Wes Craven
Starring: Monica Potter, Tony Goldwyn, Garret Dillahunt, Spencer Treat Clark, Martha MacIsaac, Sara Paxton
Music by: John Murphy
Review is of a film that deals with a topic that may be disturbing to some viewers. The goal of this review was primarily to examine and compare the remake’s handling of the horrors of rape and murder with the original 1972 film’s treatment. SPOILERS are also present in the review.
The 1972 film The Last House on the Left became infamous for its intimate portrayal of torture, rape, and revenge — subjects that are still taboo to address in films today without a sensitive touch. Interestingly, largely due to the film’s brutality, the film went on to become a cult classic of the horror genre, a film genre not typically known for having a sensitive touch.
Personally, despite finding in it some admirable qualities, I didn’t much care for that film. However, aside from its advertising campaign, I did feel that the low budget production was, yes, shocking, but also tactful and sensitive in its handling of the grotesque but all too realistic depiction of the girls’ humiliation and pain before the film switched into more familiar territory as a revenge film. I can’t imagine that it was an easy task to film those scenes, and it stands as an example of a film, no matter the quality, that doesn’t necessarily have to be entertaining to have a justified existence.
Some strange editing and scoring choices really set me off the original film, though, and I began wondering whether the 2009 remake would manage to benefit from the over three decades of knowledge and understanding of the subject. I imagined that the filmmakers would have realized that today’s audiences are more familiar with the topic and would demand a less heavy-handed approach to its portrayal in order take it seriously. Unfortunately, the remake, though more sympathetic and narratively realistic, wound up somehow more cynical in its approach to the two films’ shared story.
The 2009 film essentially follows the same basic structure as the original: Two young girls seeking a day of fun instead fall into the hands of a gang of rapists and murderers. The girls are taken into the woods and forced to perform terrible acts before they are disposed of. Due to a broken car, the gangsters seek shelter in what turns out to be the home of Mari, one of the girls, and are quickly found out by the parents, who then begin a brutal plot for revenge.
First off, let me get this out of the way: neither film is particularly good. Neither film is particularly enjoyable, either, but that’s actually in their favor. They shouldn’t be, and the filmmakers never intended either to be, despite whatever perverse audience curiosity may have overshadowed that fact. As I said before, though, somehow this remake comes off as somewhat more cynical, despite a comparatively gentler hand.
A lot of this has to do with the higher production values, as the more stylized camera work and higher budget do not pull audiences into the scenes the way the gritty, old home video, documentary look of the original. Last House 2009 looks and feels like a standard, modern horror film. That said, the film isn’t without justified changes, either.
The decision to make Mari (Sara Paxton, Aquamarine) into an athletic swimmer is likely inspired by the scene in the original where, just after saying a prayer, she walks into the water as an almost baptismal before she is shot several times. Here, the water becomes an escape route rather than a grave, and her competitive swimming the reason why she is able to survive. Yes, in this remake, Mari lives, but she is terribly broken by her experience. It actually provides a more profound message about the horrors of rape, in that the film acknowledges that one doesn’t have to die to make rape a horrific and damaging crime. In this way, the film is far more progressive and impressive with its approach. The scene is shorter, but more graphic and repulsive, without falling into the trap of overdoing it.
Another change in the film’s favor is to the character of Junior, here named Justin. Justin is the son of Krug, the leader of the gang. While Junior was so completely out of touch with reality that he didn’t care what happened as long as he got his fix, Justin is a tortured, aware individual who sees no way out of his situation, and so the drugs become his misdirected escape. Mari and Paige (Martha MacIsaac, Superbad, named Phyllis in the original) are now invited by Justin to come over to his house rather than happening upon their situation, which makes Justin come off a lot more like a lonely person desperate for friendship. His participation in the gang is changed from glossy-eyed passivity in the original to becoming another victim, literally forced into participating. Justin is a lot more realistic and layered than Junior was, and his situation informs his proactive decision to betray his caretakers and leave behind Mari’s necklace for her mother to discover.
Unfortunately, while nobody in the cast truly stands tall in terms of performance, the parents are the weakest characters and are a large part of why this remake doesn’t work. Monica Potter (Saw, TV’s Parenthood) and Tony Goldwyn (Ghost, the voice of Disney’s Tarzan) seem mostly bored in their roles, and only when the scene calls for an extreme reaction do they seem to break away from making the same, blank faces. Goldwyn comes out a bit stronger thanks to the fact that he’s given a scene that allows him to show tenderness to his daughter as he treats her wounds, but Potter doesn’t seem to really know what to do in her role and isn’t really given anything distinct to do apart from Goldwyn.
Mari’s survival does give the parents’ actions an element of urgency and desperation to be rid of the gangsters, but that’s really the extent of the positive changes this film makes. While there wasn’t much more for the parents to do in the original other than act like the naive TV sitcom relics they were before turning and taking vengeance, there’s a missed opportunity here with the remake that really os inexcusable given the filmmakers’ hindsight and bigger budget. These parents are comparatively youthful, progressive, yuppie parents, which dulls the film’s impact and message. While the original parents’ portrayals at least (seemingly) made a point of destroying their blissful naivete, these parents basically come off as… well, rich wasps who love their daughter, but are mostly just really angry about their vacation plans being ruined.
The fact of the matter is that the film makes many changes, some more subtle than others, that make the film less believable and possibly a bit more despicable. The remake sets this film at a vacation home away from the city, which has its own guest house and a boat waiting nearby, whereas the original film had the girls move out of the safety of a rural area and into the dangers of the big city. This film does away with the birthday subplot and replaces it with a more depressing one about the family dealing with the still painful memory of a lost son and brother, who is now the gifter of Mari’s telltale necklace in this film. There’s little effort, however, to integrate this into the rest of the story, and it becomes kind of a throwaway bit of trivia as a result.
As for the more infamous scenes, the torturing is now presented without the startling contrasting scenes of the original, with Paige’s death replacing the birthday party preparations and now happening simultaneously within the same scene as Mari being raped. This is an overwhelming editing choice, which actually diminishes Paige’s character into a mere footnote, too. And, as with the dead brother subplot, after she is dealt with, she’s never addressed again. Law enforcement is also mostly a nonentity in the film, though thankfully there is no attempt at comic relief and goofy music, either.
But in its place is the bizarre, out-of-nowhere romantic relationship that subtly develops between Mari and Justin, two characters who died in the ’72 version and are now revived in a misplaced attempt to provide the characters with a more complex relationship, but instead it gives the ending a horribly misguided, happily ever after feel. Mari from the first film appealed to Junior’s drug-induced stupor in an attempt to allow her to escape, but the writers of this film seem to have misinterpreted this for feelings of actual affection. These two characters were forced into deplorable acts in this film, and romance, especially between each other, would be the last thing on their mind. I’m sure the crew intended for this shared experience to deepen their bond, but it’s possibly the worst thing they could have done to the characters.
But that’s just the problem with this remake. It sacrifices the original’s brutal realism, however poorly executed, for “artful” storytelling, which doesn’t mesh stylistically with the subject matter. The film loses much of the jarring, terrifying qualities that really made the original so much more impactful, meaningful, and possibly even more respectful. Subtle things like camera angles, lighting, setting, and props are carefully chosen rather than happened upon. The story isn’t attractive, so why did they choose to make the film itself look so well put together?
Among the recent slate of horror film remakes, this film could be the most disappointing because it had much more substance to work with than your typical villain-centric slasher film. Last House luckily never devolves into torture porn territory, but it never becomes transcendent, either. It’s a pointless remake that actually could have justified its existence, and it’s a shame that the filmmakers didn’t make better choices during its production. Disappointing.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1.5 / 5