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The Last House on the Left Review

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by Casimir Harlow Oct 25, 2009

    The Last House on the Left Review
    Horror movies are generally great date movies. Personally, I find them to be of pretty limited enjoyment when watching alone - fairly predictable stories, simple shock value or exaggerated gore, clichéd characters. They obviously succeed on some levels, but their enjoyment can be wasted sometimes alone. I am sure plenty of people love to scare themselves into adrenaline-fuelled abandon watching the latest slasher flick but I always preferred to share the experience. And I don't think it came from fear - apart from perhaps a fear that I would once again get invested in characters that would be hacked to death in somewhat random succession until the credits roll. No, I loved vicariously engaging in that fear through others, the clutching on the arm, the temptation to cover your eyes, the slight jump in the seat during shock moments - it was what made horrors perfect date movies. Perhaps the modern man needs no such thing, let alone the modern woman, but there's nothing wrong with a good reason to get closer in the cinema.

    These days, however, the cinematic offerings have been marginally lame. Do you go with Eden Lake? It has a modern twist, a nod to hoodie culture and a shock of an ending. Unfortunately, it is also a tiresome, unrewarding mess of a movie that leaves you feeling violated, not on the edge of your seat, clutching at your partner. So, maybe not. How about Drag Me to Hell? Well, that had some promise, a few shock moments, and a solid story with decent characters. Unfortunately, it often lapsed into - and eventually totally devolved into - lame comedy-horror territory. And, again, ended on an unsatisfactory note. What about The Unborn? Hot chica with a fantastic knickers-clad ass on the front cover - they even made it lenticular too - but literally nothing else going for it. Tried and tired ideas, tepid thrills, bad acting and a wasted Gary Oldman. Nope, that doesn't do the trick either.

    Given up on modern horrors? Why not try foreign films? Rec, Pan's Labyrinth, Haute Tension, Ringu. Wow, suddenly, it all fits into place. Decent horrors. Perfect. Hang on a second, subtitles. Not a good idea to have to concentrate so hard when all you want is that basic instinct of clinging to one another for survival through the movie. How about remakes? Oddly, not a bad idea - even though they aren't generally a patch on the originals Hollywood has embraced the fact that audiences can't read and just 'converted' the movies into Western variations - often with as poor results that they might as well just have badly dubbed them like in the old days, but occasionally with a little spark and venom. Bored of remaking foreign movies? How about we remake movies from, let's say, 30 years ago, which have grown in notoriety over the decades and have something of a cult following now. Perhaps the movies of Wes Craven? Horror maestro of the 70s and early 80s, he provided us with numerous classic slashers, even returning to form for his decent Scream trilogy a decade ago, so why not revisit his material? Haven't the rights just reverted to Craven himself? Wow, well maybe even he can cash in on the remakes.

    Having done a new Hills Have Eyes, and with a new Nightmare on Elm Street film on the way, that only really leaves us with The Last House on the Left. Perhaps not as well known as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, or either of Craven's other efforts, the name will sound familiar to most people, and so the end result has the potential to make a lot of money based just on the name itself. Cash Cow Central, where money is the name of the game. When will Hollywood learn?

    Mari Collingwood and her best friend Paige just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Enticed back to a hotel room to get wasted with a young stranger named Justin, they are in for a shock when his dad, Krug, comes back with a bunch of friends and - as a wanted felon who could be identified - decides to kidnap and dispose of the girls. Beaten, taken out to the woods and then beaten some more, their escape attempts prove futile, and leave Paige stabbed repeatedly to death, with Mari raped and then shot, but only left for dead. The assailants take off in the night, but find themselves trapped by a storm and a flood, and knocking for assistance on the door of a house in the middle of nowhere.

    John and Emma Collingwood take the four strangers in, with accomplished doctor, John, tending to their wounds (which came about from the attempted escapes, but they say was from a car crash) and Emma serving them hot cocoa, blissfully unaware of the fact that these were the criminals who kidnapped, beat, raped and shot their daughter. Allowing them to stay the night in the guest house, they slowly become aware that something has happened to Mari and - with a tip-off from the guilt-ridden son (the only member of the violent bunch who appears to show any kind of remorse) - they realise that Krug and his gang are behind it all and decide to take revenge on them.

    The Last House on the Left is a strictly by-the-numbers horror-revenge thriller, only with a distinct lack of tension as you know that: a) the girls at the beginning have no chance and b) the villains at the end have no chance. It's that simple. There are only a very limited number of characters involved - 8 - so the death count is also kept low for a horror - 4 - and very little time to get to know any of them so by the end of the movie you wonder what exactly was the point of it all? Whilst the original was a cheap and nasty horror flick, it purported to warn us of the desensitisation of violence that had seeped into society - few knew the true horrors of the Vietnam War and, as a cautionary tale against bloodlust and becoming the very monster you hate, it clearly had more going for it than just a rape-revenge storyline.

    Here there is no blurring of the lines, the 'good guys' are clearly defined and the actions taken by them are totally justified - on the face of it. In fact, pretty much everything up until the final closing act of (surreal, improbable) violence could probably be labelled as self-defence. The angry parents even take pity on the ashamed son, Justin, despite the fact that they have no clear knowledge of who exactly did what to their daughter - for all they know, he could have been the one to hold her down during the rape, or he could even be remorseful because he raped her himself. It's as if the parents read the script first, and so they don't need to ask questions like - is Paige still alive out there in the woods? Were there any others involved in this? What exactly did the female member of the gang do?

    Further adding to the frustration over some of the characters' motivations, there is little to no development or back-story to any of them. The ill-fated girls make you feel little towards them before their assault, with TV star Sara Paxton and Superbad's Martha MacIsaac having very little time to do anything other than struggle to stay alive. The gang members are distinctly one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, led by Deadwood and Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles villain Garret Dillahunt as Krug (is that even a name?), and largely forgettable - nervous, wimpy son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark); grungy, volatile Francis (Aaron Paul), and Riki Lindhome as Krug's nasty, also randomly nihilistic lover Sadie. Dillahunt is probably renowned now for forging utterly despicable bad guys, and he is so underdeveloped here that you wonder whether they are just playing on his name being synonymous with evil. Then we have the parents - Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn. Goldwyn, for me, has done too many villainous roles (Kiss the Girls, 6th Day) not to suffer the same fate of guilt by association as Dillahunt - only in the wrong direction. His supposed hero does little to justify the title, other than get riled and go for revenge, which is - all in all - more anti-hero than heroic. Potter (Along Came a Spider, Con Air) too has nothing to work with, although she has finally matured sufficiently out of her cute-girl looks to be taken reasonably seriously. I suppose it is not particularly common for horror films to have solid characters but it is a bit of a shame that there was not more time - or more effort - put in to fleshing out at least some of these individuals.

    Still, even though they have stripped away most of the tension, forged the characters out of cardboard, ripped out the anti-violence heart of the subject matter and moralistic tale condemning eye-for-an-eye retribution, and hole-punched the story into Swiss Gouda, the end result does have the benefit of being a refreshingly normal and unabrasive horror-thriller. It does not attempt to appear more dirty and gritty than your standard stylish horror vehicle - and consequently feels less scarily realistic; and it does not employ too many striking shock-gore tactics (that most post-Hostel horror-porn movies do) and so the standout scenes are unlikely to actually make you turn away (Zodiac and Irreversible do cringe-worthy, realistic stabbing and rape - respectively - far more realistically).

    I'm fed up with Hostel-style boundary-pushing nausea-inducing horror porn, that leaves you feeling like some sick voyeur, and I'm quite drained by all the 'realistic' movies out there which can be emotionally disturbing (this may well be a poor man's Irreversible, but at least it does not have that bitter aftertaste at the end) so perhaps 2009's Last House on the Left succeeds in its attempt to be a fairly unambitious, uneventful , unobjectionable horror remake which plays out predictably and leaves you with some semblance of satisfaction. Whilst more tension may have made this a better date movie, and a deeper meaning to the whole thing could have given it more resonance, at least it neither leaves you feeling sick and violated at the end, nor makes you question whether there is indeed any justice in the world. Simple, mindless, derivative and harmless escapism.