CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (2009)
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(Close-up of LL SOARES lying down on a table with his head inside a microwave oven. MICHAEL ARRUDA enters the room)
MA: What are you doing? Cleaning the microwave with your tongue again?
LS: No, I’m— hmm, it does need cleaning—I’m just drying my hair. Can you push the START button for me?
MA: You don’t have any hair. Now stop fooling around so we can review the new remake of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.
LS (pulls himself out of the microwave and sits up on the table. He pats his head): I used to have hair.
So Where was I? Ahhh, revenge. One of my favorite themes in horror fiction. And LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is about nothing if not revenge.
MA: Well said, Lex Luthor.
LS: First off a little history lesson. This is actually the third version of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, unless you count Ingmar Bergman’s film VIRGIN SPRING (1960), which supposedly was the inspiration for the first LAST HOUSE, then the movie’s been made four times!
The original LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) was the debut film of director Wes Craven. The plot is pretty simple. Two girls trying to score some pot before a concert come into the orbit of some escaped convicts who brutally rape and kill them. The convicts then end up at the house of one of the girl’s parents, who find out the truth, and exact their revenge against the evil-doers.
I’m actually a fan of Craven’s original film. Sure, it’s a sleaze/exploitation classic, but it’s also a powerful and disturbing movie.
MA: I didn’t like Craven’s original film. While you think it’s a classic, I found it trashy and exploitative. And I think it’s interesting that our different takes on the original influences how we view the remake. More on that as we continue.
LS: I’m one of these people who think good horror should actually screw with your head. I’m all for dopey fun like the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies and stuff like that, but the real good stuff includes films that actually disturb you. Like the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) and more recent fair like JACK KETCHUM’S THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (2007).
MA: I agree with you on this point.
LS: Yeah, sure you do.
MA: I do. I think there are some horror movies that succeed because they disturb you, and that’s a good thing. Others succeed without disturbing you. But there’s a difference in my book between being disturbed and feeling revulsion. That’s a point where you and I differ.
LS: The original LAST HOUSE was one of these films that really got under your skin. The lead convict, Krug, as played by the amazing David Hess, was pure evil, with a real penchant for sadism. The girls in the original film weren’t just murdered, they were humiliated and brutalized first, and these scenes lasted a long time, to really make for a very unpleasant experience.
MA: Which is a major reason why I didn’t like the original movie.
LS: So by the time the bad guys ended up at the house of their victims’ parents, you hated them enough so that you really relished when they got their comeuppance.
MA: I felt the same way in the remake, without the long agonizing scene of brutality.
LS: I have to admit, I’m not a big Wes Craven fan, mostly because of his awful SCREAM films of the 90s.
MA: The SCREAM films aren’t awful.
LS: Seriously, they’re complete friggin garbage. And they also ushered in the whole Dawson’s Creek era of horror films, where every single one had to be about stupid kids. Suddenly, adults didn’t have a place in horror stories anymore. Complete casts were comprised of nothing but teenagers and twenty-somethings pretending to be teenagers, thanks to Craven as his SCREAM writer Kevin Williamson. This was actually one of the lowest points ever in the genre, between movies like the SCREAM series and equally lame rip-offs like I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER.
It figures you’d like this trash. With SCREAM, Craven pretty much turned horror movies into a joke, and it was years before they were taken seriously again.
MA: I think you’re giving Craven way too much credit here. I don’t think he single-handedly made the horror industry a laughing stock. The SCREAM films were funny for a reason, because the slasher franchises had gotten so silly over the years it was difficult to take them seriously, so the SCREAM movies poked fun at the clichés and pratfalls these movies had fallen into, and they did so with sharp humor (heh, heh) while remaining scary to boot.
LS: But back in the 1970s, when he was first starting out, Craven actually knew how to make a decent horror film. LAST HOUSE is very effective, as is his second film, THE HILLS HAVE EYES (which also had a decent remake made out of it a few years ago). After that, he pretty much lost his way, although he did create THE NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series and Freddy Krueger.
But early on, he was the man. Needless to say, it didn’t last long.
MA: Actually, he got better with age. So, take that, Dr. Evil!
LS: Are you sure you’re not brain damaged? But back to LAST HOUSE. The first time it was remade was in the 2005 film CHAOS, directed by David DeFalco. It may not give credit to the source material, but CHAOS is almost the exact same story. CHAOS is actually a pretty decent remake, too, with Kevin Gage starring as the sadistic escaped convict Chaos, who is the new version of the original convict Krug. I actually thought that version was pretty decent, and while it wasn’t as intense as the original film, it didn’t hold back on the violence and brutality.
The new version of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is much less raw, but the basic premise is the same. This time around, John and Emma Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter), along with their teenage daughter Mari (Sara Paxton), head out to a summer cottage in the middle of the woods for their summer vacation. Not only are they going there to escape their jobs and everyday life, they’re also going to get away from the grief of losing their son Ben, who died a year earlier.
When Mari borrows the family SUV to go visit her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), her parents decide to make the best of their first night in their summer home by having a romantic dinner together.
While Mari is visiting Paige at her job, as a cashier at a liquor store, they meet Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), a shy young man who offers to get them some primo pot if they’ll let him buy cigarettes (he’s not 21 yet, presumably). They agree and go back to his motel room. Things only go downhill from there.
All versions of this film play upon parental fears, which gives the story most of its power. Not only is it about parents whose child goes off on her own and falls prey to violent strangers, but her situation begins when she goes to score drugs (of course, since drugs are clearly evil in this context). While partying with Justin, the girls are surprised by the appearance of Justin’s father Krug (Garret Dillahunt) and his sidekicks Francis (Krug’s brother, played by Aaron Paul) and Krug’s psychotic girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome). Francis and Sadie have just sprung Krug from police custody (in an opening sequence they kill two cops who were planning to bring Krug in) and they’re all over the newspapers. Krug decides that, now that the girls have seen them, it’s not safe to keep them alive. Of course, he’s not about to kill them off before having a little fun with them first.
A road trip in Mari’s parents’ car goes awry when they have a car crash (when Mari and Paige try to escape). The angry criminals brutalize the girls, leaving them for dead. But with the car totaled and with a storm on the way, they have no choice but to seek shelter at the nearest possible place, which turns out to be the summer home of Emma’s parents. When they learn the truth about their new houseguests, the parents seek bloody revenge against these inhuman bastards.
Part of what made the original film so effective was its low-budget look. It added a kind of documentary quality to the film that made it seem more realistic, and thus possible.
MA: Which is a fancy way of saying the film looked cheap.
LS: The acting didn’t hurt either. The entire cast of the original Craven film was very good, especially David Hess as the incredibly creepy, curly-haired psychotic named Krug.
Some people may recognize Garret Dillahunt from his appearances on the HBO show DEADWOOD, where he played two roles (one of which was a wild west serial killer). He’s a good actor and has his moments here, but he simply is not as intense and just plain scary as Hess was in Craven’s original film.
There’s also a slickness to the new film that wasn’t in the original. This is clearly a Hollywood film. And the more brutal aspects of the original film are absent here. The torture and killing of the girls, for instance, is a scene which lasts much longer in the original. Here, they almost seem in a hurry to get that part over with, and linger much longer on the parents’ revenge in the final act. The infamous fellatio scene from the original film is also absent here. Instead, the big moment of the revenge motif is a scene involving a microwave, which is hinted at in the trailer, and doesn’t disappoint (But for some reason it did seem kind of goofy).
All in all, I think the remake was well done and wasn’t particularly painful to sit through for a real fan of the original like myself. However, the remake, while not awful, does not hold a candle to the original.
But what did you think, Michael?
MA: I think you hit the nail on the head when you said your reaction was influenced by you being a fan of the original. The same thing happened to me, but in the opposite way. I did not like the original, but— and I can’t believe I’m going to say this— I liked this movie. A lot.
I expected not to like THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. I expected it to be raw, raunchy, and excessively violent, but a funny thing happened while watching this movie. I found myself caring for the characters, and I felt genuine suspense during the latter half of the film, worrying about what might happen to the girl’s parents as they encountered the criminals. Suddenly I realized I was really into this movie.
The main reason I liked this film was that the story really drew me in. I cared about the characters and felt uncomfortable when bad things started to happen.
The original movie really wasn’t on my mind as I watched this version, which allowed me to view this movie with a fresh, open mind. I wasn’t thinking about comparing scenes or knowing in advance what was going to happen. No, I simply watched this film and experienced it as its own movie.
I agree with you about the violence not being as raw in this one, but I think that worked just fine. It wasn’t wimpy, that’s for sure. It contained R-rated violence, but it wasn’t exploitative. Sure, it was brutal, but— and this is where I’ve criticized other gory movies— it had a purpose. Hear that? A purpose! It wasn’t mindless gore. We have nasty criminals, real life baddies, not cliché, and if you think these guys aren’t like some real people, just watch the 6:00 news. Sad, but true. They’re not superhuman, like Jason or Michael Myers, which means that when they do real nasty things to two very likeable people, it’s believable and it’s scary.
Sure, the murder/rape scene isn’t as long or as brutal as the one in the original, but it’s still a difficult scene to watch, difficult enough to make its point, which is to give the girl’s parents a justifiable reason to fight back against these guys. It’s certainly not a PG-13 rated scene. I don’t think the movie wimped out on the violence. I think it just didn’t go overboard.
LS: I agree that the rape scene here is pretty intense, although it’s toned down in comparison to the original film and is not as stomach-churning as it was there. The original movie made you despise the bad guys even more, if that’s possible.
MA: I have to admit, I wanted the girl’s parents to get back at these guys. Now, the movie does a very good job of making this possible, which is one of the major reasons I liked it. Normally, I’m not into vengeance/revenge, and in a story like this, I’m thinking, you could call the police! How about that for an option? Sounds pretty good to me.
But the movie does a good job taking this option off the table, in a very believable way. Outside is a powerful, raging thunderstorm. Phone service is out, including their cell phone. When they find their daughter, who has somehow crawled home, danger is imminent. Should the criminals see their daughter, they’re in deep trouble. They also need to get her to the hospital as soon as possible to save her life. There isn’t time to think rationally. They have got to act and act now. So, when they do the things they do, it’s not as if they’ve sat down and planned an elaborate revenge/torture scheme to get back at the bad guys. Most of what they do is in self-defense anyway. If they don’t act, most likely they’re going to be killed. The movie does a good job of giving these people little choice but to fight, and so for those of us who prefer to choose violence as a last resort, these scenes of vengeance work.
LS: You know, one thing I wondered about in both version of LAST HOUSE, was why, if these criminals are so hardcore violent, why are they so well behaved when they go to the parents’ house? They’re in the middle of nowhere, trapped in a storm with a nice (and seemingly harmless) couple, and they suddenly remember their manners? Considering Krug and the gang are still on the run and still psychotic, you’d think that LAST HOUSE would turn into a slaughterhouse at this point.
MA: I thought the acting was all very good. While there wasn’t one performance in particular that stood heads above the others, as a group, the performers all satisfied. I liked Garret Dillahunt as Krug. When he was on screen, I felt uncomfortable as to what he might be capable of doing at any given moment.
I enjoyed Aaron Paul as Krug’s brother and Riki Lindhome as Sadie, the psycho girlfriend. And Spencer Treat Clark as Justin, Krug’s son, was especially effective as the one member of the group with a conscience.
LS: Justin’s character is a lot more important to the storyline this time than he was in the previous versions (he was called Junior in the original film). You certainly care about him more, here.
MA: Sara Paxton was fine as Mari, and she showed the right amount of fear and bravery in her scenes with the criminals.
LS: I’ll go one step further and say that Paxton was the best thing in the whole movie. She was really believable as Mari, a mature, level-headed girl who does her best to deal with a situation that is out of her control. I thought she was really terrific in this movie. It was a brave performance.
MA: I also really liked Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter as the parents. The scene where Potter has to pretend to show interest in Krug’s brother is a good one.
LS: Yep, she’s great, too. Some horror fans might remember that Potter was also in the original SAW back in 2004.
MA: Better than the acting was the screenplay. As written by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, it really works. This version of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is the kind of movie I’ve been talking about lately, as one that’s been sorely missing in the horror film world: a truly adult tale of horror that has some depth to it. Is it high art? Certainly not. Is it my favorite kind of horror movie, one that includes supernatural elements? Nope. But it is a genuine horror tale that gives reasons for its violence.
I also enjoyed the direction by Dennis Iliadis. I found the murder/rape scene very disturbing. It was not a scene I enjoyed watching, but it set the stage for what was to come later. The scene where Mari is swimming for her life, and she’s being shot at, I thought was extremely suspenseful, as was the scene later when the dad is reaching for the gun by the bed where Krug and Sadie are sleeping.
Like you, I didn’t find the violence in this one too raw, which was perfectly fine for me. Sure, there were a couple of over the top scenes, like the garbage disposal scene and the microwave scene, but these worked for me as well. The garbage disposal scene would have been a completely different animal had it been instigated by a character like, say Jason or Michael Myers. Had that been the case, it would have just been yet another clichéd horror movie scene. In this case, it’s instigated by two human beings pushed to their limits. There’s a big difference.
And the final microwave scene was so fast it was like an exclamation point, or a knock-out punch. One quick strike and you’re out. I hope dear old dad has a good lawyer, by the way, because the other killings could all be passed off as self-defense, but it might be difficult getting a judge to believe that about the microwave stunt!
(addressing audience) If you find yourself tempted to stay away from this movie, fearing it might be trashy or repulsive, I’m here to tell you otherwise. It’s not. It is violent. It is disturbing. But it’s also a very good movie, much better than the previews make it out to be.
Get out there and see it.
LS: As usual with most remakes, I didn’t think this one lived up to the original. But I also think that this year has been a really good year for above-average remakes of older films. Better than the dreck we’ve had to sit through in previous years. I enjoyed the remakes of MY BLOODY VALENTINE and (to a lesser degree) FRIDAY THE 13TH, and this one just keeps the ball rolling. However, where those other two remakes were violent, dumb fun, the remake of LAST HOUSE is an effective film in its own right that takes itself seriously, and that works as both a suspenseful crime film as well as a vicious story that spills over into true horror.
You’re right about us coming at this from different ends of the spectrum, but we’re pretty much in agreement here. The remake of LAST HOUSE is a well-made and effective horror film, and worth checking out.
MA: Yes it is, and it’s better than the remakes of MY BLOODY VALENTINE or FRIDAY THE 13th, two films I didn’t like.
(Behind them, out from the microwave pops a miniature version of LS, except he has hair cut in a bowl haircut. LS hoists the little guy upon his shoulders.)
LS: Aaah, it’s my clone, Mini Moe!
MA (confused): Mini Moe?
LS: “Mini Me” was already taken.
(Mini Moe leans over and pokes two fingers into MA’s eyes. MA cries out and stumbles off camera, followed by a great crash.)
LS: Thatta boy! Say good-bye to the people, Mini Moe. (Mini Moe and LS give the finger to the audience as the microwave oven beeps in the background)
(Originally published on Fear Zone on 3/15/2009)
© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(Editor’s Note: I totally forgot about “Mini-Moe.” I gotta bring him back sometime ~LS)