Sunday, 14 June 2009

The Last House on the Left

Last House on the Left went on general release in the UK on Friday 12 June.

Copyright 2009 Rogue Pictures

Spolier! This is a comparison between the 2009 release and the 1972 original. Plot points are discussed. Best read after watching at least one of the films.

The Last House on the Left (1972) was written and directed by Wes Craven. Yes he of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchise. Last House is his feature debut. He was 33 years old.

The movie opens with a topless shower scene introducing the victim Mari. It’s her birthday. She’s 17. The soundtrack by David Hess is reminiscent of Brian Hyland. It induces a knowing false sense of calm. This contrast technique was used at the turn of the century – Halloween H20, Jeepers Creepers. It belies what is to come.

The introduction to Mari’s family is of an over priced Waltons. Daddy’s a doctor blah blah blah and everyone loves each other. Mari is on her way out and Dr Daddy comments on her outfit ie a lack of bra wear.

You can see her nipples as plain as day.” - Dr Collingwood

Try putting that in the remake.

Mari may be rich but her friend Phyllis Stone isn’t (how many Phyllis’ under the age of thirty do you know?). Her parents are in the iron and steal business. Mother irons while daddy steals. Dr Daddy and mummy look down on Phyllis thus signalling Mari as a good egg. Her parents seem nice but they’re also snobs. She’s not.

The intro to the bad eggs is an inspired use of exposition. A news bulletin announces the gang’s escape in which they killed two prison guards and stomped a German shepherd to death. The scoundrels. Gang leader Krug was serving a life sentence for killing a priest and two nuns (nowadays he could argue for compensation). Sadie is described as an animal-like woman. Junior is Krug’s illegitimate son. Krug pipes him with heroin in order to keep control. Weasel has a long police record of child molestation and peeping ‘tomism’. The bulletin is in voice over a montage of the gang: Krug walks down the street and pops a child’s balloon with his cigar.

Okay. I’m convinced.

The difference in this film is the gang’s interaction. Whilst they’re holed up we see what the hierarchy is. The acting is natural and because of this there’s allowance for unobtrusive humour. Only the best can achieve this in a horror film. In this scene the excellent writing offers reason as to why the proceedings happen. There’s more going on than mere predators and prey.

The Krug gang are not humanised. Au contraire. They are demonised. What is clear is that these people are for real. Put them in the same space with Mari’s family and the collision will be the Time Machine.

There’s another set of characters to introduce; the (keystone) cops. The last house is situated near a small upstate New York town and the cops are suitable hicks. One’s a lazy fat bastard the other is a young dumb bull. Both bring levity and a ray of displaced hope. Their bumbling presence serves to raise the story tension.

Dr & Mrs Collingwood call the police to report their missing daughter. Fat bastard attempts to assuage their fears while he enjoys a portion of Mari’s birthday cake.

We’ve been getting a lot of calls like this in the past three or four years. Kids running off to the big city for a few days. Now chances are Mari will be back before supper.” - Sheriff

The double murder is both gruesome and unremitting. The torture and sadism displayed qualified it as a video nasty. It was banned in the UK on video (and subsequent home formats) in 1984. It was passed uncut in 2008.

The gang take refuge in the last house and class war commences. The battlefield is the dining table where the doctor observes their table manners; snobbery versus resentment buttered with envy.

People in China eating with sticks and these creeps got 16 utensils for every pea on a plate.” - Krug

The tension heightens when the gang find out they’re in Mari’s house. Doctor & Mrs are in the dark. Are they the next victims? Meanwhile the cops are closing in.

It is Krug’s own meanness that causes mummy to suss who they really are. Act 3 does test credulity. The seduction scene is improbable and the doctor turning the house into a booby trap is a stretch. However the goodwill the film has built to this point allows the viewer to co exist in the moment.

The dénouement is tension soaked excitement. A middle aged small town doctor fighting a younger hardened criminal is a mismatch. That’s how the scene is played. Watching the gang get theirs is exhilaration. Junior’s end is tragic poetry. Sadie’s is poetic justice. The final shot is freeze frame: The cultivated cultured life of the Collingwoods has ceased.

The Last House on the Left (1972) is not a perfect movie. The editing by Craven himself is chop-socky. There are continuity errors and Ada Washington seemed to be included to be laughed at rather than with. Since its original release it has been marketed and accepted as a horror film. It’s really a thriller. However on it own merits it is high quality cinematic storytelling. Note the sequence between Mari’s rape and murder. No dialogue. Mark out.

Copyright 1972 Sean Cunningham Films Ltd

What is the motivation of a remake? To retell or to exploit? A fine example of retelling is Phillip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). A hot mess of exploitation is The Invasion (2007) starring Nicole Kidman.

Start with an earthquake then slowly build to a climax – Syd Field

This credo is dogmatically followed in the James Bond films. The curtain raiser should set the tone for the rest of the movie. The Last House on the Left (2009) applies this by scene showing a convict mobile breakout. Krug is rescued by his gang.

In the movie world of show-don’t-tell this scene is a jump-up from Craven’s original. It also displays budget. This is a studio picture – with studio production values and not surprisingly better editing. The intent and execution of this first scene are good. The acting and writing not so good.

I think he’s dying now. What do you think he’s seeing?” – Sadie

A criminal gang shouldn’t look like hair and makeup by L’Oreal. If the aim is to portray the Krugs as cold hearted psychopaths then the rescue and bare handed murder would suffice. Computer generated dialogue is not needed. It’s an unintentional wink that these killers are True Romance cool.

The introduction of the family differs from ’72. Mari is a strong swimmer, doctor and mum are 21st century bourgeois bores. This is not a sympathetic threesome. Another change is they are city slickers vacationing at their woodland retreat. Why is this supposed to invoke sympathy? They arrive at the last house and start bickering. On reflection I prefer the Waltons to this instant bitching by the haves. There is updated backstory. The family is in pain; grieving over their deceased wonderboy son. It’s unnecessary. It misses the point.

In ’72 the Collingwood family were blissfully happy. Thus the invasion of Krug’s gang was ever more devastating. It harked at the fact that wherever you are, however safe you may feel, evil can seek you out. In ’09 these Collingwoods have already been touched by death. They are morose to begin with. It’s as if they brought the evil with them to tranquillity.

Mari drives into town and hooks up with her friend Paige (how many Phyllis’ under the age of thirty do you know?). Mari and Paige meet with Justin (the character formerly known as Junior). Insert broken mobile phone signal here. Then they’re pounced on by the rest of the gang.

In this sequence the remake has the better set up. It’s more plausible. However the Paige character is a stereotype. The spunky streetwise chick as portrayed by Martha MacIsaac is a drama school construct. I’m personally sick of films where a 17 year old girl escapes from the grip of a grown man holding a knife at her.

A word on the escape attempt – This is 2009. It is politically incorrect for females to be at the mercy of males ergo they make (and talk) like comic book super heroes and attempt escape bids that no US marine al-Qaeda captive would try. It is de rigueur in modern hack movies. Contrast this with the ’72 escape attempt: plausible, tension filled, hopeful. Then all hope is gone.

The sadism and brutality is retained from the original but the effect is diminished. It’s not due to desensitisation. It’s because the director is not the talent Wes Craven was in ’72. Or is now.

The Krug gang take refuge in the last house and doctor resets Frank’s (Weasel) broken nose. We’re now in torture porn territory. At least there is contemporary commentary when Sadie mentions they don’t have health insurance.

In a departure from ’72 only Justin finds out that they’re in Mari’s house. He surreptitiously alerts Mrs C. Meanwhile Mari who got shot in the lake during her second escape bid power swims home.


Thus this revenge story now defeats its own purpose. No one is mourning Paige and that includes the viewer. Mari is alive and patched up by super doc. The remainder of the film – 40 minutes worth – is an extended torture porn scene.

This film is more a remake of I Spit on Your Grave.

Wes Craven is credited as producer. Just how does Hollywood work? With all the money at Universal’s disposal if they wanted Craven’s name on the film for credibility purposes they would pay for it. It’s a supposition. Bear in mind Wes is credited as executive producer on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and now denies its significance in the canon. In time he will tell if he approves of this version.

I approve of good movies. Remakes, sequels, translations. Even originals.

The Last House on the Left (2009) is exploitation cinema. It’s the kind of movie that perpetuates a mainstream opinion; that horror fans are blood thirsty weirdos. It’s in bad taste and I fail to see its cultural merit and entertainment value as a whole.

The ’72 version worked because it heralded casual evil. Since ’72 we’ve seen plenty of that. ’09 version offers nothing but gore. It could have been different. The Krugs could have been terrorists/racists or disenfranchised capitalists. There’s always a story.

The makers of this new version weren’t interested in telling one.

Read more Thrill Fiction: Drag Me To Hell

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