The Last House on the Left

Directed by Dennis Iliadis, 2009

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Update 3/23/09: Via The House Next Door comes word that The Virgin Spring is available for free, legal online viewing.

In case you're unfamiliar with the film or its reputation, let me give you an idea of just how disreputable the 1972 Wes Craven version of The Last House on the Left really is. I saw it in film school, in a horror-film class that was being taught by a professor who had stepped in at the last minute, after the one who had actually programmed the syllabus fell ill, so he was unfamiliar with some of the films that had been scheduled. The semester went pretty well went pretty well until the day we screened The Last House on the Left. The prof — a fine teacher and an expert in film in his own right — stood in front of the class afterward and declared that he had always considered himself a First Amendment absolutist. Until that day. Screening Last House for the first time, he said, had convinced him that there was a good case to be made for censorship. His argument was essentially that the film was sadistic and utterly worthless, the product of very small minds, a debasement of not just its cast and crew but of the audience members as well. I complicated matters somewhat by raising my hand and noting that The Last House on the Left was based on an Ingmar Bergman film, The Virgin Spring. As a defense of the film goes, I admit now that's pretty weak sauce, but it's what I had. And it worked, to a degree. I don't think it necessarily changed his mind about the film, but it altered the tenor of discussion. Slightly.

Mounting a defense of The Last House on the Left today, I'd focus instead on the film as a deliberate provocation of its audience. There was the Bergman connection behind the scenes, but that's really extra-textual information, something horror buffs can keep in their back pocket to whip out as evidence that the movie has an arthouse pedigree, like a neat bar trick. It was just a framework for Craven to hang an exploitation picture on, and perhaps the first in a trail of breadcrumbs (like the Buster Keaton influence on Shocker, or the crazy self-reflexivity of Wes Craven's New Nightmare) pointing the way back to his thoughtful academic background. There's a cautionary, conservative streak to the story too, illustrating what can happen to nice girls who, tempted by the promise of good weed and wild rock and roll, let their guard down. But the meat of Last House — the scenes that people remember, the unconscionable stuff that gives it its notoriety — is its wide-eyed depiction of sadism and rank sexual violence.

The Virgin Spring is based on an old Swedish folk song, "Töre's Daughter in Vänge." In broad terms, it's about a young woman named Karin who, sent on an errand in the woods, meets three goat-herders who end up raping and murdering her. The killers seek shelter, by coincidence, at the home of Karin's parents. When the parents realize (because the strangers have are carrying articles of Karin's clothing) what the men have done, the father kills them in his home. The film's title derives from the spring that comes bubbling up from the site where Karin's dead body lay.

Both versions of The Last House on the Left tell that same essential story, modernized and in very graphic fashion. In terms of craft, Craven's version is remarkably crude. Shot on Super 16 and blown up to grainy 35mm, it has the production values of an exploitation film. And in terms of content, it's crude even by exploitation standards. It's noteworthy for the long centerpiece scene in which the despicable Krug and his gang take two kidnapped women, Mari Collingwood and her friend Phyllis, into the woods, playing mind games such as demanding that they urinate in their pants, carving the letters "K-R-U-G" into one girl's chest, and so on. The film's centerpiece sequence depicts the knife-murder of Phyllis, who runs into the woods in a bid to give Mari a chance to escape, followed by the very ugly rape and subsequent shooting of Mari, who is left for dead in a nearby swamp. And then the film switches into a different gear entirely, as Krug and his thugs coincidentally seek refuge at the Collingwood residence, where all hell breaks loose - bullets, chainsaw, oral penectomy.

That kind of outrageous fare is a lot easier to devour than the queasy, almost psychological horror of the earlier scenes, with the two girls being degraded and slaughtered in the woods. That material has a rawness and immediacy that puts a primordial chill in your gullet — on the audio commentary from MGM's DVD release, Craven himself remarks that actress Sandra Cassel was terrified during that section of the shoot, in part because method actor David Hess, playing Krug, did what he could to remain aloof and unapproachable on location. The uncut version of the film includes footage of Mari's friend Phyllis actually being disemboweled by the killers. Gruesome stuff.

However, what really offended me on first viewing was the repeated and jarring tonal shift from these images of abject brutality to scenes of an incompetent local sheriff and his deputy bumbling their investigation of the Collingwood family's missing-persons report, complete with rinky-dink piano accompaniment. Craven's sudden shifts from his ugly, disturbingly intimate scenes of highly sexualized violence to this kind of half-assed down-home comic relief really angered me. It wasn't until some months later, looking back at the film, that I realized that those scenes didn't just function in the most obvious way — as a contrast to the violence, a relief from the intensity — but as a comment on it. The slapstick is so out of character from the rest of the film that it can be read as an authorial intrusion, the equivalent of the director leaning into frame and challenging the audience to reckon with its willing consumption of this material. "Fun stuff, huh?" I imagine Craven saying to himself behind the Steenbeck. "Having a good time, you sick fuckers?"

That's what makes The Last House on the Left a classic — it's a little bit unhinged. It doesn't play by the rules, it's interested in confronting its audience and, of course, it goes for the throat. The remake, directed by the Greek filmmaker Dennis Iliadis, is a relative walk in the park. The screenplay has been tightened up in pretty much all the ways you'd expect — with the exception of a prologue in which Krug's little buddies break him out of custody by ramming a police cruiser on a dark country road, the story now takes place mostly over the course of a single day and night. Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton) is now written as a driven young athlete who's likely to doff her clothing for a quick speed swim as soon as you get her near water. It's a nice touch, humanizing the victim as well as setting up her physical perserverance in the face of the ordeal to come. Her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) are portrayed as fairly cool folks, not at all like the almost comically out-of-touch adults in Craven's film. And the gang of thugs has been updated, too — this film's Krug (Garret Dillahunt) isn't quite as unpleasantly credible as David Hess in the original, but he suggests charisma and despicableness. His posse — comprising the loathsome Francis (Aaron Paul), the conscience-stricken Justin (dough-faced, sad-eyed Spencer Treat Clark), and the outright sexy Sadie (Riki Lindhome) — has been updated for the aughts, exuding a kind of wiry trailer-park toughness rather than the vaguely Manson-family vibe of the earlier picture's villains.

Interesting to see what hasn't changed — when Mari meets up with her old buddie Paige for a night out together, the pull of the demon weed is still their undoing. Charmed by young Justin's apparent sweetness, the girls hang out, smoking pot, in his motel room. When Krug, Francis, and Sadie arrive unexpectedly, Mari and Paige find themselves in a very bad place. What ensues is an extended sequence of terror, as Krug and crew drive off with the girls in tow, then are forced off the road as Mari tries to escape. Some of the offensive details have been removed — there is no forced-urination scene, the girls are no longer stripped and forced to embrace, and Krug no longer carves his initials in Mari's chest. But the rape scene remains. Its immediate lead-in is somewhat more disconcertingy sexualized than in the earlier film, but the act itself and especially the aftermath are adequately distasteful. Mari survives the assault, but it's ugly. She manages to drag herself back to her family's vacation house, barely alive, and she's not pretty. Sure, this is still an exploitation film, but it's fairly careful in acknowledging the seriousness of the crimes it depicts.

And it holds over something remarkable from the original film, which is the apparent disgust and malaise that overcomes Krug and his gang after the rape itself. Their chatty bravado is dialed down. Nobody talks. They seem reluctant to even look at each other. The treatment is meant to remind us that even the worst among us have souls, and that perhaps the wicked realize when they've gone a bridge too far. It's as if they've suddenly, simultaneously had an epiphany about what scumbags they are. That's an unexpected, effective moment in a tough film.

A bigger difference is that the requisite studio-movie gloss applied to this film has the effect of reducing the gritty, documentary-style efficiencies of the original. Where the earlier film went for over-the-top grindhouse gore and action in its revenge act, the new one plays it very straight, opting for more conventional showdowns that end in mere gunshots and hammer blows to the head rather than geysers of blood and penis-chewing mayhem. Lindhome does celebrate the return of gratuitous nudity to the R-rated horror film by playing her final fight with the parental units topless, and Dillahunt, as the last bad guy standing, skulks around the house in a cat-and-mouse game, taunting the angry elder Collingwood from a safe distance. To some degree this is a missed opportunity, because the set-up — vacation house and guest cottage populated by two grieving, weaponized parents and four overconfident sociopaths — cries out for the kind of taut, suspenseful set piece that the film barely delivers. Gone, too, is the historical context that made this story of exuberance and innocence lost in the dark woods feel like a parable of the American experience, post-flower power, in Vietnam.

But what has really changed is that the new film lets the parents off remarkably easy. The original had the mother compromise herself by seducing and engaging in a sexual act with the gullible Francis, the better to bite his dick off. And there was the irony of the father, an emergency-room doctor, subverting his professional ethics and skills by taking a chainsaw rather than a scalpel to Krug himself. The characters are allowed to keep more of their reserve and dignity in this version of the story — in fact, the film's coda is a crowd-pleasing zinger that seems designed to confirm the righteousness of their vengeance. The original film's highly effective and unnerving dream sequence — Craven's very first — which involved some crude dental work that scared the hell out of Francis, is replaced here by a simple but even more grisly coda involving Krug in bondage, Dexter-style, and an old microwave oven. It all seems designed to give viewers a little charge as they exit the theater, a sense that bloodlust has been requited, justice done, but it feels like an empty and probably cynical gesture. The new film has a workmanlike slickness and an appealing single-mindedness, but it's lost the very characteristics — that sense of grand, grimy tragedy — that gave it a reason to exist in the first place.

Posted by Bryant Frazer on March 16, 2009 6:05 PM

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