A surprisingly effective little thriller from an unlikely source, Dennis Iliadis´ The Last House on the Left is a jarring, visceral film that is by rights superior to Wes Craven´s 1972 original. The first 3/4 is as good as the genre can get, before a deflated climax turns the film into a straightforward thriller instead of the morally complex rumination on revenge that lies at the heart of the material (the original film was an uncredited remake of Bergman´s The Virgin Spring).
The film must have surprised its producers too: IMDb tells me it was headed for a straight-to-DVD release before positive test screenings. I´m guessing the bravura, tacked-on head-in-a-microwave finale was also a result of test screening audiences feeling unsatisfied.
Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton) is spending the summer with parents Emma and John (Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn) in a remote woodland cabin. She goes out with friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), the girls meet Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), and then go back to his hotel and smoke pot with him. Then his ‘family´ unexpectedly comes back: ‘father´ Krug (Garret Dillahunt), ‘uncle´ Francis (Aaron Paul), and Sadie (Riki Lindhome). Degenerates on the lam, inspired (at least in the original) by the Manson family. They take the girls out to woods and torture, rape, and murder follow. Then the family winds up at the parents´ cabin, and you can guess where the film goes from there.
While this is essentially the same plot as the 1972 film, there are a few notable differences, which include a sympathetic member of the family, and the fate of one of the main characters. The screenplay attempts to rationalize the family´s actions: their pictures are in the paper, the girls have seen them, they have to do this. The torture and rape is less depraved here, if that´s possible, but the filmmakers´ restraint leaves the scenes even more disturbing. Sickening and reprehensible but entirely effective in manipulating the viewer’s emotions.
Acting is solid with one notable exception: Lindhome, who´s shrill and annoying as Sadie. The film attempts to paint her character as more sympathetic than the other degenerates, with a notable (and out of nowhere) mascara-in-the-rain tear after a shooting, but it´s all for naught; with Lindhome´s irritating personification, the character is the least likable of the bunch. Dillahunt is no David Hess, but he´s effective and memorable as Krug.
1972´s Last House on the Left jump-started the careers of director Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street), producers Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) and Steve Miner (Friday the 13th, Part II), and grindhouse-favorite leading man David Hess. It is certainly an important film, and maybe it played better in 1972, as Roger Ebert´s famously positive review can attest. Seen today, it´s poorly made, unconvincing, and just about unendurable, with comically exaggerated depravity and some truly unfortunate redneck sheriff comic relief. For a superior rape-revenge flick that at least has the courage of its convictions, see Meir Zarchi´s Day of the Woman, aka I Spit on Your Grave. Ebert called that one a “vile bag of garbage.”
2009´s Last House is certainly less depraved than the aforementioned, well-produced and Hollywood-slick. It´s the antithesis of Michael Haneke´s Funny Games, uncomfortable and disturbing but ultimately giving the audience the vengeance we crave. Unlike the original, it won´t be mistaken for a classic, but it´s a visceral thrill ride that delivers on those terms. Few films today can give desensitized audiences the kind of pulse-pounding excitement that this one does.
Also opening is Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (showtimes | IMDb), a sequel to the 2006 hit starring Ben Stiller as a night watchman dumbfounded by Museum of Natural History creations come to life. It´s screening in a Czech-dubbed version in most cinemas, but an English-language copy can be found at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům. I´ve seen the Czech dub, which I don´t want to review, but it´s about what you´d expect; perhaps a little better than the previous film, they´re at the Smithsonian this time around, and there´s some fun in all the classic paintings and abstract sculptures and Einstein bobbleheads come to life. It really drags on towards the end, though.