Last House on the Left, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe takes a trip back down the one way road to Wes Craven's old house...
I’ve said before that ‘remake’ isn’t necessarily a bad word, especially concerning horror films, citing three classic ‘80s creature features ( The Thing, The Fly and The Blob) as examples of remakes that improve on the originals. Recently remake fever has overwhelmed the genre, and despite some visually arresting features, most of the ‘00s crop is thematically uninteresting. One example of arguable improvement over the original was French director Alexander Aja’s take on Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. Craven’s early work is ripe for remake status. As a storyteller the former college professor was, and is, a master. Craven’s best found socially relevant ways of retelling classic nightmares buried deeply in the subconscious of all humans. For his first two features he exploited fears of violation, and turned the late ‘60s peace and love ideals back on a generation by posing rough questions pertaining to the deep seeded subject of raw, visceral revenge. At the same time, his ‘eye for an eye’ nose rubbing featured subversive reminders of the death of the Baby Boomer’s American dream—namely the Vietnam War, the Manson Family murders, and Watergate.
Though these sub-textual reminders of human nature have been covered time and time again throughout exploitation cinema, there’s something else that makes Craven’s films particularly ideal for re-appropriation, and that is the early director’s skill (or lack thereof). Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, George Romero and other early ‘70s American horror pioneers came out of the box with expertly crafted terror tales, enacting entirely original nightmare worlds ( Texas Chainsaw Massacre), utilizing classical and classy suspense devices ( Halloween), or creating perfect, documentarian reality ( Night of the Living Dead). Craven’s first film, which was produced by future Friday the 13th director Sean Cunningham, was in comparison an amateur’s attempt at incendiary taboo smashing. Last House on the Left occupies a strange place in film history in that it is enormously influential, yet sort of awful. The slapdash production serves the film’s more unnerving elements well, and the rape and torture sequence is genuinely chilling to this day, more so than most features from the era, but misplaced comedy, weak characterizations (something that actually helped in the case of Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and ugly photography damage the rest of the film’s overall effectiveness. There is clearly room for improvement.
However, as in the case of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left has arguably been remade several dozen times already, practically marking the creation of an exploitation sub-genre—the rape/revenge film. The ideas of the rape/revenge cycle have been around since the beginnings of storytelling, and have made common appearances throughout film history. Factually Craven based his screenplay on one of arthouse director Ingmar Bergman’s most accessible features— The Virgin Spring. What Last House brought to the equation was a willingness to revel in the graphic nature of both the rape and the revenge. Unlike Chainsaw, the film’s genre defining aspects were regularly bested, by the likes of Meir Zarchi’s exceedingly unpleasant I Spit on Your Grave, Aldo Lado’s L'Ultimo treno della notte (aka Late Night Trains, basically a remake, but a much better film), and Abel Ferrara truly magnificent Ms. 45. Rape/revenge has seen a massive resurgence in the post-9/11 era, even in major Hollywood productions, with Oscar nominated actors and directors approaching the subject matter from a more mainstream point of view.
So the question still stands concerning the need for a direct remake of Craven’s original film, and in this case I have to let the results speak for themselves. The plot remains basically the same, but there are some cosmetic tweaks peppered throughout the new film. One minor change I don’t really like concerns the character of Paige, who in this version is a bit of an annoying panic case. In the original film she (under the name Phyllis) takes control of the situation, and really does everything she can to protect Mari (who it should be said doesn’t devolve into hysterics either), and Lucy Grantham’s performance is probably my favourite single element of the original movie. This aside, most of the changes are preferable. Director Dennis Iliadis and his screenwriters score most of their points for finding logical reasons for all the original contrivances, most specifically the ridiculous placement of the characters. Happening across the street from the protagonist’s house has always been a logical problem. Instead of just happening by, Mari tricks the villains into taking a wrong turn, and then causes a wicked car accident (which is brief, but superbly shot). The dopey cop subplot is entirely deleted, and the characters are beefed up, and their motivations become slightly less cartoonish. The Krug family dynamics are actually dynamic in this version, though a lot of that has more to do with the calibre of acting than the characterizations.
There is another hand to the situation through. Garret Dillahunt is a fantastic actor (one of my favourite character actors in the business), as is Breaking Bad alumni Aaron Paul, and everyone is technically very superior to the actors in Craven’s film, but there’s still something about David Hess and Fred J. Lincoln that inspire an unbearable degree of disturbance, as if Cunningham and Craven just pulled real rapists off the streets. Comparing the two films is a pull between the knowing talent of this new film, which reveals a more ‘realistic’ story and narrative (though at some point the justification starts to get a little silly), and the original, which is dangerous in its more naturalistic production (stupid cop subplot not withstanding). However, there is something to be said for Craven’s original pacing, and the remake’s nearly two hour runtime, despite the loss of major character subplots, is a bit excessive.
Runtimes and slightly less terrifying character actors aside, the remake is basically a better film, but it has one major shortcomings when put against the original film’s uncontrolled production and almost anarchic sense of impending violence—intent. Iliadis’ film is effectively gory, and the unrated rape scene is genuinely mortifying, but all the justification and one damning change to the original story depletes much of the raw exploitative element, and in a way Craven’s original point. Our ‘heroes’ aren’t quite the brutal take on liberal white America finding its lizard brain id, and spend more time reacting to violence, rather than enacting violence. There isn’t a court in the land that would convict these folks, whereas in the case of the original film, they’d probably be serving some time. Well, maybe not, stick around for the last few minutes, which feel entirely tacked-on, but do feature the one, undeniably gleeful moment of over-the-top vengeance.
Iliadis understands what movie he’s making, and is sure to keep the photography simple, hand held, and gritty. The focus is sometimes sloppily pulled, and seemingly important details slide out of frame as if the camera man were simply trying to pick up the action, and for the most part it works, but it isn’t the most conducive to 1080p video. The print is super grainy. Every scene, hue, and shade is swimming with dancing pixels. Details are obscured by prevalent darkness, shallow focus, and, oh yeah, the epic grain. The daylight scenes are colourful and bright enough to make the whole high definition thing worth the wile, and the middle section features some solid and clean high contrast blacks, but the last act is not going to please videophiles with its muddied colours, and perverted blacks. This is all on purpose, so it’s not an aesthetic problem; I’m just not sure if fans want to dole out the extra cash for a Blu-ray copy.
The sound design of Last House on the Left is plenty aggressive, but it’s also pretty silly, and almost exclusively unrelated to anything actually on screen. The surround channels feature rumbling kettle drums, screeching feedback, and apparently a helicopter, all of which signify ‘creepy’. More clearly defined sounds that impress on the DTS-HD track, especially the ‘escape’ scene, where whizzing bullets, pounding rain, and underwater effects that fill all the channels. The dialog track is mostly clear, but in keeping with the cinema verite style some aspects are clearer than others. Danny Boyle favoured composer John Murphy’s score is pretty effective, and matches the otherwise eerie mix of noises.
Extras are minimal, starting with a deleted scene reel (09:00, SD), which includes what appears to be a pretty major blooper (no gore deletions). The only other extra is a brief making-of EPK (02:40, SD), which played pretty regularly on cable television a few months back. It’s too bad that the studio didn’t feel fit to supply us with a director’s commentary, or a commentary with Craven, or even a decent look at production.
Last House on the Left is better written, acted, and directed than the original 1972 film, but it’s a lot easier to remember that this one is only a movie (only a movie, only a movie…), which robs it of some of the original’s disturbing realism. The disc looks and sounds pretty rough, but this is part of the point of the gritty exercise. The big disappointment here is the lack of meaty extras.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 18th August 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS 5.1 French, DTS 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French and Spanish
Extras: Deleted Scenes, A Look Inside, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dennis Iliadis
Cast: Garret Dillahunt, Monica Potter, Tony Goldwyn, Michael Bowen, Joshua Cox
Length: 113 minutes
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