Monday, March 23, 2009

Film Review - THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT: Buyer Beware...

You may be surprised to hear this, but the latest “classic” horror film remake, The Last House on the Left, is a fairly interesting nasty bit of business. A contemporary adaptation of the 1972 Wes Craven-directed exploitation shocker – which apparently featured explicit forced lesbianism, not to mention male genital amputation by way of toothy felatio (!) – this sleek update boasts a punishing rape scene, multiple graphic stabbings and stomach-churning home surgery. With that said, however, underneath its thick layer of repellently salacious sadism and wanton bloodlust lies a number of compelling performances, as well as some unexpectedly intriguing thematic ideas. I know, I know, shoot the horse and paint me red, but it’s true, gawsh darnit!

Produced by Craven, but helmed by novice director Dennis Iliadis, The Last House of the Left ’09 stars Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter as Dr. John and Emma Collington, successful upper-middle class yuppies and protective parents to a sweet teenage daughter named Mari (Sara Paxton). Still in painful mourning over the loss of their son, the couple decide to break free from the oppression of big city routine and take Mari for a peaceful holiday at the family lake-house. Unfortunately though, after their bubbly adolescent meets up with her mischievous gal pal Paige (Superbad cutie Martha MacIsaac), things slowly go horrifically awry.

Lured to the hotel room of a spaced-out youngster named Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) with the promise of seriously potent marijuana, the two girls are captured by the dumb kid’s escaped-con family, which consists of father Krug (Garret Dillahunt), his girlfriend Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and looney Uncle Francis (Aaron Paul). Roughed up and taken prisoner, the two girls and their captors wind up in the middle of the woods after an escape attempt leaves the getaway vehicle totalled. Angry and in pain, Krug and his crew proceed to viciously beat and terrorize the frightened duo, before brutally raping the petrified Mari and leaving the two girls for dead. Seeking refuge from the dark forest and merciless downpour, the criminals, through freakish circumstance, find themselves seeking shelter and aid at the Collington’s summer home. However, after the genuine nature of Krug and company’s crimes becomes known to the emotionally ailing couple, the hunters quickly find themselves becoming the hunted...

Now, before proceeding any further, I feel it is my obligation to seriously warn those of you unable to stomach appalling on-screen atrocities – namely those with sound morals and healthy psyches – to steer far away. The Last House on the Left is an often punishing experience which is shockingly effective at dragging the audience into the cruellest of human acts without glossy filters or ironic detachment. The murders are cold-blooded and severe and the act of sexual violence is guaranteed to lead to nervous fidgeting and uncomfortable silence. So buyers beware.

Now, as for the rest of us sick degenerates, the film also presents a curiously involving depiction of the Collington’s disturbing shift from calm domesticity into savagery. Unlike more conventional Hollywood revenge thrillers, the couple is never given a clean-cut dramatic turning point. John and Emma aren’t super-parents like Taken’s Liam Neeson, with skills and iron-tight plans; they’re clumsy and out-matched, almost accidentally shifting into offensive mode through sheer irate confusion and over-taxed nerves. Goldwyn and Potter imbue these characters with a dogged sense of outraged perseverance and stark realism, grabbing our sympathies but also occasionally causing us to question the nature of their actions. They also exhibit the appropriate level of pathos, exposing the inner pains of two wounded individuals who are seeing their last remaining chance for a happy home-life quickly dissolve. Through skilful editing and honest direction, the couple’s hunt for catharsis through ferocity is both disquieting and disturbingly liberating.

The killers themselves are also nicely drawn, with Dillahunt’s Krug (wasn’t that the main baddie’s name in Donkey Kong Country?) the most fearsome presence. Like the Collingtons, he seems to be operating on blind instinct and improvisation, rarely comfortable or in control. Unable to manage his hysterical victims and lunatic family, Krug’s volcanic temper and lack of restraint make him an ideal counterpart to the anxiously resourceful protagonists. The final scene in the film, where we witness the monster’s guard finally crumble, is more memorable for Dillahunt’s trapped-animal mask of terror than for the admittedly spectacular gruesome pay-off.

In a pop-culture atmosphere which prides itself on using excessively improbable gore effects and easy-scares to frighten an audience, it’s strangely refreshing to come across an ugly little thriller that doesn’t think twice about running movie-goers through the wringer. The Last House on the Left is an exhausting, wicked nightmare of a movie which, despite the odd tedious moment, achieves exactly what it set out to accomplish. Whether you decide to take the turn or drive right past is totally up to you.

3.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: March 23rd, 2009.