Monday, March 16, 2009

Why The Last House on the Left is more than vile trash

I suppose I should start this review off by admitting to bias-- Adam Alleca is the cowriter of the new remake of Last House on the Left, and in addition to being a fellow Emerson grad, he's engaged to my best friend in the world. So obviously I was inclined to like this movie. But the script was thoroughly rewritten by Carl Ellsworth, with all new dialogue and a number of new twists (including a bit of business involving a microwave teased in the trailers), so even Adam wasn't necessarily going to embrace the final product. Yet he and my friend Ashley concluded it was a pretty damn good movie, despite some reservations, and I'd have to agree. A glossy revamp of Wes Craven's first, rudest and crudest film, Last House finds a more emotional core to its harrowing story without sacrificing any of its edge. Many reviews have lumped this in with Hostel/Saw style torture porn, but I think that what sets this movie apart from those franchises is its humanistic underpinnings. The movie certainly features some stomach churningly extreme set pieces, as well as a rape that is hard to take (to say the least) but there are characters on the screen we can truly route for, rather than a mere gallery of cardboard idiots just asking to be dispatched. (Although it must be said that the villains of the piece are pretty much... just asking to be dispatched.) The Last House on the Left focuses on Mari (Sara Paxton, who resembles Mischa Barton but with talent), a sweet young girl with overprotective parents following the death of her brother Ben a year earlier. Her more accomodating father John (Tony Goldwyn) hands over the car keys so she can spend the day with her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac). But when the girls elect to follow a shy young boy named Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) back to his motel for some good weed, the situation soon devolves into a nightmare surpassing mom Emma (Monica Potter)'s worst fears. Justin's father Krug (an appropriately menacing Garret Dillahunt) arrives with his band of psychos in tow, and the gang brutalizes both girls and, kills Paige, but not before Mari crashes their car. Leaving Mari for dead, the group winds up on the doorstep of John and Emma, who are happy to offer them a safe place to spend the night... but of course it's only a matter of time they discover both their daughter's critical condition and just who's to blame. What follows is a gripping descent into depravity as mom and dad take a revenge just as sick as what the criminals have done to their daughter. This was the point of the original film, too: how our desire for vengeance can debase us to the level of those who've done us wrong. But while the admittedly effective crudity of the shoestring original left little room for character insight, the new Last House is more fully fleshed out. Critics have called the direction and acting amateurish, but I fail to see either criticism. Newcomer Dennis Iliadis is a skilled visual stylist and wrangles effective performances from all of his principals. Goldwyn, Potter, and Paxton felt like a real family-- with Potter in particular turning in a vivid and sympathetic performance. I also enjoyed the character arc for Justin, who finally manages to stand up to his abusive and twisted father (with Clark showing himself to be a promising newcomer). The bad guys are caricatures, to be sure, but they don't need to be more. We know they're monsters; the compelling part is seeing just how monstrous Mom and Dad will get-- and by extension pondering what our own response would be to such a situation. We might like to think we wouldn't go as far as these two, who create the grisliest kitchen chamber of horrors since Gremlins. But the grisly and intense Last House allows us to ponder this disturbing question from the safety of a movie theater, like all good horror movies do. While Last House isn't a social commentary or a complete grindhouse romp like its predecessor, it remains a potent and compelling flick.


Ashley Beyer said...

A fine review, sir!! FYI: Viewers may recognize young Spencer Treat Clarke as the little boy from Gladiator as well as the mute kid from Mystic River. It is nice to see he has the acting chops that will carry him into a successful adult career.

e$ said...

"Asking to be dispatched" cracked me the hell up. I want to see this given the connections (which I was unaware of until I spied Ashley's hottie McWinslet pic on Facebook) but I really really really couldn't hack Hostel, so I am not sure if i can stomach this sort of gore. What's your gore factor comparison with this and that flick? Also--have you ever seen Funny Games? I really hated it, but since you are more into the genre than I, I am wondering if you appreciated it on some level I just didn't connect with.