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The Last House on the Left Review – A Gentler Bit of Torture Porn for Torturous Times

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One of the most notorious movies of the 1970s, Wes Craven’s much reviled Last House on the Left (1972) was the product of an America traumatized by Altamont, the Manson murders and the Vietnam war, whose carnage was a staple of the nightly news. The remake, produced by Craven and producer Sean Cunningham (Friday the 13th), may be just as timely — can you say Abu Ghraib, suspension of civil liberties and collateral damage from the Iraq War? — but the new team behind the camera has systematically toned down the story’s visceral bite.

Pretty, 17-year-old Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton), a competitive high school swimmer, is looking forward to spending the summer with her parents, Dr. Jack Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn) and his wife, Emma (Monica Potter), at the family’s charming lakeside house. While her benevolent parents unpack, Mari wheedles permission to take the car so she can meet up with summer-pal Paige (Martha MacIsaac), who works at the local general store.

As an ominous storm darkens the horizon, Mari reluctantly accompanies the impetuous Paige to a nearby no-tell motel to score some dope from scruffy cutie Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), who just blew into town with his family. Unfortunately, Justin’s dad is the sociopathic Krug (Garret Dillahunt of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), whose brother (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad) and deeply damaged girlfriend (Riki Lindhome), just busted him out of a prison transport, killing two cops in the process. When Krug and company return unexpectedly, the girls’ fates are sealed: The fugitives need Mari’s car, and with their faces all over the newspapers, they can’t let Justin’s little friends go free.

After being graphically abused and terrorized, Paige and Mari make
an unsuccessful break for freedom that ends in Paige’s gruesome death
and the virginal Mari’s brutal rape by Krug, who shoots her in the back
as she makes a last, desperate effort to swim to safety. As the storm
rages, the killers make for the nearest shelter, which just happens to
be the Collingwood house. Mari’s parents are all good-neighbor
hospitality, but what will happen when they realize they’re sheltering
the thugs who brutalized their cherished daughter?

Anyone who doesn’t know what happens isn’t the audience for the new Last House,
that audience being thrill-seekers familiar with the original film’s
reputation but unwilling to watch old movies (anything that pre-dates Jaws), and horror buffs tantalized by the trailers — which give away the whole story, right down to the last nasty detail. You
can hardly blame Craven for sanctioning a remake of his Gimme
-era variation on Ingmar Bergman’s Academy Award-winning The Virgin Spring. The
same institutionalized violence that horrified him in the early ’70s is
back in the news and he can’t have been happy to see 2005’s coarse, Chaos rip off Last House virtually scene for scene.

But the new Last House fails to walk the original film’s
highly uncomfortable line between unrelenting bleakness and the
dispassionate recognition that both families — Krug’s feral brood and
the nice, middle class Collingwoods — run the same gamut of emotions,
from intense loyalty to explosive violence and astonishment at the
things of which they’re capable. Craven’s original didn’t ask viewers
to feel sorry for Krug and his band of alienated outsiders anymore than
it encouraged them to cheer when the Collingwoods methodically got
medieval on their asses. It just demanded that they recognize the ugly
truth that under the right circumstances, anyone is capable of

Take that ambivalence away and what’s left is a
formulaic exercise in righteous revenge: Decent, regular folks set
aside their scruples for the higher purpose of giving “bad people” (to
quote the movie’s juvenile tagline) the comeuppance they richly
deserve. Last House on the Left was never meant to be a
thrill ride and the original enraged and sickened audiences, in part
because it makes clear that eye-for-an-eye vengeance just leaves
everyone blind. The remake sends them home cheering, secure in the
knowledge that the cosmic debt has been settled and all’s right again
with the world.

For an alternate view of The Last House on the Left, check out James Rocchi’s review in What to See.

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