The Last House on the Left

(2009) ** 1/2 R
100 min. Rogue Pictures. Director: Dennis Iliadis. Cast: Garret Dillahunt, Martha MacIsaac, Riki Lindhome, Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Spencer Treat Clark.

/content/films/3367/1.jpgIf nastiness upon nastiness is your thing, and the box office for torture-porn horror suggests that it is, I suppose The Last House on the Left fits the bill. A sanctioned remake of Wes Craven's 1972 original (itself inspired by, of all things, Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring), The Last House on the Left is harrowing, R-rated horror culminating in a depraved, implicit endorsement of bloodlusty revenge. It's not everyone's idea of Friday night entertainment, but judging by the cheers that accompanied eviscerations and other bodily violations at the film's "word of mouth"/press screening, it is for many. Executive producer Craven yields the remake to Greek director Dennis Iliadis (Hardcore), and the film delivers the screw-turning tension and unimpeachable acting a few million dollars can buy. But make no mistake: this is exactly the sort of picture Michael Haneke was going after in his satirical 1997 Funny Games and 2007 Funny Games U.S.

Ironically, those viewers trapped in the film's nihilism and hoping for more can amuse themselves by looking at the film as an Aristotelian tragedy—take that, Friday the 13th remake! The victimized bourgeois family who own the titular lake house in the woods earn special derision from their not-working-class victimizers, a band of criminals whose fearless leader has just been sprung from custody. John and Emma Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) and their teenage daughter Mari (Sara Paxton, wearing a suspiciously tiny dress) make a collective tragic hero of traditionally high status. At the outset of a weekend at the lake, the three come to an agreement that Mari can go into town to hang with her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), leaving a reluctant Mom and frisky Dad to enjoy each other's company. This tragic, if petty, error (and Mari's consequent submission to a double whammy of peer pressure and pot use) leads to a reversal of fortune.

The girls run afoul of the criminals, resulting in rape and fatality. The audience experiences pity and fear as the reversal of fortune, in turn, builds to the drawn-out cathartic climax: a surprise meeting of the criminals—posing as everyday car accident victims—and Mari's parents, who offer medical assistance and a port in a (literal) storm. It's a purging of emotion accompanied by symbolic bloody wounds (amid the symbolic storm). Along the way there's a moment of truth: the revelation of the criminal's identity and most recent crime, and given the circumstances, their revenge can be excused as survivalism (though the form it takes is clearly relished, more than it it is dreaded, by Iliadis). The principal object lesson: learn to cherish being together with family, or live to regret your error. Oh, and don't mess with the American nuclear family, or you may find yourself nuked.

/content/films/3367/2.jpgScreenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth (Disturbia) may not have been consciously evoking the tragic form, but teens, you may have your angle to convince your parents to let you go to this brutal R-rated revenge fantasy (you can thank me later, or just sneak in as usual). What else will you learn from The Last House on the Left? Don't follow a stranger (Spencer Treat Clark), now matter how cute, to a motel room to smoke pot, 'cause his dad might turn out to be a killer like Krug (Garret Dillahunt of Deadwood and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), with a crew of lowlifes like Sadie (Riki Lindhome) and Francis (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad).  Bad dad Krug wants his son Justin to "grow some balls," which the relative innocent does in his own unpredictable fashion.

The pandering and glib finale robs the film of any right to a moral high ground and crowds away the serious notion of the lingering, lifelong consequences of the tragedy. But this largely unnecessary remake is viscerally effective nonetheless and includes a couple of surprisingly affecting moments. There's the terrible irony of Emma's blithe comment, unknowingly directed to one of her daughter's traumatizers, "It's nice—making memories." There's also a devastating (and perhaps partly unintentional) poignancy to the rapist's answer to the rape (spoiler alert!). The victim's first words: "I love to swim," then "I can do it." Besides announcing an empowering plan of self-salvation—regardless of its success or failure—the remark is an affirmation of humanity in the face of terrible dehumanization. She's in a horror movie, but she's no piece of meat.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 8/18/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Universal's Blu-ray of The Last House on the Left delivers a spotless and artifact-free transfer that is faithful to the film's grainy, disconcerting theatrical look. Colors and contrast are accurately reproduced, with deep blacks and excellent detail. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix likewise brings the theatrical surround experience home with a subtle, well-balanced presentation of dialogue, ambient effects, and John Murphy's score.

Extras are surprisingly slim on this disc, though it does include the option of watching either the Unrated Version or Theatrical Version of the feature and comes with a Digital Copy on a second disc. Aside from the usual My Scenes bookmarking feature and BD-Live hook-up, the disc is also D-BOX Motion Enabled for those who own the equipment.

For the rest of us, there's a selection of "Deleted Scenes" (8:58, SD), including five deleted bits and an outtake involving a set mishap. "A Look Inside" (2:41, HD) is a brief "sizzle reel" with a few comments from producer Wes Craven, director Dennis Iliadis, and producer Sean Cunningham. My guess is that it was originally produced for Comic-Con and/or ShoWest.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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