Dir: Dennis Iliadis. US. 2009. 110 mins.
A commercially-streamlined remake of Wes Craven's nasty, low-budget 1972 horror, The Last House on the Left can't decide whether it wants to play it straight and grim, or dash headlong into over-the-top cathartic vigilantism. While director Dennis Iliadis has no trouble capturing depravity, as the film wears on the script lets him down. The bad characters all seem sketched by type, and the film ends up being caught between grim reality - as captured in an unflinching rape sequence - and the gory celebration of exaggerated vengeance.
Almost three years ago to the day, another remake of a Craven property, The Hills Have Eyes, opened to $15.7m en route to a $69m worldwide gross. Last year The Strangers, another horror film about rural besiegement, made $81m worldwide. The Last House on the Left should track somewhere in between, translating smoothly to international genre audiences and also yielding significant ancillary earnings.
With summer looming, 17-year-old Mari Collingwood (Paxton) repairs with her parents Emma and John (Potter and Goldwyn) to a remote lakeside vacation cabin with its own standalone guest house. There, Mari reconnects with her friend Paige (MacIsaac) and, against her better judgement, follows her and fellow teen Justin (Clark), a stranger, back to his hotel room to enjoy some premium-grade pot.
Innocent fun quickly turns terrifying when Justin's father Krug (Dillahunt), sprung from police custody by his girlfriend Sadie (Lindhome) and brother Francis (Paul), returns unexpectedly, and decides that Mari and Paige can't be counted on to keep silent. A trek through the woods and an abortive escape attempt follow; Mari is eventually raped, shot and left to drown, but not before extracting a physical toll. As a howling storm approaches, Krug and his crew unwittingly seek refuge with the Collingwoods. When Mari finally crawls back home and John and Emma piece together the truth, they take retribution.
The movie's opening showcases a desperate hurriedness to prove its degenerate chops: not content to merely kill a cop, Krug taunts him as he's dying with a picture of his family. The characters here seem sketched by type, and an unlikely brood outside of this monstrous set-up. This is most evident with Sadie, who initially eggs on Krug's sexual assault of Mari. Subsequent scenes, however, seem to illustrate that the filmmakers are unsure of why she does this, and whether she regrets it.
The plot exists only to get us to the set-up for domestic blood-letting, and even then there's a strange hiccup where Mari disappears from the movie while her parents skulk about.
One scene, a particularly gruesome, panicky dispatching of Francis, effectively straddles both sides. The film's final act, though (violent grappling with a topless Sadie, a shirtless Krug needlessly antagonizing John), feels at once exploitative and ludicrous. And the end coda is patently ridiculous, the type of thing that feels like a concession to test audiences.
Committed if not exactly original performances help mask a good deal of these narrative deficiencies. There's a pinch of Robert De Niro's Max Cady to Dillahunt's Krug, while Paul definitely channels Ben Foster, and the string of scuzzy sadists he's played in Hostage, Alpha Dog and 3:10 to Yuma.
Shooting on location in South Africa, The Last House On The Left benefits from cinematographer Sharone Meir's experience both within the horror genre (The Haunting of Molly Hartley) and working outdoors (Mean Creek). Other tech credits are solid.
Universal Pictures International
Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, based on the motion picture written and directed by Wes Craven
Spencer Treat Clark