Remakes are a funny thing. No one asks for them. In fact, we all complain about them. When they’re at their worst, remakes inspire more vitriol from fans than any other breed of film within the genre. When they’re at their best, we are struck with writers block trying to find a clever way to say a particular remake is an exception to the rule that remakes are the final proof Hollywood is a dead fuck (Sorry, I just watched FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 4 last night). And yet here we’ve arrived at the same unexpected crossroads as Aja’s bravado remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES.
As with HILLS, remaking LAST HOUSE ain’t exactly putting a foot through a Van Gogh. The original film, itself a remake of Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING, itself an adaptation of a Nordic poem, itself probably based on a cave painting, brought Wes Craven to the world of professional film making but it was a lopsided mixture. Disturbing, oh yes, but sabotaged by off-the-mark attempts at injecting comedy into tragedy, comedy as subtle and welcome as Carrot Top giving a eulogy. As with HILLS, it took Craven stepping away from his own material and hiring a (coincidentally) European unknown to take over directorial reigns to bring it home. Once again, as with HILLS, the resultant film is not only better than its source, but better than most horror films released around the same time.
Greek director Dennis Iliadis has biopsied all of the distracting elements of Craven’s film, leaving behind a lean and mean shocker. Iliadis approaches the savage details of the definitive revenge story with the fragility such truly difficult material demands. Gone are all of the ill conceived elements. No bumbling cops, no junkie killers. Alleca and Ellsworth’s script is a reconciliation between those who seek murder and those who are driven to it, no further distractions necessary. If 2009’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT has any lasting fault this failure to compromise is it. Pressure is fueled by murder and only ever relieved by murder, a macabre totality some may find a bit too heavy in these already somber times.
Personally that just gives me all the more reason to love on the film. Yes, LAST HOUSE is no funny business, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Iliadis has reminded me of a feat few in the game accomplish. In the right hands good thrills, even if coming from the darkest of places, are, well, thrilling.
No long preface necessary. Little has changed in 30 years and what little did change was for the better. Even without having seen Craven’s original, all should be familiar with LAST HOUSE’s story of a family of spree killers arriving at the titular abode of the girl they’ve just raped and killed(?). Said girl’s parents are hospitable enough to fall for the guise of the drifters, setting them up for the night until they learn their true identities. Tables are turned, the sane now take on the rational role of the insane. This is the hook of the film, a timeless what-would-you-do hook.
Worth mentioning more than the story itself is Iliadis’ handling of it. Addressing the white rape elephant in the room, I find it awkward to say that this LAST HOUSE does rape right, but, shrug, it does. The act this go around is uncomfortable enough to be disarming while staying within the range of what is tolerable. I realize how silly this discussion is, to imply that rape can ever be tolerable, but the supreme violation of Mary is the most pivotal moment of the film. It snares the viewer to her plight and, subsequently, the motivation of the parents. It’s a tough moment to get through, made even tougher by Iliadis calculated blocking and pacing, but its necessary to pave the way for catharsis.
It is in this irreversible scene that Iliadis’ sells the viewer on the entire picture, a sell based on delicate direction of a terrific cast. Sarah Paxton could not have chosen a more adult movie to shake off her Disney tween image. Interviews show she took on the role for the challenge, a challenge handily met. Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter are welcome faces as her parents, but the real show stealer is character actor Garret Dillahunt inheriting the sleazy charge of Krug and delivering a comparably indelible performance as David Hess did all those years ago. Equal kudos goes to Riki Lindhome as Sadie, lover of Krug, whose conflict between sexuality and lethality is framed within a screen presence best explained as that of a feral cat.
As mentioned, the script lets in no levity to relieve tension. Stress is only ever dissipated by more death. It’s the good death, though. The type of death audiences cheer for. And, save for the film’s final moment, a stupid moment memorable for all the wrong reasons, the script never takes a wrong turn. I doubt this will be the final time we see this particular revenge formula put to screen. It’s a great dynamic, period. So until the day Jonathan Craven produces a movie about intergalactic smugglers who take refuge on an asteroid colony belonging to the parents of the space cadet they just lift drifting in the endless ink, Dennis Iliadis’ film will be, for me, the ideal LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.