Sunday, September 02, 2012

'The Last House on the Left' remake: Well! Not so bad, except when it was

It only took three years but I finally got around to the "Last House on the Left" remake from 2009. I saw a preview for it at some theatrical feature or other and remember bellowing "Oh my God! Mari survives this time! It's a whole new game!" I can't remember if this got me ejected from the theater but I do remember being fascinated by the idea of letting poor Mari live through her ordeal. The agony of guilt! The hell she could wreak on her tormenters! She'd be like a slasher Lara Croft!

At that point, to be honest, I hadn't seen the 1972 original, only (this is so pretentious) "The Virgin Spring," the 1960 Bergman film on which it was based. But I loved the idea of a black-and-white Bergman film being remade as a slasher film, and  the original film's mores make perfect sense for a slasher movie: first the film revels in the young victim's sweetness and vanity and youthful innocence, then it goes to town tearing her apart, then it lets her parents wreak revenge on her killers. It's got so many interesting moral vectors. Perfect for the ethos of slasherland!

Wes Craven's movie goes though to a more savage place. There's no ethos at work in "Last House" 1972, just sadism and then revenge. Watching it is like watching the raw material from which slashers are made. The killers have no purpose beyond sheer nastiness -- they kill Mari and her friend Phyllis like schoolyard kids pulling the legs off insects. Mari's parents torment them almost in reflexive shock, like kicking a person who's kicked you, without the religious redemption offered by "Virgin Spring."

And then in 2009 we have this interesting remake! This time around Mari's dad is an ER physician, and she and her parents are mourning the death of her older brother. Their house in the woods is only their summer lake cottage. ("How many houses do you have?" killer Sadie asks in the third act, and you feel an early blister from the recession.) As soon as they arrive, Mari bugs off to hang out with her friend Page (a more '90s name than Phyllis, I guess), and soon they are once again making bad choices by trying to buy pot from the wrong guy!

One thing I really dug about this remake was the parallel between Mari and her annoyed parents ("You said you would call an hour ago!") with the aggrieved killer Krug and his son Justin, the aforementioned pot-selling wrong guy. There's a lovely interlude as Mari, Page and Justin lie around smoking up in a sleazy motel, and Justin is such a sweet mumblecore innocent that he kind of digs it when the girls start teasing him about his hair and playing around with his wardrobe like he's a Barbie doll. Mari and Page are adorable in their tiny shorts and training bras! The three of them could be in just about any movie! But then Krug walks in, radiating adult male heat, and you join the kids in thinking "uh-oh." Krug's as furious with Justin for letting these girls into his motel room as Mari's parents are for her taking the car out too long. From this point on, the adults are in charge.

The next act goes about like the original, except that Page gets stabbed instead of disemboweled and Mari's rape scene goes on for what feels like half an hour. Then she pops off to the lake and swims to safety, in spite of the bullet that whams into her shoulder and appears to finish her off. The villains end up at Mari's house, where her dad sets Krug's brother's broken nose and her mom fixes hot chocolate for Justin, who's acquired the hard stare and the lantern jaw of a young H.P. Lovecraft.

Then Mari comes home, which -- is almost irrelevant since the young HPL has already slipped her necklace to her parents, so they know this gang has done something nasty to their daughter. Mom and Dad creep into the guesthouse with a fireplace poker and the rest is just inevitable! Except, except, except. Well, the vectors are different.

Wes Craven's original makes clear that the killers are sadists who are just getting their kicks. "Piss your pants," his Krug tells Mari, just for fun. The remake gives them a motive: Krug's gang is helping him escape from a trip to prison, and their story has already made the local news. Their torture springs from desperation rather than sheer nastiness, and this is unfortunately a great deal less horrifying. Meanwhile, in the remake Mari's parents are scrambling to find their boat keys so they can transport her across the lake to a hospital. This may be the recession talking again, but it's just hard to sympathize with people as they struggle to find their boat keys. When they go homicidal on her attackers, they're just trying to hold them off till the keys turn up. It's a different vibe.

I figured this movie still had a scorpion's tail waiting to strike, and I thought we were getting close during a scene where Krug flees the guesthouse and starts creeping about the main house, where we last saw Mari lying on the couch alone. "Here comes the acid bath!" I thought. But -- turns out Mari's safely stashed away elsewhere, and Krug is done down by more predictable forces. The stinger that is here feels grafted on, a "shocker" ending that can't shock anyone who's seen a film with Tom Savini effects, and that feels untrue to the characters. It would work if Mari's parents (as in Wes Craven's original) had gone completely round the twist and had nothing left to survive for, but this film has bent over backward to let you know they're still looking to be good parents. They even adopt Justin, apparently. The escape to the hospital at the end is like watching the end of "Annie."

Still, it's got some grit and it's got some interest. I worried that it'd be excessively sanitized, like the godawful "Friday the 13th" remake, and it does start out looking like an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial but it does end up feeling dirty and wrong enough to satisfy even me. And it's cool that unlike for her predecessors, Mari doesn't end up automatically being killed after being raped. I know it's not realistic for survivors to leap up and kick ass after being brutalized, but still I'd like her survival to have affected the moral equation somehow. Maybe that'll be for the next generation to decide.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

'Cabin in the Woods': Joss Whedon is a smartass and I'm docking his allowance

"All I ask," exulted the usher at the Arclight, "is that you sit back, relax and prepare to have your faces rocked off." There is no better way to predispose me against a movie!

But yeah, it was Friday night and I was at a midnight show. I wanted to see what the fuss was about too. I've been driving for weeks past the "Cabin in the Woods" billboards, with their Krazy-Mixed-Up Cabin! design and the slogan "You think you know the story," and just clenching my teeth. I love cabins in the woods. I love creepy stuff on the walls and in the basement. I love the twig snapping outside. I grew up right next to the woods -- I always knew there was something lurking out there. That stuff resonates with me, dammit. I don't need to see it reinvented! But here we are. Spoilers ahead.

I tried to get into it, I did. The bold editing is quite admirable. The dialogue, of course, is excellent and makes the characters -- stock figures, all of them -- into human beings. For a while, it does an OK job of being a movie within a movie: there's a framing device of professionals in a lab, watching the kids go into the cabin, and both those scenarios are watchable and interesting in their own ways. But I kept thinking, "What is the point? Why do this?"

Then the plot takes a twist or two, and you realize you're watching a much larger-scale horror scenario than you thought. That's fun for a little while, and the payoff is a tremendous 20-minute comedy sequence that's just a blast to watch. I'm sure some critic or other has already roared, "Horror fans will want to sit through this movie again and again just to get all the references!" and maybe they will -- the references are fun! If only that were enough to carry an entire movie. It is not.

This movie's being compared to "Scream" because it picks apart horror cliches: the cabin is scary, the redneck locals know something you don't, the teenagers who enjoy sex will die. But it builds itself on an even bigger cliche: that people who watch horror movies do it because they're brutal and savage and awful. By building itself as a meta-movie, "Cabin in the Woods" primly positions itself above this sort of thing. You end up feeling good about yourself because the movie eventually makes you root against the characters who set up the sadistic cabin scenario. But dammit, you idiot, you still paid money to see a gory horror movie! Joss Whedon has no resolution for you; the best he can offer is a couple of pot-smoking survivors, surveying the carnage and snarking, "Sorry about the end of the world." That's not a movie; that's a flipoff.

I know, it's 2012 and lots of movies are sarcastic about the fact that they're movies. But why bother making a movie, then? Why not just stay home and smoke pot? (Cut to Joss Whedon, counting his "Avengers" money and smoking a giant blunt: "Yep, that's my plan," he smirks. Aaaargh!)

Here's another thing. Why zero in on cabin-in-the-woods movies? How many of those are there? When was the last one made? You're really just picking on "Evil Dead." I don't like that. That's not picking on a giant, corny studio release - that's picking on a bunch of scrappy film students who put together something that turned out to be hugely influential. Go pick on Pepsi or something.

The timing of this movie just feels off to me, and I guess that's fitting since it's been on the shelf for a while. It doesn't seem to have been inspired by any horror zeitgeist. It's just randomly here.

I can't believe I haven't blogged in a year and a half and this is what brought me back. See, everything about this movie is enraging!