Sunday, September 02, 2012
'The Last House on the Left' remake: Well! Not so bad, except when it was
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.