Sara Paxton as Mari Collingwood
Monica Potter as Emma Collingwood
Tony Goldwyn as John Collingwood
Garret Dillahunt as Krug
Riki Lindhome as Sadie
Aaron Paul as Francis
Martha MacIsaac as Paige
Spencer Treat Clark as Justin
Directed by Dennis Iliadis
Spoilers abound...just wanted to offer you fair warning.
One could argue there's nothing redeemable about Wes Craven's directorial debut The Last House on the Left. It's too sleazy. Too raw. A pointless exercise in perverse violence. (Mind you, these are complaints I've heard from those with weak stomachs.) Some think it was an ideal candidate for a remake. But it's for these reasons, and much more, why I embrace the '72 film. There's a seething energy about it that's white hot. It's a confrontational strip of celluloid I wasn't too keen on seeing updated, in spite of its wacky flaws (and I do mean wacky - helloooo, chicken lady!). Yet here I am with a positive endorsement. Director Dennis Iliadis' take, to me at least, feels like a second draft. A polish. That's to say, some remakes today go out of their way to adjust the story - become a "re-imagining" (see: Rob Zombie's Halloween) - but Last House doesn't meddle the structure, it simply tweaks the purpose of the foundation.
The scenario remains cut and dry. Two teenage girls, Mari and Paige, meet a boy (in this film, "Justin" instead of the drug-addicted, twitchy "Junior"). Boy accidentally introduces the two to his family, a trio of lethal miscreants named Krug, Sadie and Francis, and together, Mari and Paige, are dragged along for a not so joyful ride that leads to humiliation, beatings and rape. With both girls left for dead, Krug and company find the nearest house to hole up for the night, unbeknown to them that this is where Mari's parents, Emma and John, reside. Later, Mari turns up worse for wear and Emma and John lash out at their new house guests to protect their daughter.
Like I said, familiar ground.
The most notable difference this time around is the omnipresent mean spirit that pervaded the original film has been eschewed in favor of classic suspense. Where Craven went for the gut with moments like "piss your pants" or forcing the teenage girls to strike each other (another level of discomfort altogether), director Iliadis milks a fair amount of simmering tension during Krug's first meeting with Mari and Paige and their drive out into the woods. Iliadis reserves any strength for the film's rape sequence and the subsequent protection/revenge equation. Mari's violation at the hands of Krug remains brutal and unflinching. And Paige's demise via a tag team knifing is still a shocker. Save for the rape, the sequence in the woods lacks the original's slow burn, unpleasant suffering. The tempo is sped up to carry the audience back to the Collingwood home where Krug, Sadie and Francis will receive their just comeuppance. I craved more moments with this trio so, if for anything, I could despise them more.
But writer Carl Ellsworth's thematic agenda is slightly different here. The thrust of it lies mainly on the parents who are forced to do unthinkable acts of violence. Not out of revenge but survival - which is something I don't necessarily agree with, but for the purpose of this film it works just fine. Emma and John's methods are nasty and not as "prepared" as seen in the '72 film - which makes the results all the more organic and plausible. I yearned for a more animalistic turn, however, something to rival or exceed the extremes set forth by Krug's earlier actions. Still, they deliver swift, bloody kills and Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter do a fantastic job running the gamut of emotions. (Performance-wise, the same goes for Dillahunt, Paxton and the rest of the cast whose characters all ring true.)
Last House can't shake some screenwriting 101 moments - Mari is a swimmer which predictably comes into play (don't worry, she's not in a race to avoid rape) - and its denouement is satisfying on a visceral level but it feels out of place. For a redo which does an expert job of kicking its exploitation roots, this scene threatens to drag it right back into the hole. Regardless, the core of the original film is here. And overall, this is much better than any remake of Last House has any right to be. It's been finessed and, dare I say, made something more palatable for mainstream audiences. Still, I'm okay with that. The fat has been trimmed to make the journey a lean, mature thriller that hasn't lost much of its potency. Enter if you dare.